I had read and re-read what was in front of me four or five times before I could muster anything like a reaction. When I finally looked up, I tried to speak but words failed me.
So, I looked back down at the piece of paper again which had my name on it. Just above my name read the date and beside that was the famous logo of Augusta National Golf Club, where I was working for the BBC. But it was what was written below my name that had shocked me into silence.
Arrival Time: 9.40am. Tee Time: 10.40am. “Please present this card at the Main Gate to gain entrance to the Club grounds.
There it was, staring back at me: an invitation to play Augusta National the following day. The man who had presented me with the envelope was standing there, arm outstretched. “Congratulations, you’re playing the course tomorrow.” I shook his hand, but still no words.
Then, a million thoughts. A million questions. “I haven’t got any clubs, what about my flight back tomorrow? I haven’t hit balls for a couple of weeks, what about a putter? I won’t have my putter. How am I going to concentrate on covering the rest of this tournament? What about a glove? Balls? How on earth am I going to sleep?” A few phone calls later I’d managed to hire a set of clubs from a local golf shop, rebook on a flight 24 hours later, book a cheap hotel in Augusta for an extra night, hire a car to drive to the airport afterwards and ring my regular golfing partner Jef back at Didsbury Golf to tell him the unfathomable news. “Play well mate, enjoy” he said as we ended the call.
MONDAY (the day after The Masters)
It was still real.
After an early night and much anguish about what awaited me the following day – The first tee shot… Amen Corner… what would I shoot? I’d managed to doze off but awoke early. Across the room my suitcase for the journey home was fully packed and my golf outfit for the day, carefully selected, was laid out perfectly on the cream carpet complete with my trusty lucky red Titleist hat that had faded to pink through over-use.
My invitation sat next to it – I hadn’t let it out of my sight since my moment of speechlessness the previous day. So it was, definitely, still real. Today was the day I was going to play Augusta National. The holes that I had watched from as young as I could remember on television. Today was the day I would walk those fairways, attempt to play some of those iconic shots.
BBC golf commentator Ken Brown had given me some sound words of advice the previous evening, my very own piece of Ken on the Course gold. “It’s really a second shot golf course so if you miss a green, make sure you miss in the right place, because there’s some places you can’t get up and down from out there. Enjoy it… good luck.”
A taxi arrived just after 8am. First, we would have to go to the golf shop on the edge of town, where I quickly selected some hire clubs, bought a glove, some balls, tees, and a pitch mark repairer – and left my entire suitcase containing all my worldly possessions as collateral. “I’ll be back this afternoon, thanks so much, you don’t know how grateful I am,” I said to the owner, who’d opened up his entire shop an hour early in order to cater to my urgent golfing needs – the desperation in my voice on the phone the day before must have been palpable.
“Don’t arrive at the course early” someone had said the day before. “They won’t let you in until the time on your invitation.” So, we sat and we waited. The taxi driver and I, watching the clock in the front of his cab tick over in a supermarket car park just off Washington Road in Augusta, after making the short journey from the golf shop. 9:30… 9:31… 9:32… small talk had long since subsided. “I’ve never driven down Magnolia Lane before” he said. “In all my years working in Augusta, never been there.”
He was excited too. But I couldn’t have been anything compared to the giant knot in my stomach that had been growing all morning. 9:35… 9:36… “I think we’re probably alright now.” He wound down the window and showed the security guards my invitation. A quick check of the list, a nod of the head and we were in.
As we drove down Magnolia Lane towards Founders Circle, I tried to take in as much as I could. Few things in life so hyped actually live up to their billing but this was, actually, magical. It would become a theme for the day. “Mr Gavin, feel free to change in the Champions Locker Room upstairs. Breakfast will be served through there, and your caddy will meet you on the range with your clubs when you’re ready to head out.”
Other players, mostly members of the media, had a similar look of bemusement as the one that must have been etched on my face as we changed our shoes next to a glass cabinet in which a Green Jacket hung impeccably. I had been allocated Phil Mickelson’s locker for the day, where I placed my shoes before heading down to meet my playing partners. We introduced ourselves over breakfast in the clubhouse of Augusta National, looking out onto the 1st tee, where we would, in less than an hour from now, be hitting actual golf shots on the actual Augusta National golf course.
The incredible breakfast spread was worthy of multiple visits, but there was only time for one. To the range next – where a perfect pyramid of Pro V1s awaited, along with my legendary local caddie. “What’s your handicap?” he asked, introducing himself. “Four,” I replied. “We’re gonna have some fun today,” he declared, decked out in the famous pristine white boiler suit worn by all caddies in the Masters Tournament, which had finished a matter of hours earlier. Now it was almost my turn.
The grandstands, leaderboards and Sunday pins all remained in place from the day before. We would play from the members tees, a significant distance forward from the Tournament tees used by the professionals who had battled it out in near-perfect conditions over the previous four days. Twenty minutes on the range was followed by a ‘quick’ putt – ‘quick’ being the operative word – my first two efforts embarrassingly de-greened with my new putter for the day. Good start.
I had often wondered while watching the Masters what a four-handicapper might shoot round Augusta under tournament conditions. I was about to find out. The time had finally arrived. The man who had handed me the envelope the day before was there again to announce us onto the tee, less than 24 hours after he’d delivered what felt like the most exciting news of my life.
Like much of the Bobby Jones and Dr Alister MacKenzie layout, the 1st at Augusta has a generous landing area to the left of a bunker which sits on the corner of a slight dog-leg right. Just as I’d seen Jordan Spieth do the day before, I took driver out of my bag, teed my ball up on the perfect teeing area (everything is perfect) and went through my pre-shot routine in front of my playing partners and their caddies – it felt like the whole world was watching. It felt like everything I had ever done in my life had led me to this moment.
My hands were shaking but that was just the tip of the iceberg of what was going on beneath the surface. “Relax” I told myself. The advice was futile. I’d already reached a level of nervousness far greater than I knew how to control. This was it. Hands shaking a little more, I stood over the ball and somehow managed to draw the club back. Before I could breathe out, I was holding my finish pose having, I was sure of it, connected with the golf ball. I watched as the little white dot in the perfect springtime Georgia blue sky sailed towards the bunker on the right I had aimed away from. Towards the bunker…towards the bunker… and over it!
Ok, keep going. After a wayward drive on the par-5 2nd, I made it into the left greenside bunker for three and took aim at the flag from the sand. “Stop,” said my caddie. “Aim 15 yards left of where you’re aiming and you won’t be far off.” “But the hole’s over there?!” I thought. Turning my body away from the pin, I aimed 15 yards left my original target. My club slid underneath the sand with a little thud, and the ball landed a couple of yards onto the putting surface before beginning to roll down the contours. And roll… and roll… and roll. It was now on almost the exact path of Louis Oosthuizen’s albatross in 2012. It’s going in! It stopped a matter of inches short of the hole. My caddie and playing partners applauded. For the first of umpteen occasions that day, I was grateful beyond words to the man in the white boiler suit and his intricate knowledge of the course, and at the same time completely taken aback by how much I was at mercy to the slopes of Augusta National. Today, golf was going to be a team game. +1 thru two. Keep going.
A pair of double bogies on three and four brought me back down to earth. But that was just the start of Augusta’s revenge. I’d committed myself to holing out every single putt, no matter what, and to abiding by the rules to the letter of the law. I was going to find out what I could shoot, whatever that number might be. Another blocked tee shot on the 5th left me in trouble down the right and once again I could only make it into the greenside bunker for three. But this time my bunker play deserted me. A knifed one through the back of the green and a return chip into the bunker later, I was starring at double figures, only to make a ‘clutch’ six-footer for a nine. Yes, a nine. +1 thru two became +10 thru 5. Keep going. Stop the bleeding.
The pin on the par-three 6th was back-right – in its traditional Sunday position. (Everything had been left the same way as the day before). Miss left and you’re back down a severe slope at the front of the green facing a wicked, sloping uphill 80-footer. Miss right and you’re off the green having to land it on a five pence piece to get up-and-down for par, or risk going back down the same hill. Following my caddie’s advice, I hit a towering 6-iron 6 foot right of the pin – as good as I’ve ever hit. Back in the game. This was it – I was going to make my first birdie at Augusta. I walked onto the green Ian Poulter-style – chest out, ready to make amends with a 2 only to watch my slightly downhill putt shaved the hole on the right and ran another eight foot by. I was further away than where I’d started. And perhaps inevitably I missed the one on the way back for yet another dropped shot. Ouch
My blind approach to the raised 7th green went closer still, catching the famous slope at the back of the green and drawing ever-closer to the Sunday pin position. Surely this time. But again, my birdie attempt took a subtle break and slipped by. A bogey and double-bogey later on eight and nine (two three putts) I was stood on the 10th tee – perhaps the most glorious spot on golf course apart from Amen Corner. From this elevated position the whole of the property rolls out beneath you – an expanse of perfect green broken only by white sands and tall trees, all of which stretched out before my eyes.
The one aspect to Augusta which is hardest to describe is the sheer severity of the slopes. It’s essentially built on the side of a massive hill, and nowhere is this more stark than the elevation change between the 10th tee and the 10th fairway below you – a bigger change in elevation than the top to the bottom of Niagara Falls. And it was at this spot my game finally came back to me – a care-free swing produced about 10 yards of draw which began to lick around the corner of the dogleg left. I had succeeded where Rory McIlroy had failed in 2011 and found the middle of the fairway below. As I made my way down to my ball, for the first time I managed to take a moment (and a photo) to take it all in and appreciate where I was and what I was doing. That is, before a pushed 6-iron approach resulted in another missed green – again in the wrong place – followed by another three-putt and another double bogey.
Amen corner awaited – and I felt like I needed help from a higher place.
The par-4 11th is statistically the most difficult hole when the Masters is played but from the members tees it plays a lot easier. I managed to recover from a wayward tee shot to make par and break my run of double bogies before making the short walk up the hill to the 12th tee and perhaps the most famous hole in all of golf. It was all there in front of me. A thin sliver of green to aim at, Rae’s Creek and the Hogan Bridge just in front of it and an abundance of azaleas behind.
Once again, a mixture of angst and serenity flooded my senses. I hit what I thought was a perfect 8 iron but like so many before me, I had misjudged it by the smallest of margins – another fascinated fool. I watched as my ball pulled up in the bunker just short. From there, I made bogey.
There’s so much beauty on 13 but the tee shot’s a beast. Anything left is a lost cause, so naturally I subconsciously reverted to going right – Mickelson territory. From the pine straw, I looked up, pictured that unbelievable second shot to the treacherous par-5 green and imagined my ball drawing round the tree in front of me and finding the putting surface. But where Phil flourished, I failed. Luckily, I pulled up short enough of Rae’s creek to muster a par – and at +1 thru the holes of Amen Corner I felt I had at least landed a faint blow back as some sort of payback for my pummelling to this point. On the 13th green, surrounded by those blooming azaleas in the spring sunshine I allowed myself a glance back down the fairway and the clarity of context resumed – thoughts of scores and scorecards subsided. Amen.
THE FINAL STRETCH
I still hadn’t got to grips with the greens and another three-putt double on 14 was followed by a par five on 15. And so, onto 16, yet another stunning spot.
With Augusta’s familiar amphitheatre now empty, the true beauty of this par-three was revealed. Redbuds reflected in the water which your ball must carry in order to reach the putting surface. The man in the white boiler suit said 8-iron was the club and the previous 15 holes taught me not to question his judgement. Another deep breath was followed by my best shot of the day – and a towering, drawing golf shot landed softly before starting to make its way down Tiger’s slope and towards the pin.
The caddies got very excited – I was on to something this time. Forget Tiger territory, I was in hole-in-one territory. The ball kept rolling, closer. It came to rest 8ft behind the pin (from the tee it looked like 2ft) and surely this was my birdie moment. As I drew the putter back, imagined how I might celebrate finally getting one back on the course. Is a fist pump appropriate? At least I’d be able to say I’d birdied the legendary 16th! But this brought another surge of adrenaline which flowed through my veins, down the putter shaft, and I watched again in horror as the ball broke at the last moment and sailed another six-foot by. The one on the way back didn’t trouble the hole either.
Another bogey on 17 followed. And there I stood on the 18th tee, flummoxed but philosophical, beaten but bullish, and definitely not wanting this to end. Ever. Savour every shot now. If the gap between of trees on the 18th hole at Augusta National isn’t narrow enough – the tee shot is all uphill.
One more deep breath. I gave this one plenty, a slight cut down the corridor to follow the shape of the hole. My approach pulled up just short and I was able to enjoy the walk up the (severe) hill to the 18th green, savouring the sympathetic applause from the packed galleries of patrons (or at least that’s how it played out in my head). I took one last look behind me to appreciate the giant scoreboard that towered above this part of the course – the champion’s name firmly in top spot – and now more than ever I was able to marvel at the magic of the pros – especially around the greens. But I failed to get up and down for the grandstand finish – appropriately my final action at Augusta. It all added up to 94 shots. The most I’d taken in a round of golf since I was 12. But today at least, the score was just a small part of the story.
I’d experienced every emotion going, but that’s the game of golf isn’t it? Life’s long and complicated journey in microcosm. Of all those feelings though, the one that endures is gratitude. I am grateful beyond words for the opportunity to have graced the hallowed turf. For a few hours, I had lived out the craziest dream – the greatest thrill of my life and a day I will savour forever. And that was the day I played Augusta National. What I wouldn’t give for another go.
Phone Number: 01909 475 820
Designers: Bobby Jones and Dr Alistair MacKenzie
Green Fee Range: you can have all the money in the world and still not get on
Length: Par 72 – 7,768 yards