The Happiest Place on Earth
My wife Margo has taken to calling Augusta National "the happiest place on earth," which is strange because Margo neither plays golf nor particularly likes it. One of the quickest ways in my house to get a few minutes of peace is to tell Margo and our two daughters, "Yep, I think I'm going to go upstairs and watch some golf." Nobody will bother me for fear of accidentally seeing a few seconds of golf on television and promptly dying of boredom. Even the dog leaves me alone.
Still, Margo has grown to love the Masters. This happened last year. It was a big surprise.
I am now covering my 24th Masters tournaments though for some reason the Masters people only credit me with 21. This is probably because of the ill-fated round of golf I played at Augusta National back in 1993. I began my career at The Augusta Chronicle, and in those days, the newspaper had a special day at Augusta National. On the very last day of the golf season, they would let Chronicle sportswriters -- along with a few other people in the community, I think -- play the golf course. It was a very nice thing.
And so I was invited to play, which was great except for two things:
1. I didn't play golf.
2. No, really, I didn't play golf.
Of course I was not going to pass up the chance to play Augusta National. So I went to a driving range and hit enough golf balls to gain confidence that I wasn't going to whiff too often on the golf course. Then I took my starter set -- driver, three-wood, 3-iron, 5-iron, 7-iron, 9-iron, two wedges and two putters (got one in a contest) -- and went out on the golf course.
I shot 72 on the front. That line never fails to get a laugh, but it's 100% true. On the first hole I got the ball to the fringe and promptly FIVE-PUTTED, which meant that from the fringe, I bogeyed the hole. I scored much, much better on the back nine, only in part because I had to leave after 16 holes.
OK, so, yeah, I left Augusta National after 16 holes. I’ve been taking grief about that for 25 years. I was playing with my good friend Greg Barrett (yes, I'm naming you Greg) who was getting married the next day. We had to leave so we could catch the last ferry to get him to his wedding (we only barely caught it).
I wrote about all this in the Chronicle, and it's probably fair to say that the people at the club weren't overly excited that I was out there defacing the golf course that Bobby Jones imagined when looking at a vast stretch of fruit trees and azaleas. Here's a fun fact: After my disastrous turn, they changed the rules so that Chronicle employees had to QUALIFY for their day at Augusta National by breaking 100 in a qualifying tournament. I am told they still play that qualifying tournament here, which I'd like to think means that, like Nicklaus, my legacy lives on in a small way in Augusta.
Anyway … I've covered this tournament for more than 20 years at after 20 years the club invites the writer's spouse to the Masters to see what the whole thing is about. I felt about 97.8% sure that Margo would have no interest in doing this, but when I mentioned this to her she said, "sure, I'd like to see it."
So she went. I was 98.8% sure that she would see the golf course and, after about four hours, go, "OK, that was nice, but I'm ready to go home." Instead, she did not really want to leave even after it started getting dark.
I was 99.6% sure that she would not want to come back the next day. But she did want to come back -- she was even MORE excited the next day.
I was 100% sure that she would not want to come back the third day. You can get the trend. It's obvious now that I would do terribly on The Newlywed Game even though we've been married for almost 18 years. She so thoroughly loved the Masters that she has not stopped talking about it since.
Game even though we've been married for almost 18 years. She so thoroughly loved the Masters that she has not stopped talking about it since.
What does Margo love so much? Well, there are the obvious things. She loved the beauty of this place, of course. No matter how many times you see it, this place overwhelms the senses -- all that green, the trees, the flowers, the water. It feels like you are walking inside one of those technicolor musicals, like you jumped into one of the paintings in Mary Poppins. But that's easy.
She loves the fact that the food is so cheap for a major sporting event. You grow so accustomed to the insane prices at games that you hardly even thinking about it after a while. Six bucks for a Coke? Well, that sounds reasonable. What is it, $14 for the burger? Give me two of those.
Then you come to Augusta National and you buy a pimento cheese sandwich, an egg salad sandwich, some chips, two moon pies, a cola, a water, and the whole thing is like $7. Nobody is trying to make the Augusta National folks sound selfless here -- they are more than making up for it with their insanely priced merchandise -- but it is jolting to see reasonably priced food items at something like the Masters.
She loves the people watching; it can at times resemble a Great Gatsby party. The women wear bright colors and hats, the men puff cigars, it's out of another time.
She loves the way you will suddenly hear a roar through the trees and even though you have no idea where it comes from or why, you just KNOW something cool happened.
But mostly, Margo says that what she loves is that the Masters is such a happy place. It’s something you might not think much about but how often are you in a place where EVERYONE is happy? Disneyland? No. The mall? No. A ballgame? Heck no. But at Augusta, wherever she went, people would want to talk to her. Where are you from? What have you seen? Have you been out to Amen Corner yet? Have you tried the Classic Chicken sandwich? Have you seen Tom Watson?
The Masters is filled with happy people because it almost exclusively populated with two kinds of people:
1. People who come out every year (and usually build their whole year around it).
2. People who have dreamed all their lives of coming out here.
The regulars are one thing. But it’s the dreamers who make the Masters. They are staring wide-eyed at everything as if they had never seen a tree anymore, and they are saying things like, "THERE IT IS! THERE IS WHERE NICKLAUS HIT THE PUTT!" The Masters is unique in golf, of course, because it is the only major championship that is played on the same course every year. And so, people know this golf course through and through before they ever arrive. They know the sloping green at No. 9. They know how the wind swirls at No. 12. They know how the 15th green and 16th tee stand side by side.
They know it, and so when they get here it is not like seeing a golf course. It is like seeing a whole series of famous celebrities. Many of them have spent countless hours imagining exactly how they would play each of these holes. And then, one day, they see it, and it's the adult version of what seeing a real Disney Princess is to a 5-year-old.
Margo just loved being around all that joy. That's what it comes down to.
"You feel like you are at the center of the world," she says. Everyone has their feelings about Augusta National and its history. Everyone has their feelings about golf itself. But for Margo, this tournament is about the joy and how much she enjoys being around it.
"Your job," she told me, "is to figure out how you can buy a ticket for me." I don't think I can break it to her that I just don't have that sort of pull. Even if I still worked at The Augusta Chronicle, I would never be allowed to come back to the golf course. I can't break 100.