The view from Amen Corner
It's just after breakfast in an enchanting corner of Georgia. A green curtain of trees forms a backdrop, the lawns are manicured to perfection and a stream slides silently by.
Except that this idyllic little spot is Amen Corner, arguably the most famous piece of golf real estate in the world. And the brook is the infamous Rae's Creek, where so many dreams have foundered. For this is the Augusta National and somewhere behind, back up the hill, the Masters got under way earlier.
Play is yet to reach here, but rows of green chairs with the yellow Masters logo sit 20 deep behind the 12th tee. Most are empty, awaiting their owners' return to reclaim the spot they bagged shortly after dawn. They'll still be there.
"This is the picture of Augusta you see in every painting," said Glenn Field, who with 84-year-old father Frank nabbed a spot in the second row. "This is the best place in golf."
To the left is the 11th green, to the right the 13th fairway. The distant 12th green would usually be framed by a dazzle of azaleas. This year they've been and gone.
A handful of people loll in the grandstand. Birds sing, men with blowers clear leaves and things, a besuited TV man cheeses into a camera on the famous Hogan Bridge. A cameraman lounges in his dark green tower. Chat is quiet, restful, lazy. The day still warming up.
A scenic view of the infamous Amen corner of the par three 12th hole at Augusta. Photo: Getty
"I've been coming here for 40 years, since my freshman year in college," said Larry Lehman ('no relation to Tom, I wish though'). "I've watched from most places but I always end up coming back here. It gets pretty exciting, especially when the wind blows."
A marshall working on the 12th tee ambles over. He talks about the different approaches players take in deciding which club to hit; always tricky with the mysterious swirling winds and Rae's lying in wait. "Some look at the trees to the right on the 13th, some look at the flags on 11 and 12 but to me that's pointless," said Paul Roeder, who has worked seven Masters. "I've got a picture of the flag on 12 sticking out to the right like someone is holding it and the same on 11 except the other way around.
"The people who play it best are the ones who play it quick. The older guys like Couples or Zoeller, they put in a peg, couple of waggles, boom. They don't throw grass or overanalyse it."
I ask if he's witnessed any player/caddie rows over club selection. "No real set-tos. A few years ago Phil Mickelson hit an eight iron into the water. Bones [his caddie] had said take a seven. Phil's so nice about it, such a gentleman, he just looked at him and smiled."
Paul also tells me about Rory McIlroy passing through during his meltdown in the final round last year. "It was pretty emotional," he said. "The gallery really felt for him, you could tell. Those people felt like he was their son."
Just before 1030, two hours 40 minutes after teeing off, the unmistakeable white boiler suits of Augusta caddies appear through the trees on the 11th. The low murmur goes up a notch.
Three balls land around the green and the first group of Craig Stadler, Brendan Steel and Tim Clark hove into view.
They finish 11 and tee off on 12, Stadler the "Walrus" with the honour, sweating under his cap, meaty forearms gripping his club. The green, though only 145 yards away, is distant, details hard to make out. Most don't bother and the handful of patrons return to their chat.
Fast forward three hours and the place is packed. Another 20 rows of chairs have been added. The grandstand is full. You have to burrow through the crowd standing between the chairs and the stand to have a chance of seeing everything. The sun is higher now, right overhead. More beer has been drunk but the crowd is still respectful. Two balls land near the 11th green. Then a third. This one quite close. "Got to be him," says someone.
The 11th fairway is obscured as the crowd swells. The barrel chest of Miguel Angel Jimenez appears first. Then the red-shirted Sang-Moon Bae. Tiger Woods, all in grey, walks alone at the back.
A few "C'mon Tigers" ring out but their hearts are not quite in it yet. Too early in the week. Woods is closest and stalks his putt as the others play. Eventually he settles over it and quiet descends. The only sound is the weir on Rae's Creek just below the 11th green. Woods barely touches the ball. It trickles to the hole but is short. The crowd "ooh". Woods hangs his head.
They climb to the 12th tee to loud applause. Woods very deliberately doffs his cap. He stands in the middle of the teebox staring at the hole, arms folded, contemplating. He reaches for a club. Three slow practice swings and he fires. It's on the green but short. He stares again at the hole. The others play and Woods is off. Patrons, too, are on their feet. Action over, time to resupply. On the other side of the creek, if you didn't know better, you'd think six men, three in coloured shirts, three in white suits, were involved in a complex, slow motion dance as they pace around the green.
It's hard to see the balls without binos but Woods's body language shows he misses with his birdie putt. Two left short in two holes and he stays two under. They putt out and disappear up the hill and around the corner to the 13th tee. Some patrons stay to watch Luke Donald, others leave. Woods is their man.
"I tell you, if Tiger or Phil are on the charge on Sunday, this place will be going crazy," said Roeder.
Amen Corner is so far behaving, but there will be prayers a plenty before Sunday is out.