Monday, April 14, 2014

I Went There - Sunday at the 2014 Masters

As you can tell from the title, I got the once in a lifetime chance to attend the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. The CEO of my buddy Sug's company is a member at Augusta National so his work gets amazing tickets to the Masters every year.  This year Sug's company was not going to use some of their Sunday passes with special access so Sug, Uncle Patty, and Sug's older brothers David and John were the lucky recipients of tickets for Sunday of the 2014 Masters at Augusta National.

I found out about the opportunity on mid-afternoon Friday of the tournament so I booked a flight for Saturday to Atlanta.  Despite having a ton of personal and work balls in the air, Cheesehead Chick knew this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity so big ups to her for not questioning the decision for a minute.  Mama Cheese was in Chicago for the weekend so we went to dinner on Friday.  I was going to hang with Mama Cheese throughout the weekend but Augusta came calling and luckily she was more than understanding too.  After a nice dinner on Friday night, my sole focus turned to the 2014 Masters.

I had an early flight on Saturday morning from Chicago to Atlanta on American Airlines and even got a free upgrade to first class so for once in my life I can actually thank an airline.  It was my first time flying American in years so may be they were trying to lure me back or were just throwing me a bone since I had to book an expensive last minute ticket.  Either way, despite an early flight, the upgrade made the flight painless.  As I made my way around the Atlanta airport on Saturday, the deluge of Masters gear felt similar to being in Green Bay on the day of a Packer game.

After watching the end of the Fulham/Norwich EPL match in the airport bar, I connected with Sug.  Since Sug is a Starwood Points member, we got a room at the Sheridan Gateway Hotel Atlanta by the airport so he could take a nap.  A few years ago they extended Masters coverage online to allow you to watch the featured group, Amen Corner, or the 15th &16th holes.  The weather was so nice in Atlanta that I couldn't justify watching online so I took the free time to catch-up on Masters reading out in beautiful 75 degree weather, which was priceless given the nightmare winter we've had in Chicago.  After a couple of hours outside, I headed to the hotel bar to catch the start of the coverage of the Masters on CBS that is unfortunately still lead by Jim Nance and "Sir" Nick Faldo.

Uncle Patty made it to Atlanta from Austin, where he moved from Chicago at the end of 2013 because he took a new job, midway through Saturday coverage of the Masters on CBS.  It was great to see him for the first time since he left Chicago.  Sug's older brothers David and John flew in from Milwaukee but were not scheduled to land till later Saturday night so Sug, Uncle Patty, and I started the two and a half hour drive from Atlanta to Augusta.  On the ride to Augusta we caught up, hit up Chick-fil-A for dinner, and started to formulate our plans for Sunday.

We got two rooms at a crappy hotel right in Augusta.  Let's just say there was a reason why there were rooms available for $100 a night on Saturday evening of the busiest weekend of the entire year at that place.  Most people that attend the Masters rent a house within 15 minutes of Augusta National, which is what Sug's work did.  It works out great for patrons because it gives them a comfortable way to stay close to the course and it works out great for home owners in Augusta because it allows them to cover a good portion of their mortgage for the year for one week's rent.  Sug's work got a huge place with an amazing back deck where we had a few beers before meeting up with Sug's brothers and co-workers.

Much like our hotel, Augusta bars have to make hay while the sun shines on Masters week.  Both bars we went to were in the strip malls but somehow were able to charge covers.  The second bar had a long line that we were able to skip thanks to Sug's connections.  After grabbing a few drinks to calm the nerves, Uncle Patty and I headed back to the hotel to get some sleep.  It took us at least an hour to finally fall asleep since we were both so excited to actually step foot on the ground of the famed Augusta National.

Gates at Augusta National opened at 8 am but the first player did not tee off till 10:10 am, which gave us ample time to grab some food and walk the course to get a lay of the land.  Words cannot describe how pristine the course is in-person.  Honestly take what you see on television or in video games and multiple it times ten, now you are close to having a feel for how amazing Augusta National is in-person.

We had unfettered access to Augusta National thanks to Sug's work.  After putting down our chairs for the day on the 16th hole (more on that later) we were able to go into Berckmans Place, which is an exclusive area within one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the entire world. Inside Berckmans Place there are shops, restaurants, and a mini Augusta National Museum that tells the story of how the Masters went from just another golf tournament to arguably the most famous one in the world over the last 80 years.

The highlight of Berckmans Place are the the three putting greens that are scaled replicas of 7 (par 4), 14 (par 4), and 16 (par 3).  We played the "green" hole locations, which were all famous putts/shots in Masters history.  As if that wasn't enough, real Augusta National caddies read the putts for us.  We played back-to-front so we started out on 16 with a putt on the line of Tiger's famous chip-in and awkward celebration with his former caddie Stevie Williams.  We moved onto 14 and finished on 7.  Sug came the closest to one putting on 7, which was a lighting quick side winder to the "Sunday" hole location.  Sure we did not putt on the real course but on the ground of Augusta National we had a chance to putt on the scaled replicas of three holes, amazing stuff.  We finished off our Berckmans Place experience with an all-you-can-eat breakfast that Sug rushed his brother John through so that we could head back out to the course to meet the rest of our group.

We all agreed that we had to walk the entire course since this could be our only trip to Augusta National.  With a full belly we started our deep dive into Augusta National by walking the back nine first, which was the front nine for the first Masters in 1934.  On the 10th hole we stopped at the exact spot that Bubba Watson hit his second shot around a bunch of trees off of the pine straw to within 10 feet for a two-put par to win the 2012 Masters in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen.

Standing on the 11th tee, you really get a feel for why it was the 3rd hardest hole in 2013.  Add in that the second shot on 11 is a long one to a green guarded by water and if there wasn't a bail out area to the right of the 11th green, it would be the hardest hole on the course.

Next up was 12, which is possibly the most famous par 3 in the world.  That is the most crowded spot on the course because from one spot you can see the 11th green, the entire 12th hole, and the tee shot on the 13th hole.  Despite seeming like the perfect spot to watch, it is still not the most ideal place to sit for the day because of how far you are from the action since you need to sit behind the 12th tee box.

The 13th, a par 5, closes out Amen Corner.  We stood where Phil Mickelson knocked a 6-iron from the pine straw between two trees and onto the green about eight feet from the hole from over 200 yards out (missed the easy eagle putt but still made birdie) en route to his 3rd Masters in 2010.

The 14th hole looks ho-hum until you see how much players have to shape their drive right to left without overdoing it to give themselves a nice look at the green.  The last of the Par 5's at Augusta National is the 15th hole.  Last year Tiger infamously hit his approach shot off the flag stick and made an illegal drop in the 2nd round that was caught by a television viewer.  Tiger lost the 2013 Masters to Adam Scott by the same margin of the penalty he was assessed on 15.  I feel bad for the spouses of people that call in rules violations, how about they just enjoy watching the tournament instead of helping tournament officials by handing out expensive jaywalking tickets.  We stood about 20 yards back from where Tiger's quest for a 5th green jacket went up in smoke.  In person I can see why that shot is intimidating because television does not do justice to how much the green slopes back to front towards the water.

The 16th hole, the last par 3 on the course, is where we put down our chairs for the day.  Everyone is courteous inside August National, so much so that you can leave your chair in the same place for the whole day and return to watch at your leisure without anyone moving your chair.  The pin was in the usual Sunday hole-in-one location, which is another thing I love about the Masters.  Instead of messing with the players on Sunday in an attempt to show that the "course has teeth" like they do at the U.S. Open, at Augusta National they setup the course/pins to challenge the players but also to reward them when they make a good shot.  The favorable hole location on 16 is a great example of that, which makes it fun for the players and viewers.

The course closes with two challenging par 4's that demand very precise drives to even have a chance to get home in two.  I like the look of the 18th hole a little more than the 17th, especially since this was the first Masters without the Eisenhower Tree on 17, which was claimed by an ice storm earlier this year.  Sure the big hitters can bomb their drives over the Eisenhower Tree but it was always nice to see that flowing loblolly pine on television so too bad that I never got to see it in-person.  Everyone wants to get a spot close to 18 but even if we tried to put our seats down right when we arrived at the course, we still would have had an obstructed view of the final putts on 18.  Standing where players hit their 2nd show on 18 you get a feel for the elevation change that adds another layer of complexity to the famous finishing hole.

With the back nine in the books let's take a stroll through the front nine, which again was actually the back nine at the first Masters in 1934.  The 1st hole starts off with a much steeper drop between the tee shots and your second shot than you can tell from television.  Par is a great score given that it played as the second hardest hole in 2013.  The 2nd hole is a huge dog-leg left par 5.  A right to left drive puts players in a great position to go for the green in two.  We stood fairly close to where Oosthuizen holed out from over 200 yards for a double-eagle in 2012.  Birdie is attainable on the 2nd, especially at the traditional back right Sunday hole location.

We spent a fair amount of time on the 3rd hole, which is the shortest par four on the course.  For the 10,000th time, television does not do just to how hard this hole plays.  If players end up on the left side of the fairway, they still have a tricky shot into an undulating green.  We tried to get close to where Charl Schwartzel holed out for eagle en route to winning the 2011 Masters but it was too far from the cross walk to get a great view.

The 4th hole is a long par 3 and I would say is the first ho-hum hole on the course so far.  Don't get me wrong, it is still an amazing hole but there is nothing that stands out other than the fact that it played as the hardest hole in 2013.  The few groups we watched play the 4th hole really struggled to get the ball to the hole because of the length of the hole combined with the menacing bunkers on the front of the green.

The 5th hole serves as a walkway to the main souvenir shop and Berckmans Place so there was tons of foot traffic across that fairway.  I watched Jim Furyk play the 5th hole right next to his wife and former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swan.  At the Masters you have to at least act like you belong so instead of turning into a giddy school girl when I walked the hole with them, I just nodded to both and said good afternoon.

The 6th hole is a par 3 located right next to the 16th hole, which makes for great Par 3 viewing.  We got our first beer of the day there since they didn't start serving been till 12:30.  The neat quirk of the 6th hole is that you can sit in the gully between the tee box and green.  Balls scream over your head towards the green so it is neat to see them drop onto the green out of nowhere.  The back right "Sunday" hole location is one of the trickiest on the court because it sits up on a shelf.  Much like picking your favorite kid, picking a favorite hole at August National is tough but the unique viewing experience on the 6th makes it one of my favorites.

The font nine closes out with a par 4 followed by a par 5 followed by a par 4.  In my opinion, the 7th hole is the hardest of the three closing holes.  We were able to see a ton of cool shots into the hole location that we putted at Berckmans Place earlier in the morning.  With all the bunkers that surround the 7th, par is a great score.  Moving onto the par 5, it really is a three shot hole when the pin is in the back of the green since the hole is a crazy uphill climb the entire way.  The front nine closes out with a tricky par 4 that looks tame given all the space you have to hit a drive but the angle to the green on your second shot is the key.  We put some chairs down on nine, which allowed us to see how hard it is to get the ball close the hole on that back-to-front sloping green.

I hope you enjoyed the walking tour of Augusta National, again I am not sure that words can come anywhere close to describing how amazing the experience is in-person.  Since we saw each hole at least once, we headed to the member/guest area for an azalea, the signature cocktail of the Masters.  I am almost positive they use vodka at the Masters even though the standard Azalea recipe calls for gin with lime juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine.  For how expensive merchandise can be at the Masters, drinks and food cost the same they did in the 1950's, which is a nice perk.  It honestly feels like you are in the 1950's, in a good way, as you walk the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.  Drinking azaleas while strolling through Augusta National is definitely the best sports/drink combo I've ever had in my life.

Uncle Patty had to leave early to catch a flight back to Austin for a week commitment first thing on Monday so we hit the upscale merchandise area in the member/guest area followed by visiting a few of our favorite holes on the front nine as a I walked Uncle Patty to the exit.  It was a bummer that Uncle Patty could not stay for the entire day but to get to spend any time, let alone most of a Sunday at the Masters is just too good to turn down, so I am glad that Uncle Patty was able to join us.

After bidding Uncle Patty farewell, I met Sug and his brothers back at our seats on 16.  Some of the early groups were making their way to 16 while the contenders were teeing off on the front nine.  From our seats at 16 we had a bird's eye view of three other holes: the 6th green, the 15th green, and the 17th tee shot.  This was not Sug's first Masters rodeo so luckily we were able to capitalize on his course knowledge to get the best spot, sorry Amen Corner, to see tons of action.

After a few of the early groups finished on 16, the final group played the 6th hole.  The last group had Watson and young gun Jordan Spieth.  Both players were tied at -5 heading into Sunday.  Speith birdied two of his first four holes while Watson was even on the day through four holes.  Without cell phones or televisions on the course, the only updates you get are on the Wrigley Field-esque manual scoreboards throughout the grounds.  Spieth stumbled with a bogey on the 5th hole to take a one-shot lead into the sixth hole.  Both hit great tee shots on the 6th hole and both canned birdie putts to send out the 6th hole in style.  The roar after an eagle at the Master is amazing and the crowds at the Masters are smart enough to realize that some birdies are as impressive as eagles so the crowd let out a huge roars when Spieth and Watson carded birdies on the 6th hole.

Unfortunately for Spieth, his chance to become the youngest Masters champion ended on the front nine when he bogeyed the last two holes while Watson birded each.  That four shot swing gave Watson a two shot lead at the turn.  It is almost impossible to follow the last group on the course so selfishly it was actually nice that Watson had one arm in his second green jacket as he stood on the 10th tee because it allowed us to sit in our seats on 16 and enjoy the glory of the 15th, 16th holes, and 17th holes.

We saw roughly 20 groups play those holes.  Every player that went long on 15 struggled to chip their next shot onto the green because they were worried about knocking their ball too far and ending up in the water in front of the 15th green. That meant that every player that went long chipped short and ended up on the fringe and scrambling for a two-putt par.  Given how far PGA Tour players can hit the ball now, 15 is a great birdie or eagle opportunity but the severe back to front slope on the green combined with the fact that the green is almost rectangular in shape makes it a very challenging hole if you miss the green with your approach shot.

I am an unabashed lover of all things Steve Stricker.  Obviously the fact that he lives in Madison helps but he is also the most liked player on the PGA Tour because he is one of the last genuine articles in sports.  Stricker struggled on Sunday but almost aced the 16th, which was exciting to see live on the hill left of the 16th green as the crowd jumped to their feet in anticipation of the near ace.

Once Spieth and Watson finished 16, we high-tailed it to the Member/Guest area next to the 1st tee/10th tee boxes and 9th/18th greens.  Sure it would have been neat to watch the leaders play 17 and 18 but we didn't have chairs on either hole so we would have been in the 50th row of people trying to do the same thing.  Instead we got to hear roars of the crowd from 50 yards away as Spieth and Watson hit their second shots into the 18th green while we watched the action on television.  I walked around the Member/Guest area as Watson was putting the final touches on his second win at the Masters in three years with an even bigger grin on my face than Bubba had thanks to all the amazing things I saw over the 10 hours we spent on the ground of Augusta National for Sunday of the 2014 Masters.

I don't often pause in awe of celebrities but there were tons of golfing mukity mucks making their way around the Member/Guest area. After Miguel Angel Jimenez finished an interview with a cigar in his mouth the entire time, we crossed paths and shook hands.  I told him congrats on the 4th place finish and he smiled and winked at me like I was a member of his inter-circle.  I told Watson's wife Angie congrats as she proudly held their adopted son Calieb in her arms, she stopped and actually thanked me too.  Those were just two of many interactions of that nature I had in a Member/Guest area following the conclusion of the 2014 Masters.

There was no sense in rushing to our car and fighting traffic given that we had a two and a half hour drive back to Atlanta so we hung in the Member/Guest area for as long as possible.  Thankfully we had to walk across the entire course to get back to our car.  As the sun was setting, there were less than 100 people left on the course.  We took our time walking because although Sug hopefully gets to return many times, the rest of us knew this could be our last time at Augusta National.  We strolled past the 1st tee, in between the 9th and 18th green, through the 8th fairway, past the 2nd green, through the 3rd and 7th fairways, past the 16th green, and back to the 16th tee box for one last look at the course.

In a crazy end to a whirlwind week where Cheesehead Chick and I went under contract on our first condo together, a crazy stroke of luck thanks to Sug got me to Augusta National for the final round of the 2014 Masters.  It felt like a whirlwind 48 hours getting to the Masters.  Despite Tiger Woods missing the entire tournament due to injury for the first time since 1994 and Phil Mickelson missing the cut for only the second time in his career, the 2014 Masters will no doubt go down as my favorite Masters of all-time.  It will also mark the second of many green jackets for Watson. Honestly the trip was painless and totally worth the effort to get to see Sunday at the Masters in-person.  If you ever have a chance, you should go because there is no question that Sunday at the Masters was the coolest sporting event that I've ever attended.

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