It is springtime in Georgia. Yes, the azaleas are blooming and the pine pollen has blanketed Georgia with its powder of a golden hue. Neighborhood lawnmowers are cranking up and I am already wearing shorts and sandals. Yet, the truest indication that Spring has arrived is when a local Augusta furniture store advertises the number of days left until the most significant sports event of the year here in the Garden City. We are on the verge of the grandest celebration of the game of golf; we are just days away from the Masters.
This tournament is not just any sporting event. Many consider it the classiest event in sports, or any sport for that matter. It is here at this annual Mecca of golf that you find the best players in the world competing on arguably the best course in the world before a crowd steeped in the tradition of golf manners and etiquette – first class in every respect.
One of my fondest memories of this hallowed event occurred in 2012. John Westney, my youngest daughter’s father-in-law, invited me to join him for the second round of the Masters. No schedule needed to be checked, no one needed to be asked, the answer was an immediate “where and when do you want to meet?” It is one of the few questions that when asked, receives an emphatic, without hesitation, without equivocation, YES!
John and I arrived at gate C of the fabled Augusta National on Good Friday 2012. Watching this “unlike any other” tournament on TV does not do it justice. Walking onto the course at Augusta is a surreal experience. One’s first impression is that of a painting reflecting all the beauty a Georgia springtime has to offer. Eighteen emerald green grass carpeted fairways flanked on each side by tall Georgia pines suggest a cathedral of a different sort. This course is indeed a canvas where the best golfers in the world come to paint their own history with birdies, pars, and bogeys that will forever be etched into the minds of the Georgia faithful.
We initially saddled up to the first tee box of the hole named “Tea Olive” and watched a few favorites start their golfing artistry. Lee Westwood, Freddie Couples, Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, and Rory McIlroy were just a few of the legendary strikers who blasted their first strokes upon this former Georgia cow pasture. Throughout the day we parked ourselves at various spots to watch these golfing artisans ply their trade. We sat near the 9th green and saw guys like the 2007 Masters Champion Zach Johnson and the 1993 Masters Champion Bernard Langer pitch their shots from the fairway as if they were trying to land their balls on top of a four-story building. We walked to the nearby 10th dogleg-left “Camellia,” historically the toughest hole on the course. We soon discovered that sitting along the right side of the fairway was akin to being a rubber ducky at a carnival shooting gallery. After six balls landed near us, beside us and over us, I could only conclude that these professionals were using my red vest as a target to aim their shots in hopes it would then draw toward the center of the fairway. Realizing my vest had some magnetic influence on golf balls, we moved to a safer position on the 12th tee box — behind the golfers.
The Masters Tournament has a reputation for being a class act for many reasons beyond the beauty of the course and the quality of its participants. Call it Southern hospitality or just respect for Golf’s version of heaven, but where else could you find a crowd of thousands grow so silent during a putt you can hear birds chirping from across the fairway. Neither have I heard them boo anyone unless it is the groundskeeper on the 16th green that had to retrieve a wayward twelve-inch turtle seeking a close-up view of the green. But even then the boo’s turned to cheers when the turtle slid back into the pond. Parking is free, and the food is and has always been more than reasonable. Pimento cheese sandwiches only $1.50, drinks $1.50 and no sandwich exceeded $3. Who are these capitalists? Haven’t they eaten a hot dog at a Braves game recently?
Following an inexpensive lunch, we decided to park ourselves near “Amen Corner.” The confluence of the par 4 11th “White Dogwood” green, the par 3 12th “Golden Bell” and the tee box of the par 5 13th “Azalea” offers one of the unique stories within a story in American sports. This corner of Augusta National has seen championship hopes squashed as many pros succumb to the high risk, high reward temptations of these three classic holes. Cheers or heartbreaking groans from this corner echo throughout the course. Sitting along the par 5 13th fairway, we had a clear vision of one of the most exciting holes in all of golf. This hole may be tagged with a colorful and charming name like “Azalea,” but it belies the danger that awaits the second shot. This hole teases long drivers to attempt to bend their shot around the dogleg-left fairway. A well-placed drive then offers a hazardous go-for-the-green 2nd shot. Fronted by a creek, many a professional golfer’s ego has been deflated with one risky swing of their club followed by a heartbreaking splash into the creek.
It was now 1 pm and the sun had finally broken through. Patrons filled the course and an unbroken line of watchers almost six rows deep snaked along the 13th fairway. Sitting next to us were two men who were obviously enjoying themselves as evidenced by the six empty souvenir plastic beer cups stacked in their hands. One wearing a South Carolina “Cocks” cap looked over at John’s straw hat and remarked with intended humor, “Man, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that hat.” Now I have to admit that the unique shape and style of John’s hat suggested it had been sat upon three or four times, but far be it from me to allow a Gamecock to utter such insults. I quickly rose to the defense of my friend and suggested to this USC alum that neither would I be caught dead wearing his hat. Fortunately, his recent liquid diet had improved his sense of humor, and we all laughed.
The next threesome teeing off the 13th tee was Bubba Watson, Rory McIlroy, and Angel Cabrera. Bubba could have easily been nicknamed Bomber as his drives off the tee have often been compared to moon shots. This Southern boy can launch it. Standing behind me I heard a slightly northern accented voice remark to no one in particular, “Is everyone in the South nicknamed Bubba?” I promptly turned, extended my hand, and introduced myself. “Shake the hand of one right now!” I explained that my formal name is Stewart, my nickname is Buddy, but on occasion, my dad would also refer to me as Bubba, always as a term of endearment, and always enkindling a tender feeling in my heart.
At that moment I realized this northern guest was taking notes. Turns out his name was Steve Politi, a sports reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. That’s Newark as in Newark, New Jersey. Apparently, “Bubba” was a storyline he had fixated upon. As our conversation ensued, I explained that my late wife Mary was nicknamed “Tootie,” my dad Stewart was nicknamed “June” and questioned him if nicknames were also a northern tradition. To the amusement of several folks standing nearby, he explained that the closest thing to a nickname in New Jersey was a generic salutation of “Hey Joe” or the familiar “You’s guys.” For further illustration, I mentioned my cousin Rembert, a physician in Athens, Georgia is also called “Bubba” by close family members. The young reporter seemed to be fully satisfied with this insight into Southern culture. I was going to mention my late wife’s Aunt “Sugarbee,” her Uncle “Bussie” and my neighbor from Louisiana who went by “Coon-Ass.” However, my genteel Southern manner overcame the temptation to provide further enlightenment. I feared the Yankee journalist would snap his pencil.
Migrating to the par 3 16th hole named “Redbud,” we sat and watched as the pros gambled with their tee shots over water to a pin placement perched near the front of the green. We marveled at how we could not only watch the 16th green, but the 15th green was just a chip shot to our immediate right and the 17th tee box to our far left. No wonder Augusta National is such a fan favorite. It was here we saw the aforementioned turtle, cheering on 52-year-old Freddie Couples as he made a 15-foot birdie putt to reach five under par and tie for the second round lead. With thousands of patrons surrounding the green, Couples’ birdie saw the crowd erupt in a roar that reverberated throughout the course.
We spent the last hour watching Tiger Woods tee off from #8 “Yellow Jasmine” and then score a bogey on #9 “Carolina Cherry.” Exhausted and facing a two-plus hour drive home, we reluctantly turned to walk back to our car. One last visit to the gift shop and I picked up a commemorative miniature putter for my two-month-old grandson. When I saw him the next day, I gave him his first putting lesson. He just needs to work on that grip a little more, and then we are off to the practice green!
Two days later, Bubba Watson went on to win the tournament in a 2-hole playoff and I discovered the New Jersey reporter really did quote me in his article on Bubba’s in the South. Nevertheless, as tempting as it is to give my first grandson a nickname befitting his Southern heritage, I have wisely refrained from the temptation to call him “Bubba.” I fear his mother may find an alternative use for that miniature putter.
(Citation: Having recently moved just outside Augusta, Georgia, I decided to post an updated version of an email I sent out to family and friends in April of 2012)