You have to enter a lottery to even get a chance to buy tickets to the Masters. My Dad has entered every year for the last twenty years and never hit. Until this year, when a woman wearing a sundress and white gloves, cradling a manicured toy poodle in one arm, reached into an upturned homburg hat and pulled out a card with his name embossed on it (I’m pretty sure that’s how they do it), and he won the chance to buy four tickets.
They tell you what day you can buy tickets for, and they told Dad he could could get a Tuesday practice round. So he got his tickets and off we went to Augusta.
The Monday before, twenty tornadoes touched down in Georgia. But on Tuesday, because the Lord prepares the way of the righteous, it was chamber of commerce weather; pleasantly sunny, warm enough for shirtsleeves.
Arriving on the main drag of Augusta, Washington Street, you would never think there was a world class golf course in the neighborhood. We left our hotel and drove past a Denny’s, a Starbuck’s and a Dunkin Donuts sharing the same parking lot (staring each other down like a UFC pre-fight press conference), a Hooters, and a dive motel that probably has a lot of guests who are really excited to be within walking distance of a Hooters. But mixed in among all that was a series of signs with arrows directing drivers to “Golf Parking.”
We followed the signs, which led us to… a Publix. Seeing no one in the Publix parking lot, and trusting that the city of Augusta wasn’t playing a practical joke on us, we followed the access road around behind the Publix and suddenly, startlingly happened upon the finest, greenest, most perfectly manicured grass of any parking lot I’ve ever seen. Just like that, we were on the grounds of Augusta National.
I’m not good with estimating distances, but the walk from the parking lot to the course was about nine hundred miles, through a vast and growing sea of cars that stretched from horizon to horizon. We knew we were getting close when we arrived at an enormous semicircular portico filled with walk-through x-ray machines like in airports. We told one of the security guards this was a really impressive setup, and he said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
By this time, my large Dunkin Donuts iced coffee was really working my kidneys, so I was looking for a bathroom and found one just beyond the security checkpoint. It was marked “Gentlemen,” but I decided to use it anyway (Ha!). And it was at this point that it started to really get unusual.
There was a line to use the bathroom, which I expected, but we never stood in line. The line was always moving. Inside, there were at least six Augusta National employees constantly mopping, cleaning, and most importantly, directing traffic: “Good morning, gentlemen! I’ve got two open on the left over here! I’ve got one open on the right! Good morning, gentlemen! You don’t have to stop, you can keep moving! Do I have any sitters? I’ve got one open for a sitter! Good morning!”
That, as much as anything, encompassed the spirit of the day. I had been so preoccupied with trying to get inside that I hadn’t noticed that we’d gotten the same thing from the people who were directing cars into the parking lot and the people running security: ruthless efficiency, sugar coated with zealous hospitality. It’s like a combination of Disney World, a Chick-fil-a, and the Tokyo subway system, springing up out of the ground fully formed to host a golf tournament one week a year, and then fading back into the east Georgia woods.
With 100,000 of the hoi polloi walking around, there is no garbage on the ground, anywhere. This is due to aggressive policing by the staff, mostly, but the landscape is also dotted with inconspicuously green receptacles labeled “Please Please Please” (perhaps in honor of a famous Augusta resident). And the grass is so uniformly perfect that you feel like it has to be fake, but that fake grass never looks that good.
Of course, the whole place is beautiful. We walked all of it, barely slowing down as we went through the concession line to get our Masters pimento cheese sandwich, Masters Moon Pie, and Masters bottled water. It all has that strange-but-familiar vibe you get from seeing something in person that you’ve seen on TV all your life.
All of the spectators were dressed to play golf, I guess for the same reason that you take your glove when you go to see a major league baseball game. You never know when someone might go down with an injury and Rory McIlroy or Bubba Watson invites you to round out his foursome.
So many people were there, and yet it never felt crowded. Not having to stand in line for anything helped, but also the place is just so huge, and laid out so well, that it seemed spacious even with a football stadium-full of humanity milling around.
And mind you, it is huge. Whenever I’ve been to see a football or baseball game in person, I’ve always thought that the field looks so much smaller than it does on TV. Not so with Augusta. If anything, it seems bigger. Standing at the tee box of any given par four and looking down the fairway, the landing area for the drive seems impossibly far away.
Like any reasonably athletic guy with an active imagination, I figure that if I just knuckled down and trained hard for a few months, I could play a pro sport. Sometimes guys like that get the chance to stand in against a pro-level fastball or try to guard an elite basketball talent, and they see how much distance there really is between them and professional athletes. Looking at Augusta up close and knowing the shots that are made there, it’s easy to see that I am not in the same species as the guys who do that.
We did see a few of those guys during our visit — Phil, Jordan, Bubba, et al. But to me the star of that show is the place itself and the people running it. The golf club is weirdly elite — the regard in which they hold themselves is the prototype for every parody of every snooty golf club ever. But when that high regard leads to that high standard and that kind of experience, it’s hard to argue with the results.