I fully intended to provide final-round coverage of the Course Designers Championship in Augusta, Ga., won by Phil Mickelson of Dallas-based Phil Mickelson Design. Unfortunately, I learned on Sunday that I was one of 28 winners of the Masters media lottery, my prize being a Monday round at seventh-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. With only 24 hours to prepare for my 11:40 tee time, I had no choice but to race through a column for Golf.com, rearrange my travel schedule, and then scarf down a few calories at T-Bonz with Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie.*
*The joint was so crowded that Bones and I had to communicate across several tables using hand signals, but I could tell from the way he mimicked my thumbs-up gesture that he had learned of my good fortune.
It is customary, I know, for writers playing Augusta National for the first time to file self-deprecating accounts of the experience. (If that’s your cup of tea, I highly recommend the breezy, self-flagellating reportage of Chicago Tribune golf writer Teddy Greenstein, who was a member of my foursome.) I, however — mindful of how little space a blog affords the writer — must confine myself to a few highlights. My booming drive on No. 1, for example, which produced whistles of awe from the starters and caddies, carrying far up on the flat. (See my privately-published monograph, “Conquering First Tee Jitters.”) Or my 7-iron on the watery par-3 16th, a tightly-drawn flier that hit the spot I had picked out on the green and funneled down toward the flagstick, stopping two feet from the hole.
I was at my best, however, on the par-5 15th, one of the most famous risk-reward holes in golf. Drawing upon my inner Gary Van Sickle, I pounded a long drive up the right side. When I got to my ball, which rested on a relatively flat patch of fairway looking down on Rae’s Creek and a flagstick planted back-right on a wide-but-shallow green, I paused, feigning indecision. Then, with a tight-lipped smile, I turned to my caddie. “Bruce,” I said, “I didn’t come 5,000 miles to lay up.”
Heartened by this display of bravado, Bruce told me I had “195 to the front and 205 to the flag.” Nodding, I pulled the headcover off my hybrid-4 Rescue club, brushed the grass a couple of times with nonchalant practice swings, and then made a Tour Tempo-perfect pass at the ball. The feel at impact was sublime. I watched the shot trace across the distant pines with a feeling of deep contentment — similar, I imagine, to what Mickelson felt on Sunday, when he hit his instantly-legendary 6-iron off the pine straw and twixt the tree trunks on No. 13. My shot was probably struck a little better than Phil’s; it flew precisely 205 yards and landed by the flagstick. Unfortunately, the hole was cut pointlessly close to the back fringe, allowing my ball to skip off the back and run down the tightly-mowed bank. I had to settle for a par.
Was I upset? Not at all. I have studied Alister MacKenzie’s work long enough to know that he labored long and hard to achieve a certain capriciousness in his designs. Sometimes the perfectly struck shot will be punished. That’s how it should be. That’s how you want it to be if you’re a Scotsman fed up with Highlands winters, scratchy kilts and dour neighbors.
Anyway, I found Augusta National to be immaculately groomed and eminently fair from the members‘ tees. I was so impressed, in fact, that I filled out my Top 50 rating sheet in the Champions Locker Room and faxed it off to the Cal Sci number crunchers. A few hours later, they sent me their reply by text: “Augusta National climbs 5 rungs to second! Pebble slides to 7th!”
The Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Range, meanwhile, holds on to the 47th spot, permanently displacing Oakmont Country Club.