I woke up Monday morning feeling like young Charlie Bucket. I had the golden ticket -- a tee time at Augusta National.
After winning a spot in the Masters media lottery, I was given an invitation to play 18 holes at the club the following day. Members tees, same Sunday pin positions, same slick greens. "11:20a tee time," the invitation read. "10:20a arrival."
I pulled onto Magnolia Lane at 10:19:59 and was quickly waved through by security. (After he checked my invitation and driver's license, of course -- I mean, he couldn't just let anybody in.)
I drove down the tree-lined path going two miles per hour. I felt the smile come to my face.
I dropped off my car at the valet and had time to kill. I could change in the champions locker room, eat breakfast, hit balls on the range, or all of the above. Why not all of the above?
When I walked into the champions locker room, I couldn't believe how small it was. A few tables. A couple of TVs. Nothing fancy, yet super cool.
"Would you like me to take a picture?" an attendant asked. My camera was already out.
"Sure," I said.
"How about next to Tiger's locker?" he asked.
"OK," I said.
The locker is shared by Tiger and Jack Burke, Jr., the 1956 Masters champ. In a flash, I had an instant keepsake.
After dropping off my tennis shoes in Gay Brewer's locker -- my assigned one for the day -- I had a quick bite in the clubhouse: a sausage biscuit, strawberries, blueberries and orange juice. Then I headed to the range, where my caddie, Spike, was waiting for me. He watched me nervously hit a few range balls (not from a bucket, but from one of those cool pyramid stacks) and it was on to the putting green. Then, the first tee.
This would be my second spin around the converted nursery (I also won the lottery in 2002), and I carried two goals with me into the overcast morning: beat my 2002 score of 112 and break 100. With a handful of club officials, three other scribes and four caddies watching, I laced my 5-wood down the right center of the fairway. It was a good start for an 18-handicap, but that's the thing about 18-handicaps. The law of averages is a bear. I pulled my approach way left and was on my way to a double-bogey 6.
I scratched out several bogeys from there, added a few doubles, and turned in 51. Not bad. Then disaster struck at the par-3 12th, where Phil Mickelson made five on Sunday.
Let's see, how do I put this? I hit a ground ball, cold top, worm-burner into Rae's Crek. Then I did it again. Then I hit my fifth shot into the back bunker, sixth into the water, eighth onto the green, and rolled in the putt for 9. ("BALLGAME OVER, DAMON LOSES....DAAAAAAAA...DAMON LOSES!!!")
By then, a steady rain was falling, hiding my shame. A couple of bogeys and doubles followed until I stepped to the par-3 16th, still looking for my first par of the day. "160" my caddie said. "8-iron," I said back.
I hit my best shot of the day, to 20 feet, and two-putted for par. Then on 17, I hit two 5 woods, pitched to 10 feet and made that for par. At the last, the uphill 18th, I pulled an Angel Cabrera, driving into the right trees. I punched out, hit a 5 wood short of the green, and pitched to 18 feet, at about the same spot where Mickelson rolled in his putt to win the 2004 Masters. His was for birdie. Mine was for bogey. I played it left edge. I tapped the putt. It fell, center cut, for a satisfying bogey.
I shot 102, beating my first round there by 10 shots. I failed in my quest to break 100.
I did, however, take home tons of memories and some cool pictures. I can't enter the lottery again until 2016. I'll be 44 then, six years shy of the Champions Tour. I sure hope that, one day, seven years from now, I get to feel like Charlie Bucket again.