Monday 4th April… 2.30 am (Augusta time)
When I was younger I had two favourite videos that I used to watch repeatedly, in the way only children can do. The first was a film called “Ski Patrol” – a terrible 80s comedy about the shenanigans of ski instructors, holiday-makers and an evil property developer in a US ski resort. I saw a bit of it again a couple of years ago on an obscure Sky movie channel – it was pretty terrible.
The other was a recording I’d made of the final round of the 1993 Masters, won by Germany’s Bernhard Langer. Nothing made me want to get out and play golf more than just half an hour of the impossibly green fairways, pink azaleas and pine straw. Langer won by four shots from Chip Beck and, as I recall, John Daly and Steve Elkington were involved too. As an aside, something interesting about that tournament was that it was the last Major to be won by a man using a wooden-headen driver. Langer used a Wood Brothers’ – Texan.
Anyway, that video was like a shot in the arm of pure golf for me. That’s how I’ve always viewed the Masters – like a golfing electric shock that kick-starts the season. After it the fairways of the UK will be full of hopeful golfers looking to emulate Phil Mickelson or, with a bit of luck, Lee Westwood or Luke Donald.
For the last few weeks I’ve seen the adverts on the BBC (and now Sky – about every six minutes) for the year’s first Major and each one has made the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. They’ve been standing particularly straight this year as, for the first time, I’m travelling to Augusta to catch the action first-hand.
Since I started working for Golf Monthly six years ago, this has been the assignment I’ve really wanted. It’s a toss-up for me between The Masters and the Open Championship as to which is the most exciting tournament in golf. But, going to the Open is relatively straightforward, even if you don’t work in the golf industry. Getting to the Masters would be a little more challenging and a lot more expensive.
As I write this I’m sitting in Gatwick’s South Terminal waiting to get on a flight to Charlotte, then on to Augusta. It’s 7.30am in the morning and I’ve been awake for hours. I stayed last night in the
Airport Hilton. I say stayed rather than slept. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, checking my watch every hour or so to see how much more unbearable writhing around and brain whirring I’d have to endure.
Well, I’m nearly on my way now and I just can’t wait. I’ll keep you updated on this blog with how things are going and Bill Elliott, who I’m staying with, will be giving his thoughts too.
Tuesday 5th April… 9.30am
This morning I’ve wandered in a daze from the GM house to entry gate six at Augusta National. I’ve handed my accreditation form to a security guard then been buggied to the press-centre. I’ve found my seat and plugged in my computer. I’ve felt a little like Bishop Brennan in that iconic episode of Father Ted where he travels to meet the Pope in Rome in a state of total confusion before finally realising, “He did kick me up the ****!” Well that’s it I’ve just had my moment of realisation, “I am at the Masters!”
I have to confess in the middle of last night I was worried I wasn’t going to make it. At about 2.30am I was woken by the most phenomenal thunderstorm. For about 2 hours, lightning strikes rained down all around, about one every three seconds. There was howling wind, rain, hail and almost continuous thunder – a true baptism of fire on my first Masters experience.
I’m not normally scared by the weather but I must confess to pulling the covers a little higher and just waiting for it all to end while trying to, “simply remember my favourite things.”
Bill and I discovered when we got up that the storm had blown the power in the GM house. After 20 minutes of stumbling round in the dark trying to find a fuse box, Bill decided to go out and see if it was a more widespread problem. A passing cop told him a tree had taken a line down so the whole area was out. Clive Agran, a fellow writer, told me they had woken to a live electricity wire, whipping about on their drive.
Anyway, I’m still alive, I’m here and ready to get out and see the course. That’s what I’m looking forward to most really – just seeing for real those famous holes I know so well from the TV. I’m going for a stroll and will give you my initial impressions when I get back.
Tuesday 5th April…. 3.00pm
OK, so it lives up to the hype. Phew. People who know me would say I’m rather cynical and have a reputation for being under-whelmed by things that are supposed to be thrilling. I wanted to be wowed by Augusta National but had a terrible fear that I just wouldn’t be.
But, it’s pretty spectacular – the changes in elevation are even bigger than I’d expected (for instance standing on the 10th tee it’s hugely downhill to the fairway and on the par-5 8th it’s like climbing a small mountain from tee to green.) The mown surfaces are absolutely pristine, the greens look fabulous and the azaleas, dogwoods, elms, towering pines etc. frame the holes as beautifully as I’d always imagined they would.
At the moment the grass on the fairways and the green surrounds is still a little longer than it will be when the tournament kicks off. Currently it looks like you would have a lie that even I could contemplate playing a decent pitch off. But, when they trim them for Thursday, chipping and pitching around the greens will become considerably more difference.
Both Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood stressed the importance of the short game to success around this course in their press conferences today. Kaymer says he had, in previous visits, become hung up thinking that the course didn’t suit his fade but, actually, the principal reason he’d missed the cut in his last three outings was due to shots lost on or around the putting surfaces.
I decided to walk the course in its entirety from 1st tee to 18th green. I thought that the best way to get a true feeling for how the layout rises and falls across this superb golfing land that was once an indigo plantation.
There’s no question that the anticipation builds the closer you get to “Amen Corner.” There are some fabulous holes on the front nine, the two par-3s and the par-5 8th in particular. But, from the 10th tee, as the course drops down dramatically from the level of the clubhouse, the first tinges of excitement hit me because of what I knew was coming up.
From the 10th green I crossed to halfway down the right side of the 11th and the copse of trees that so many errant tee shots end up in – it’s a favourite spot of Tiger’s. From there I caught my first glimpse of the distant 12th green and I experienced a feeling akin to déjà vu. I’d been here before hadn’t I?
Standing on the bank above the 12th tee, I realised I’d crossed something off my golfing “must do” list. It didn’t matter that the only person I saw hitting a shot down there was Jason Bohn (a beautiful iron to within 8 feet of the pin on the par 3.)
Something slightly less exciting happened while I was out on my travels. As I stood by the 14th tee watching Ernie Els drive, I heard a loud creaking and cracking sound. I looked round to see an enormous bough separated from one of the huge pine trees by a gust of wind. It came crashing to the ground behind the grandstand. It was an impressive size and would have definitely crushed anyone who had been standing where it fell. Luckily, and quite unbelievably, nobody was in the way. If it had fallen in the other direction it would have come crashing down on the packed grandstand!
By the way – Martin Kaymer has tipped Luke Donald as a potential winner this week. He says if the Englishman can replicate the short game performance he displayed in beating the German in the final of the WGC – Matchplay Championship then he’ll have a great chance. I’m inclined to agree.