Boris Johnson might have opened up England’s golf courses on March 29, but for many golfers emerging from the long, dark winter months, it’s the Masters that marks the real start to the golf season.
The implausibly green grass and kaleidoscopic colour of the flora at Augusta National beams a much-needed blast of colour into our living rooms, as we watch the world’s best do battle while idly dreaming of the success that this year will surely be ours.
Most of us will have to make do with watching the tournament on TV. A trip to watch the Masters is one of the most coveted tickets in the world of sport, although in recent years tour operators have introduced packages that give us mere mortals the opportunity to enter the hallowed grounds.
But a much smaller group of lucky golfers have gone one better. An invitation to play at Augusta National is a moment that most of us can only dream about. We managed to track down six golfers who have bagged the ultimate golf trip – the chance to peg it up at Alastair MacKenzie’s Cathedral in the Pines. They range from serious scratch players to regular mid-handicap hackers, aged between their twenties and their sixties. They include captains of industry, well-networked professionals, elite amateurs and one hack who got lucky. And after a little bit of gentle persuasion, they agreed to share their experiences with the rest of us.
One condition of all these conversations was discretion. The members at Augusta National are a secretive bunch, and bragging about your trip is a guaranteed way to ensure you never get the call again.
So we’ve removed names and details that would identify any of our interviewees – starting with the well-known European Tour player who accompanied one of our group.
“The opportunity came through a member who is friends with [the tour pro]. We were there just before the Players’ Championship – after we left Augusta we flew to Jacksonville to drop him off there,” he recalls.
Friends of friends are a familiar theme. “One of my friend’s uncle was a member,” said another interviewee, an accomplished amateur golfer. “Late into the evening after a dinner, he was bragging a bit that he could get a few of us on. The next day we called him out, and to his credit, he called his uncle that day and got the ball rolling.”
Another invitation came through a conversation on the golf course. “We were walking up the first fairway and my playing partner casually said that he’d be happy to host us at his club. Then on the about the third or fourth, I realised that his club was Augusta National!” Once the conversation starts, you don’t need asking twice: “We were more than happy to adjust our diary – there is no way that we wouldn’t have changed this for this trip.”
If you’re not lucky enough to know a member, another route to play the course is via the media ballot. Every year, journalists from all over the world descend on Augusta to cover The Masters. From that group, 20 names are drawn from a hat, and they don’t just get to play the course – they play the Monday morning immediately after the tournament has finished, with the pins in the Sunday positions and the course set up the same.
“When you check in at the media centre at the start of the week, you can enter the ballot,” our lucky golf writer explains. “There’s about a thousand members of the media who cover the event, and they pull 20 people who can play the course on the Monday morning. You get given a little blue raffle ticket just like a church fete – and just like that, you’re in the draw.”
The results of the ballot are announced during the tournament. “You’re there working to cover the golf, and then it comes up on the Jumbotron in the media centre. My phone blew up and I nearly died when I saw my name on the screen. It’s the only thing that you can think about for the rest of the week, and you’re supposed to be covering one of the biggest stories of the year.”
That feeling of excitement and anticipation can be overwhelming for all visitors. “The evening that we arrived we had Azalea cocktails on the terrace overlooking the course, and then dinner,” confessed one of our golfers. “The food, the setting, the service – it’s all wonderful – but really you’re just thinking about the next morning.”
The property has on-site accommodation where members and their guests can stay, making the experience even more special. “We arrived at the club late at night,” another explains. “It was dark, about 10pm, and we were all tired with jet lag. We were allocated to our lodgings, the cabins. To me and one other, we heard: ‘You’re in Butler’. I didn’t register until entering the cabin – this is it, The Butler Cabin. It’s quite a small room – the one you see on TV – with a bedroom off to each side. I am still in a daze at this point.”
But the nervous anticipation of the night before is nothing compared with the full-on butterflies that take over when it’s time to head to the first tee. “We were staying on the property, in a flat above the pro shop,” explains one guest. “Protocol was practice ground to warm up a bit, onto to the enormous putting green then called over the first tee… at that point you start to get extremely nervous!”
“When you peg the ball up, the pro is there to see you off. That was… a testing experience,” confesses another. And unsurprisingly, the results can be somewhat erratic. “I play off five, and I was petrified on the first tee,” our journalist admits. “I hit a snap hook into the trees, punched out and then got up and down from 110 yards!”
Once the round is underway, the generous fairways and lack of rough that characterise architect MacKenzie’s masterpiece provide some respite. It’s Augusta’s famous greens – lightning fast with huge slopes – that give the course it’s main defence.
“I soon came back down to earth,” said the writer after his spectacular par at the first. “I ended up above the hole on two and three, and you can’t imagine how hard it is. It really bites you.”
“It’s quite an easy golf course tee to green,” says another member of our panel. “As a scratch golfer who is short and generally incompetent with my long game, I was on the fringe of 18 greens each time I played it. But you can take four to get down from absolutely anywhere.”
“Tee to green, it’s relatively similar to a ‘normal’ golf course,” agrees another member of our lucky group. “But if you’re out of position on or around the greens… my God! I three-putted the first four greens. You get made to look pretty stupid. You’re so nervous and you want to play well – eventually I started to get the hang of it. I’m a decent eight or nine handicap, and I was eight over after four holes.”
“The greens are twice as difficult as you see on TV. The caddies read the greens for you, and you just can’t believe that the lines they give you are correct. We played the main course four times and we still didn’t get used to it. I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t tear it up!” admits one of our higher handicap players. “It’s easy to putt off the greens and end up back down the fairway. On the fourteenth we must have been in double figures putting between us easily.”
MacKenzie and Bobby Jones shared a love for the Old Course at St Andrews, and like its much older Scottish cousin, Augusta National uses angles and slopes rather than claustrophobic trees or ankle-deep rough to challenge good players without unduly penalising the average golfer. The property is surprisingly open, especially without the definition that the patrons provide when the pros are in town.
“I’d been there to watch the Masters, and obviously we’ve all seen the course on TV so many times. You really can’t appreciate the steepness of the hills on TV, but without crowds what really comes across is the incredible openness. Without people to provide definition then it’s just a vast manicured space. The seventh green is in the middle of nowhere,” said one.
“Many of the tees and greens are not framed at all by trees or shrubs or anything,” agrees another. “The ninth and the eighteenth in particular look like strange spots to place the green. They are hanging halfway up the hill, sitting all alone in the middle of nowhere.”
As the old saying goes, the Masters doesn’t really get going until the back nine on Sunday. And as our golfers headed down the tenth fairway towards Amen Corner [the par four eleventh, par three twelfth and par five thirteenth], the Augusta experience really goes up a notch.
“You’re walking down the tenth fairway, and you say to yourself ‘Fuck me, here we go’”, recalls one player.
“Amen Corner is special,” agrees another. “You tee off on eleven and it’s just a tunnel. Then as you walk over the crest of the hill, you can see the bridge over to the twelfth.”
And as our guests all played the course from the members’ tees, the ‘half-par’ holes that make for such drama on Masters Sunday also provide scoring opportunities for lesser golfers.
“I had this Callaway four wood which worked really well round there, and especially on this occasion on fifteen. I had to hit a slight draw round the trees, carry the water and stop it on the green. Heart in the mouth all the way, but I managed to land and hold it there,” remembers one player, the excitement of the moment clearly audible in his voice.
“I hit a long iron into fifteen which pitched and finished on the green, and followed up with a nice two putt down the hill for birdie,” said another. “But straight afterwards I shanked my tee shot on sixteen.”
“I nearly had a hole in one [on the sixteenth]”, remembers the golf writer. “It came down the slope to that Sunday pin to about four feet – and then I missed the birdie putt!”
One player did manage to make a two on the famous par three sixteenth. “I made three birdies, on eight, nine and sixteen,” he recalls with a grin. “[The European pro] didn’t make any. As you can imagine I’ve told that story many times.”
Those shining moments of glory, however fleeting, only serve to highlight just how good the pros really are.
“I asked the caddie to show me where Tiger hit his chip shot from [on sixteen]. I had four goes at it – that is the most impossible golf shot that I’ve ever seen.”
“Twelve is much harder than I thought it would be,” said one of the scratch players we spoke to. “The green is frighteningly shallow and the front left pin plays at least two clubs shorter than back right. The front bunker is watered daily to make it rock hard and impossible to play out of.”
“You’re in awe of everything about it. You know how tough it is, you just have a new level of appreciation for how good these guys are.”
After holing out on 18, the experience continues in the club’s famous clubhouse. “You can feel quite nervous around the place, but everyone is exceeding friendly – professional, but genuinely friendly too,” said one visitor.
“The members are absolutely charming, and everyone is very friendly,” agrees another.
“Of course, we’re all on our best behaviour as you want to be invited back!”
Guests who dine at the club get to sample the club’s legendary wine cellar, which is “seriously impressive, with Petrus, Lynch Bage etc”, according to one golfing oenophile.
But not everyone got to fully enjoy the delights of the club’s famous wine cellar. “Our visit was during the Iraq War, when the French government had refused to support the US-led invasion. When we had dinner in the clubhouse the club had locked away their French wine, so we couldn’t enjoy the claret. We had to drink Californian piss instead.” (We think he was joking.)
And that wine cellar can result in a very expensive bill if you’re not careful. “I very nearly got a hole in one the first hole of the par three course – it was just an inch from dropping in and finished right behind the hole. We didn’t know that the club tradition is that anyone who makes a hole in one buys wine for whoever is having dinner in the clubhouse that evening – and the diners get to choose the wine. The wine cellar is really something, so that was a very close call.”
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. Playing Augusta National is an experience that had all of our lucky golfers struggling to find enough superlatives. And despite their understandable pleas for anonymity, they were all clearly delighted to share their stories.
“It’s something that we’ll never forget,” said one. “It’s a very special experience – the most amazing golfing experience that I’ve ever had,” adds another.
“It’s right at the top of my golfing experiences,” concluded a third. And he admits that Masters week makes it hard to keep his excitement to himself. “You never want to watch the Masters with me,” he admits. “I’m unsufferable.”