Like most big time sports fans, I have a bucket list. I have been lucky enough to cross a few things off in the past decade. But plenty of things remain. Seeing the Browns play in a Super Bowl in person is certainly at the top. I would love to go to the U.S. Open Tennis tournament on Super Saturday, where the men’s semifinals and women’s final takes place. Checking out a big time, Saturday night SEC football game at either at LSU or Alabama where the game means something is on there. North Carolina/Duke basketball game in Cameron when both teams are in the top 10? Yes please. This weekend I was fortunate to cross yet another event off my list – The Masters – and I have to share my experiences with you.
As you know, it is the toughest ticket in sports. I have a lifelong friend (Doug) who lives in Atlanta and is turning 40 this year. He, along with two of our other close friends, wanted to do something for the big birthdays of two of the guys in the group. One threw out “why don’t we go to the Masters” about nine months ago. Doug, who is a partner in a big law firm, said he could make this happen for us, and worked for months to secure us tickets. He was able to get us passes for Friday’s round, so we flew in Thursday night.
Bright and early – 6 AM – Doug picked us up at or hotel and we were off on our trek two and a half hours east to Augusta. We had done some research obviously on what to do, but nothing we read could really fully prepare us for the day that was ahead of us. There as so many things that I just had zero idea about until I got to Augusta, like the free parking for one. When tickets are on the secondary market for an average of $3000, parking might as well be free!
To say that Augusta National has a few rules you have to follow is an understatement. For example: Tickets.
They are not “tickets.” They are “badges” Obviously there are ways to purchase passes on the secondary market, but unlike many other tournaments, The Masters does not oversell. Badges for The Masters are also kind of like season tickets for Augusta natives and locals. I heard many stories this weekend of how these tickets become available or taken away. A friend of ours who lives in Atlanta but didn’t go this year told us that his friend’s 95 year old grandmother – an Augusta native – has had passes for over 60 years. But when she dies, the passes cannot be bequeathed to her family in a will and his friend won’t get access to the passes anymore. We heard similar stories from several others.
Our passes came from two other places outside of the gates – two from a VIP Golf Experience package group and two from StubHub. Both had pickup spots outside of the gates and had to be returned after leaving the round. There are no ticket stubs to keep as souvenirs (which I always do after going to any new venue or event I attend). If you lose or misplace the passes, it costs $4000 to replace.
Entering the hallowed grounds of Augusta National was an experience in itself. They tell you not to bring in anything with you. Umbrellas and binoculars are welcome, but that’s about it. Cell phones and cameras have to be left in the car. If you get caught with either, you are thrown out and banned for life from the event. There are no exceptions. There is no way to sneak these in either. Before you have your passes scanned, you have to empty your pockets completely and walk through a metal detector, so there is no point in trying. However, the second you get to the gate, you can already see how the event is a well oiled machine.
I’ve been to the World Series. I’ve been to the NCAA Title game in basketball. I’ve been to the Fiesta Bowl. Nothing can even come to the organizational skills of the Masters. The first thing we did before hitting the course was getting into the souvenir tent. It’s not just what they have or the variety of it, it’s the people working there and helping you. While it was a little shoulder to shoulder to look for what you want, there are probably 15-20 places to check out, therefore you aren’t waiting in lines to pay. And of course you don’t want to carry your stuff around with you all day, so they offer a storage service for you. Again, at least 10-15 people helping there so there is no line again. Should you not want to go that route, they have a shipping counter right next to the bag storage.
Off to the course we went, where luckily, one of the guys in the group (Brian) is a big golf guy and knows what to do. Even though its still the morning, you need to figure out how to see as many holes and as many players as you can, should you go that route, which we did. We started out walking to the sixth green and found a decent spot behind two rows of the patrons sitting in the Masters chairs. That is something that veteran patrons chose to do. These chairs are all universal – green with The Masters logo on the back. You put your name on the back of the chairs, place them down in a spot and leave them there all day should you choose. It’s the honor system. Nobody moves them if they are empty. So we wiggled our way behind the chairs and watched the Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, and Nick Watney group. Phil Mickelson and his three-some were a few holes behind and we could them coming down and made a move to watch Phil tee off on three. We then moved ahead to four and saw Rory McIllroy and his group finish the while waiting to see Phil again.
This was just the beginning of our moves. The course is more hilly than you see on television. The trees and flowers are as beautiful as you could imagine. The course is just so amazingly manicured. You would expect nothing less, but being there really puts it all into perspective.
You have heard about the famous Pimento Cheese and Egg Salad sandwiches. Let me just add that the food and concessions once again live up to the hype. We had three lunches. We hit up three of the on-course concessions stands and like everything else, the lines moved quickly and the organization was top notch. On the day, I hammered a chicken biscuit in the AM, two egg salad sandwiches (on white bread of course) and a BBQ pork sandwich in the afternoon. Throw in about 4 diet cokes and two bottles of water. While the cost of tickets is outrageous, the food is at the old prices. Sandwiches range from $1.50 to $2.50. Diet cokes are $1.50. Water is $1.00. Beers are $3.00 (Stella Artois!). You don’t feel so guilty eating and drinking so much when a meal for four people is like $23.00
So we are up and down the course, walking from hole to hole, sitting in grandstands at greens and tees for 15 minutes or so to catch our collective breath. But things all changed around 3 PM when we decided it was time to see Tiger Woods.
Tiger teed off around 1:45 and we waited for him at eight and got ourselves a good spot. We watched his second shot from probably 30-40 feet away from him and I have to say, being that close to the man, I was in awe. I have been a sports fan my entire life and I have only had this feeling twice. The other time was when I sat in floor seats seeing Michael Jordan. And here I was again, at age 37, essentially watching MJ playing in the NBA Finals.
Tiger birdied eight and we all caught Tiger fever. And as we continued to follow, the celebrity sightings began. Brian smartly had us watching Tiger for a hole, then skipping ahead to position ourselves better to see him again. So after eight, we jumped to 10. Walking to 10, we passed former Cavs star Ron Harper. The NBA champion was decked out as if he was about to play golf. Of course, he was following Tiger. Hall of Fame Running Back Marcus Allen was walking with Tiger as well, just like we were doing.
Walking up 10 from the fairway to the green after Tiger’s shot, Rams QB Sam Bradford strolled along with us. Here was the former #1 pick in the NFL Draft fighting to get a look at a legend, the same as yours truly. That’s the thing about Augusta, there is no such thing as a VIP section. You want to follow Tiger and you are a celebrity or a billionaire? You are essentially a pee-on like me. You can walk and fight the crowd too. Amy Mickelson, Phil’s wife, she was walking among us early in the morning watching her husband. Even she had to fight the crowds.
We went ahead and parked ourselves at Amen Corner – it’s as beautiful as they make it look on TV – waiting for Tiger. Filling in right in front of the bleachers, over walked ex-NBA player Michael Finley, wearing the exact same shirt as Tiger. Finley parked right next to us, peering through the gallery of patrons to see Tiger putt. Right in front of us at Amen Corner, the only person in jeans, was actor Chace Crawford.
That’s one of the main things I took away most from this experience. Tiger Woods transcends all. Here were star athletes and celebrities all willing to walk amongst the regular folk like me just to catch a glimpse of possibly the greatest golfer who ever lived on the most famous golf course in the country.
So on we went ahead of Tiger to get ourselves in a good spot to see him come down the stretch. We parked ourselves in the bleachers of the 13th green and 14th tee that are 50 paces from each other. Once we saw Tiger, Scott Piercy, and Luke Donald tee off, we made our final move to 15.
I don’t know if it was anything more than dumb luck, but we ended up down the 15th fairway off to the left side. We managed to wiggle our way right to the front row behind the rope. Tiger’s ball landed essentially even with us. And here he came, lining up for his third shot on this Par 5. You all know what happened. Tiger’s shot was perfect, hit the bottom of the flag, and rolled into the creek. I was 15 feet from him when he he hit. What transpired from there made for Masters history. It was the perfect way to end our day. What happened from there going forward was irrelevant.
I will just say this, everything about the Masters experience exceeded my already high expectations. The flowers….the trees….the food…..the patrons…..the sheer organization of it all…..Even the bathrooms were immaculately kept. The whole thing was just, well, masterful. Unfortunately, without a camera, all I have are the mental pictures. I must have said to my friends five times I wish we could have taken some shots. If you are ever lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to Augusta, jump at it. Walk, but don’t run.
They don’t allow you to do that either.