For college football fanatics, the holy grail is South Bend.
In baseball, it’s Wrigley Field.
In football, a visit to Green Bay is a must.
On Monday, I made my second trek to the greatest place I’ve ever seen – Augusta National Golf Club.
By mere coincidence, I happened to be at “The National” (as the locals call it) on one of the most historic days in recent sports history: the public return of Tiger Woods.
And I did manage to see Woods, about five or six times throughout the late morning and early afternoon. I’ll get back to him in a while.
Let me first tell all of you who are golfing fans what you already know about Augusta but you’ve probably not come to grips with how to make it a reality.
If you love the game of golf and the history of the Masters Tournament, you MUST go to Augusta National while you’re breathing on this earth.
And please, allow a two-time visitor (and I’d go EVERY year if I could) to help ease you past one of the great urban legends of sport. You CAN get Masters tickets. They’re absolutely attainable. Even now, at this late date, if you really want to make it happen for 2010, you can most certainly do that. It would be expensive, mind you. But it’s very realistic.
Now, let me give you some FUTURE advice on getting to Augusta because you do need to start planning for it now if you want to go in 2011. Sometime next week, you’ll be able to to the Masters website (www.masters.org) and fill out the lottery card for 2011 practice round tickets. Do it. That’s the ONE (and probably only) way you’ll get in at face value. In 2010, Monday and Tuesday practice round tickets were $36.00 and the Wednesday practice round tickets (because of the par-3 contest) were $41.00. I HIGHLY recommend going to Augusta for a practice round. You can get Thursday through Sunday tickets, but they’re much more expensive and wildly overpriced on the ticket “market”.
Getting there is MUCH easier than legend has it. There are basically four reasonably simple ways to do it. I have done it two different ways. My first time, in 2008, I (with friends) flew from Baltimore to Charlotte, rented a vehicle, and drove the remaining 125 miles to Augusta. We then flew back home via Charlotte, so we had to drive back there from Augusta. It’s a 2.5 hour drive, all interstate, well marked, and quite easy. This time around, I flew from Baltimore to Charlotte, then took a small plane directly into Augusta (40 minute flight). I flew back home from Augusta to Philadelphia and had a connecting flight to Baltimore but opted instead to have a friend pick me (us) up at the Philadelphia airport.
You can also fly from Baltimore to Atlanta (round trip) and do the 130-mile rental car drive from Atlanta to Augusta and back. Lots of folks from the Mid-Atlantic do it that way.
Lastly, you can also make the drive to Augusta. It’s roughly 9-10 hours from Baltimore.
There are PLENTY of hotels within a 30-minute ride to Augusta. Aiken, SC is a popular resting spot for Masters visitors. Trust me, even though they’re expensive ($150 a night MINIMUM) hotel rooms are definitely available down there.
You can, of course, always go on line and do your own wheeling and dealing for tickets, rental cars, hotels, etc. It’s a buyer’s paradise, but please be prepared to pay the upcharges if you wait until the last minute.
With ample preparation time and a little luck in the Masters lottery, you can do the entire trip (one night hotel, one day of visiting Augusta National, etc.) for roughly $600, factoring in tickets, airfare, shared rental car and shared hotel room.
If you go down on a whim, expect to fork over $200 or more for a practice round ticket. That jacks up your investment, for sure.
Monday was a glorious day at Augusta. It was 85 and sunny, with little breeze, and literally EVERY player on the field was on the course at some point or another. I never did see Phil Mickelson, although I heard someone in the gallery remark he had signed up for a 3:45 pm practice round. Woods, Harrington, Ogilvy, Poulter, Watson, Couples, Els, Furyk, Westwood — they were all on the grounds, working hard.
Generally speaking, I’m not really there to watch the players. I prefer to just walk the course and take into account all the history and highs and lows of the Masters tournaments I’ve watched since the mid-1980′s. We were able to get relatively close to the right side of the 11th hole on Monday, the area where Larry Mize’s miraculous chip snuffed out another Masters dream of Greg Norman’s (1987). I stood 10 feet behind the tee box at the dangerous par-3 12th. When I tell you the green surface is hardly visible on the tee, I’m not fibbing. It’s so narrow and protected by the large bunker in front that it’s hard to see the golf ball land on safe ground. I also hovered over to the left side of the 15th hole and stood some 20 or so yards to the left of where Seve Ballesteros rinsed his 2nd shot in the final round of the ’86 Masters. I can still see the look of disbelief on Seve’s face when his ball splashed into the middle of the pond on the left side of the green. Standing where I was on Monday, I was reminded of how easy the shot REALLY was…he just simply hit a 10-handicap hook at the worst possible moment in his life. I hovered around the 18th green on Monday and recalled all the greatness that has taken place on that 60-feet by 40-feet putting surface. O’Meara’s putt to win in ’98. Sandy Lyle’s 8-footer for birdie to win in ’88, Mickelson and Tiger both making winning putts there in the last decade. I was able to walk to the back portion of the green and stand right where Greg Norman stood in ’86 when he missed the green at 18 and had to get it up and down to force a playoff with Nicklaus. Standing there yesterday, it didn’t look all that difficult to do. Standing there on that Sunday 24 years ago, Norman could only get it to within 18-feet and his par putt never had a chance. One old timer reminded me he was here in 1991 when Ian Woosnam knocked in 6-footer to win his one and only major championship. ”I was right over there,” he said to me and pointed to a spot just behind the right front bunker at #18. “I was stationed perfectly behind Woosnam’s putting line. I said to my buddy who was with me, it’s a ball outside right. If he plays it more than that, he’s missing it.” Woosnam’s putt started roughly a ball to the right and leaked in the right side for the win. The old timer gave me a nudge yesterday as if he helped the Welshman win the event — “I’ve seen a lot of golf here, young man, these greens are the great equalizer. Lots of guys can hit shots into ‘em, not many guys can putt ‘em.”
I also had an interesting 20 minutes immediately after a practice round. A Tour caddy was holding court behind the 18th green and I eavesdropped on what turned out to be a hilarious – and revealing – discussion with 4 or 5 of his friends who were busy asking question after question about his (the caddy’s) first loop around Augusta National.
At one point, one of the guys said, “Who did you play with in the practice round today?”. The caddy responded, “The brashest prick I’ve ever met. That American kid, Ricky Barnes. What a brash prick he is. All he kept talking about was how he was going to win here someday. I got sick of hearing about it by the 4th hole. I’m sure the rest of the guys did too.”
I’d rather not reveal who he was looping for – I WAS eavesdropping, after all – but one of his friends said, “What about (your player), does he have a chance?” The caddy quickly said: ”Nope…this place is out of his league right now.”
Back to Tiger, now.
My casual observation of Woods was this: he appeared relaxed, for the most part, and I never heard ONE person offer an audible negative comment. Not one. There were LOTS and LOTS of “Go Get ‘Em Tiger!” and “Good to see you back Tiger!” and that kind of stuff — way more than I expected, frankly. He gave a smile and nodded in the general direction of the comment, but wasn’t making a whole lot of eye contact with anyone. He did continue to wear wrap-around sunglasses while playing his practice round, something he’s never done before to my knowledge.
I saw him four or five full shots, either off the tee or in the fairway, and all were crisp, well struck and played perfectly with whatever intent he had for that specific shot. He smashed a half-hook 3-wood around the corner at #10 and hit a terrific cut shot into the green at #18 while somewhat blocked out by an overhanging tree limb on the right side of the fairway. I guess that’s why he’s won 4 Masters.
As for the event this week, I’m not ready to pre-pronounce Tiger the winner. In fact, I don’t think he’s winning. I think he’ll finish in the top 15. If you want an official day-by-day prediction, I think he goes 74-72-71-69 to finish at -2 for the four days.
That will be eight shots behind the eventual winner.
And who’s going to win?
The last three Masters champs have been kind of off-the-radar-screen guys. Zach Johnson in ’07, Trevor Immelman in ’08 and Angel Cabrera in ’09.
The last champion to win (again) was Phil Mickelson, who won in 2006 after winning in 2004.
If I had to pick someone to win his 2nd in 2010, I’d go with Mike Weir. He looks like he’s swinging well, he obviously has great history at Augusta and he’s the kind of guy who is probably good enough to win another major despite the fact that he’s not on everyone’s contender list.
I like Mike Weir’s game. It wouldn’t shock me if he wins.
I’ll give you two more names to watch out for — Robert Karlsson of Sweden and Shingo Katayama of Japan. Karlsson would really be a favorite to me if longtime Nick Faldo caddy Fanny Suneseon was on his bag, but she’s not. Still, he’s a great putter and his length off the tee will be a major asset this week if the wet weather comes around on Thursday or Friday as they say it might. And Katayama showed last year he’s capable of putting the greens and contending, so keep an eye on him.
If you’re pressing me for a winner, though, I’ll give you a somewhat off-the-beaten-path pick because I think he’s due and I think he has someone special in his camp that can help him win.
I think this could be the year for Jim Furyk.
He has a win in 2010 and his track record at Augusta is very tidy. He knows how to position the ball from the fairway to the green and the man on his bag – Fluff Cowan, who caddied for Woods when he won in ’97 – is a walking book-of-facts about the putting surfaces at Augusta. If the golf course stays firm, it would definitely help Furyk, who is by no means one of the Tour’s longest hitters off the tee. He’s a one-time major champion (2003 U.S. Open) who is still lacking that one other HUGE win that would cement his spot among the game’s elite.
Forced to make a pick, there it is: I’m taking Jim Furyk at 70-70-69-69.