Augusta National... The Dream
Fergal O'Leary gets the invite to play Augusta National
Zooming down the runway at Atlanta airport grasping a boarding pass with "Destination: Augusta" printed on the front, I knew my dream was beginning to become reality. Flying over the Georgia plains heading towards the Promised Land, I remember looking out the window hoping to catch an aerial glimpse of golfing Mecca. The smile on my face competed with the warmth being given off from the nearby sun. When the airplane safely touched down, my heart rate was immeasurable. As the sun set, we were met by our host at Augusta airport and driven in a luxury van down the local streets towards the club. The conversation was enthusiastic and each golfer had a look on their face like it was Christmas morning. When I first saw the sign "Augusta National Golf Club - Members Only", I knew that my drive up Magnolia Lane was just seconds away. The tunnel of ancient trees framed the most sought after invitation in the golfing world. In front of my eyes were the Founder's Circle and the clubhouse to Augusta National proudly displaying its might. There are some things in life which forever seem like a dream, and when they become a reality, it still feels like a dream.
Our host brought us on a tour of the Crow's Nest, the Masters Locker room, the entire clubhouse - and the more significant cabins on the property. All of the Cabins were open, and despite having golfers inside, accompanied guests were free to wander in and collectively explore some of the game's history. The Butler Cabin was a short walk from the dining room, where we went down to the basement level to see where the "Green Jacket Ceremony" takes places in April of every year. A Master has been identified. The Eisenhower Cabin was next door and offered tremendous history, art work and images that reminded us of wars & battles when the former President stood at the helm. The Tennessee Cabin reminded us of the many talented golfers to come from The Volunteer State – and offered an equal level of luxury to any visitor. Despite the short project timeline of just four months to complete a cabin, they each look like they have been there for centuries. Images of golfing masters populate the walls which golfing apprentices worship. My bed in the Berckman's Cabin was merely a place to lie down; the ability to sleep was impossible.
At 6.30am, I was about to undertake the best thing I've ever done on a golf course. I stood on the 1st tee and began to walk down the fairway. I remember looking back over my shoulder praying to God that my footprints would disappear from the morning dew. Oh well, here we go. I could see the changes in elevation and Georgia Pines throughout the picture-perfect property, and how they framed Mr. Jones's foresight. I strolled down the hill on the 2nd and could see the two bunkers which awaited the ball of the aggressive golfer going for the green in two shots. I cut across the 3rd fairway where I saw the most lethal pin-position available: Front Left. Looking down the hill to the par 3 4th green sent one thought through my mind "don't go into that front bunker!” I climbed the 5th fairway feeling like I had reached the first base camp on Mt. Everest. If you're lucky enough to miss the magnetic bunkers on the left side of the fairway, you then have to deal with one of the toughest approach shots around. The pin was tucked in the back left corner on a plateau the size of your coffee table and the false front looked like it had a huge appetite for Titleist products. The pin on 6 wasn't much friendlier either and I could already sense that we were in for a challenge once the checkered-flag dropped and we were let loose at 9am. The Masters tees on 7 and 8 are at least 130 yards behind the member’s tee-box. One would easily confuse them for tee-boxes used on the back nine. With wet turf and heavy December air, the 7400-yard golf course was not going to be easy. As the time approached 7am, I stood on the fairway of the 9th hole remembering images of disappointment as approach shots spun back off the front. There are no easy holes at Augusta National, and the name of the tournament it hosts is fitting.
The 10th hole from the Masters tee is a 495-yard par 4 monster. The Georgia Pines will welcome with open arms any tee shot which does not move from right to left through the southern air. My first full-on view of the MacKenzie bunker sent a distinct chill down my spine. Despite the 40°F weather at that time of the morning, the bunker in front of me was the catalyst for the shivers rippling around my body. Although I've seen competitors play the 10th hole countless times, it was still the hole that 'kept me up at night'. The 11th from the tips is almost unplayable as a par 4 with this weather and the soft conditions. The beginning of Amen Corner requires a catholic priest, rosary beads from Bethlehem and some sort of divine intervention from the man above. It's that tough. You can see why so many players bail out to the right of the 11th green, hoping to rely on the short game to make par. Larry Mize was a lucky man. Standing on the 12th tee box at Augusta National all by myself made me feel like the luckiest man alive. The Hogan Bridge, Rae's Creek and the beautiful Augusta flowerbeds capture your heart. I literally couldn't believe what was in front of my eyes. One of Augusta's special charms is that it continually redefines the word "dream". One is left wondering if there is any place to land the ball on a green which feels like it’s three paces deep.
As I walked past the Eisenhower Tree and left the 17th green congratulating Jack from 1986 with "Maybe ...YES, SIR!" it was time to study the 18th hole. Only the human eye can appreciate how narrow it is up to that perched fairway. The Sandy Lyle bunkers command attention all the way up. The approach shot from the fairway seems reasonable, however the elevation comes quickly into play as the final yellow flag rustles in the wind. It's a mighty finish. The history with that green alone makes time stand still. I had walked all 18 holes at Augusta National and it wasn't even breakfast time. I had a smile on my face as I enjoyed my southern-style grits with scrambled eggs, although I was still worried about my footprints. I had accomplished all this before 8am and hadn't even hit a ball. My stroll around the 18 holes at Augusta National will remain in my mind beyond eternity and nothing can take them away from me. Breakfast was finished and it was time to play the course. Buckle up.
After four magical hours, we exchanged heart-felt handshakes on the 18th green. We hopped in a cart and quickly visited the new Masters practice range and the famous Par 3 course. Due to a delayed start-time of 9.45am, we ran out of time and daylight and had to postpone playing the Par 3. My lungs were working hard, I kept taking deep breaths just thinking about the history, the champions, the masters, the caddymasters and Presidents who have graced this property and further developed its character. Reality was nowhere to be found – welcome to heaven. Having toured the property and experienced all that the Augusta National Golf Club has to offer, I couldn't complain. New friendships had been established and memories had been ingrained in our minds. We ate a bite of lunch and headed back to the Berckman Cabin to pack up. Once again, we were back in that luxury van driving down Magnolia Lane. I couldn't help but look out the back window… just to get one more glimpse.
Article by Fergal O'Leary