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Amen to all that

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Rob Hodgetts | 09:00 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

Monday, about 1630 local - And so it starts. Walking back up 18 I spied a massive scrum of people around the putting green, a forest of arms all clutching cameras aloft.

"Who's putting?" says one guy. Hmm, I wonder.

There's only one man in this place who would elicit that sort of reaction. Sure enough, once I wormed my way to the front, I saw none other than Ken Duke.

No, not really. It was obviously Tiger, but it gave an early sighter as to what we could be in for this week.


If Woods gets going the roars that some of the US golf magazines have claimed have been missing from Augusta in recent years will be back with gusto. I got a little sense of what it might be like while down in Amen Corner, with great cheers rattling around the trees from the gallery watching the antics of players practising on the short 16th.

But it was Amen Corner that I found myself drawn to first. It is, after all, the most famous stretch of holes in golf and seeing them in person was like finally putting a face to a name you've known for years.

The 11th, a sweeping downhill left-hander takes you into the arena around the infamous short 12th, with it's isolated, treacherous green on the opposite bank to the patrons' stands. Then 13, my favourite hole, demands a sumptuous draw around the corner to a green backed by huge bunkers and banks of azaleas.

Seeing the holes on a dullish day with a virtual gale blowing, they lost none of their vibrancy and allure.

There's no doubt blazing sunshine and the tunnel vision of the cameras enhances the imagery. But watching on TV is like reading a good novel. The pictures are the same for everyone, but each person interprets them differently. For me at least, they certainly lived up to the hype, aesthetically anyway. But then I don't have to play them. It's not called Amen Corner for nothing.


LIVING UP TO THE HYPE?

Monday morning, somewhere in Augusta - Rain hammering on my window this morning wasn't the introduction to Augusta I'd dreamed of. But I gave myself a swift talking to and invoked Tiger's favourite phrase: "It is what it is".

However, that Zen-like philosophy was tested a bit further than I was comfortable with as I sat in a traffic jam on Washington Road, Augusta's main thoroughfare.

My snail's-pace progress towards mecca did give me chance to take in the immediate surroundings of the Augusta National. Plenty of restaurants and motels, some churches, a few car repair places, several small-scale malls. And signs. Lots of very tall signs.
I'm no American aficionado but I get the impression it's a fairly typical scene. But it was obvious there is something on this week: helicopters buzzed over the course, hotels and bars advertised Masters deals, scores of people paced the pavements holding up a finger (or two or three, corresponding with how many tickets they needed). And one car workshop was offering free Masters parking when you bought a wheel realignment.
augustagate2.jpg

Once I'd dumped the car I was in business and, fittingly, the sun burst out. First stop, the main entrance to the Augusta National, and the view up the famous Magnolia Lane, which leads to the clubhouse. I just had to see it in the flesh, even though that entrance is for members and players - Rory McIlroy and Fuzzy Zoeller swung in as I was snapping away.

Actually, it's fairly low key and you could easily miss it. Especially as opposite is a parking lot and a couple of non-descript buildings.

Inside the grounds, though, it was a different story, like finally making it to the promised land. There was absolutely no mistaking where I was. Looking out from in front of the whitewashed clubhouse, near the famous old oak tree, the course plunges away before you. The 1st goes off to the right, with the 9th and 18th feeding back up the severe slope and the 10th diving down into the trees with a big, raking dog-leg left of a fairway.

It is, of course, spectacular and lushly green with trees heading off into the distance and splashes of colour filtering through. The outside world feels a long way away.mcilroy595.jpg


"Here at last," I thought, sucking it all in, though it wasn't some quiet, introspective, soul-searching moment. The place was mobbed. With tournament tickets off limits to newcomers these days, practice-round badges are the next best thing and can be obtained in the ballot.

I spotted Ian Woosnam edging through the crowd, stopping for pictures, on his way to the putting green. The little maestro stood in the middle, hands on hips, a former master of all he surveyed. Like me, he appeared to take a deep breath to take it all in. The buzz that went around the throng of patrons showed the regard in which he is held.

Apart from those that couldn't help themselves. "Jeez, he is SO small," whispered one lady, not that quietly.

My favourite spot so far, and I've not walked the course yet, is looking over Ike's Pond on the par-three course to the left of putting green.

There's some beautiful, whitewashed, houses perched in the trees above the water and I drifted off into a daydream about staying there and nipping down for a few holes in the evening. Maybe with a glass in hand...

Anyway, back to reality. There's a course to inspect and players to pester.

GEORGIA ON MY MIND

Sunday night, en route to Augusta - I won't lie to you. I'm as excited as a hacker with a tap-in for birdie.

In a few hours I'll be setting foot on the hallowed turf that is Augusta. It's my first time at the Masters, and, if I'm honest, it's a bit of a pilgrimage.

The Masters has an aura and mystique that has had me spellbound for more than 20 years, in the same way that Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom did as a kid.

It's an iconic event in the sporting calendar and one of those very few "must see before you die" sporting occasions. But the waiting list closed years ago, making a pass to the Masters like a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.

f.jpgThe vivid greens, dazzling white sand, great brazen swathes of colour from the spring flowers - it's almost too good to be true, like the golf course you'd find only in your dreams.

St Andrews is special in an historic, windswept British linksy way, under vast skies with the sea beyond. But Augusta, at least the one I've grown up watching on TV, is an intense concentration of visual stimuli, like watching golf with the colour knob cranked right up to 11.

The Masters also plays a part in the rhythm of the year. To those of us living in more temperate climes, this April ritual represents the final shaking off of winter coats and thoughts turning to summer. Maybe that's why non-golfers seem to love it, too.

But as well as being the golfing Garden of Eden, the Masters generally produces top-quality sporting drama. Think of Nicklaus winning at 46 years old, Faldo overhauling a crumbling Norman, Tiger Woods chipping in on 16 to set up victory number four in 2005, to pick just three. Without the theatre, Augusta would still be stunningly attractive. But then so are many garden centres.

Being the only major to be played at the same venue every year the history just keeps on piling up and this week looks a cracker.

tigerwoods595.jpg

Tiger's back from injury, Mickelson's firing, Harrington's going for his third major in a row and a host of Europeans, including the in-form Paul Casey and teenage star Rory McIlory, are jostling to become the first man from our side of the pond since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 to win a Green Jacket.

Spotting English pro Ross Fisher on the plane over from London I couldn't help thinking that if I was this excited, how must he be feeling? Squashed in like any ordinary passenger, he looked so normal and unassuming. Yet I felt like telling the oblivious businessmen and holidaymakers that this man in their midst is one of the lucky few and is about to play in his first Masters.

But as I chewed up the miles on the three-hour drive east down interstate 20 from Atlanta to Augusta I grew nervous.

Will it live up to my expectations? Or will peering behind the curtain lead only to disappointment, like when you finally snog that person you've fancied for ages and they turn out to be a rubbish kisser?

Cruising through the neon strip of outer Augusta I resisted the temptation to have a late-night peak at the gates to nirvana.

It's taken 37 years to get here, I can wait another eight hours or so. I'll report back then.

If you share my fascination with the Masters and Augusta and want to get in touch or have a question or something you'd like me to look into further drop me a line. I'll be the one with the permanent silly grin.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Thanks for Rob an interesting article. I know some people say the Masters should be revamped because so many are invited/exempt, it messes with golf rankings etc...But I think it's nice to have an tournament with a personality - if we're going to have three majors and the majority of the WGC events in the US, then I'd rather have the Masters than another forgettable tournament.

    Unbelievable that even golf pros have to travel economy these days!

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Rob.... I can only imaging that most of your readers are as green "as the imaculately cared for greens and fairways", with envy as you set foot inside the gates of the holy grail of golf. What wonderful images and memories August always seems to leave us with, Tiger on 16, Larry Mize on 11, all the colour, the expectation, the failure.....
    This is April, yes it marks the start on the golfing calendar back here in the UK. Augusta and The Masters, if it dosn't inspire everyone to shoot 69... nothing will.
    I will be keeping in touch and glued to the BBC coverage from start to finish...

    Enjoy this special moment

  • Comment number 3.

    Managed to play Augusta once a couple of years ago, with a couple of former colleagues. Quite simply the most incredible day I will ever have on a golf course (or generally, probably). Just the memory of stepping out onto the first tee gives me goosebumps.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for the interesting blog it brought back a lot of memories. I've been lucky enough to go to the Masters a few times for work but never got over the sheer majesty of the place! I'm sure when you first see the course you'll be absolutely shocked by how undulating the fairways are - and the greens are just insane! The TV pictures just never do the course justice in this respect (although I'm excited to see the coverage in BBCHD this year!)


  • Comment number 5.

    Have fun, Rob. And bring your woollies for Tuesday.
    Hope you've left someone behind who knows something about golf to bring us the Live Text. Efforts except by you and Slater in the past have been contemptible.

  • Comment number 6.

    "A garden centre", so true, it's a pity they mess it up playing golf ;)

    And I just wished they wouldn't publically present a cheque at the end, it seems so crass - so American.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hi Rob, you're a lucky boy ! Living on the Ayrshire coast, I never miss the Open when it is in Scotland, however, I attend these tournaments on the understanding that I will see only a tiny fraction of what is shown on TV. Attending majors is all about the sense of occasion and being close to the Tigers of this world, rather than actually witnessing what is going on out on the course. Unfortunately it is impossible to be in several places at the same time and you can only see what you happen to be looking at, at that particular moment in time and usually over the shoulders of several basketball players on their day off.
    Like you, I have not having missed a ball being struck at the Masters on BBC TV for more years than I care to remember. During your visit to the tournament, please let us know how much golf you actually get to see and if at the end of it all, you wished that you had a hand-held TV showing the BBC coverage and with Peter Allis describing the action ?? At the end of the day, this would be the perfect senario after all !

  • Comment number 8.

    You are so right Rob, Augusta is the one course I'd play if I could choose one from any in the world!

    Let us know if it lives up to your expectations!

    d90yqv - I am green with envy!!

  • Comment number 9.

    My parents managed to get tickets for last years Masters and i've never been so jealous in my life! From what they have told me about it you won't be disappointed. My dad also played Sawgrass on the same trip making a birdie on 17th, "piece of cake" he said tongue firmly in cheek.

    Enjoy the course and the atmosphere. Lucky sod...

  • Comment number 10.

    I drove past the course last month and stopped at the gates. Talked with the security guard at the front of Magnolia Drive but he wouldn`t let me venture any further. Could see glimpses of the paradise inside and it was so frustrating to be so close but so far !! I was quite surprised how this golfing mecca is situated so close to garish strip malls and fast food restaurants.

    I`ll be reading your blogs all week so have fun

  • Comment number 11.

    yes, this is probably my favourite sporting event of the year - I'd love to see TW win but I don't think he will - people keep saying the Masters suits him perfectly but, in fact, he's only won one of the last six - 7/4 down the bookies? ... no thank you!

    have a hunch Zach Johnson might do well again

  • Comment number 12.

    How do people get tickets to go? Is it a huge ballot or do you have to be an ex-US President's brother? I heard once that Bill Gates couldn't buy his way in to be a member, brilliant stuff, Augusta National transcends billionaires!

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi all,

    d90yqv and Steve_76 - there's me waxing lyrical and you guys have actually played it. Now I am jealous! What did you shoot?

    Goldwolf - I can say in all honesty that it has lived up to my expectations. It sounds like an enormous cliche, which of course it is, but I still can't quite believe I'm here. Just looking at the sumptuous fairways you can't imagine not being able to hit perfect shots off them. Boys above - is this the case in reality?!

    NIreland1-0England - I can't believe you let your parents get away with not inviting you too. Start spending your inheritance now!

    Kwini - for the live text, step forward Mr Ben Dirs. He reminds me of one of those slightly frayed, roguish, old-school caddies so you'll be in good hands.





  • Comment number 14.

    Hey Rob - we'll be joining you there on Wed and Thurs. Like you it's been a lifetime ambition to visit the Masters only my obsession goes back about 30+years. We're driving down from Hilton Head tomorrow and have tickets for Wed and Thurs. We'll keep an eye out for you!!

  • Comment number 15.

    Welcome to Mr.Dirs. But don't write like you do on other sports or the moderators will have their way with you.

    No more severed heads or graffitied phalluses.

  • Comment number 16.

    Well of course, I'm not going to get anywhere near it, but I'm excited already myself... and looking forward to Padraig & Rory striding down that last fairway together with aplomb towards the throng :-).

    I know the only way we'll get a hint of that atmosphere will be when we have miniature 3D HD flexilens cameras loaded on trained bumble bees, following the ball through the thickets and into the hole...
    We might even get to feel the buzz!

  • Comment number 17.

    Hi Rob - Unfortunately I never got to play the course. I was always on a flight home on the Monday after the event :( I've still got a few contacts there so maybe one day.....

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi Rob, several friends back in the UK have phoned to say your first photo is the same than I sent them a few weeks ago but yours is better since it didn`t have my ugly mug spoiling the shot !!

    Like you I was expecting the entrance to be very grand but you could easily drive past and miss it

    One question - how is the catering inside the course and do they rip you off like at the Open ?

 

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