AUGUSTA, Ga. - Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson were nowhere to be found Monday morning at Augusta National, but there was still one big star out here, and it had itself a nice little day.
The course itself.
Augusta National opened its gates under clear, warm skies -- idyllic conditions, really, for an opening round that's less than 72 hours away. Pros and fans enjoyed a laid-back day that was more about making dreams come true than serious competition.
Take Russell Henley, the 23-year-old Masters rookie who played his way into Augusta by winning the Sony Open in January. On Monday he lived a golfer's fantasy camp when Tom Watson joined him and his friend Nathan Smith for a practice round.
"They asked me who would be two guys you would love to play with in the Masters in a practice round and I said Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson," a wide-eyed Henley said afterward. "It was crazy to me -- you've got a legend of the game standing right next to me and I was like, whoa, like he's right there, and he's sitting there asking me about my family, talking to me about how to help me with the Tour and giving me advice. And what a classy guy. I mean, I'll always remember today and being in his group."
While the mood in Henley's group was light, it was not without some stakes.
"We played some skins. Nathan won the most, but I won a few," Henley said with a smile. "So definitely had a few moments with him out there, but yeah, [Watson] was paying up."
Defending champion Bubba Watson took a practice-round spin with his buddy Rickie Fowler in one of the day's highest-wattage pairings. On the par-3 16th, always an entertaining scene, both pros teed off and then wandered up to the long pond that fronts the green to take a stab at skipping a shot across the water. Fowler theatrically made his caddie calculate the yardage before pulling an iron and successfully skipping a ball along the water and onto land. Watson was in full showman mode, but his shot fizzled out in the pond. Fowler was having so much fun he couldn't stop himself from dropping another ball and trying it again. It was that kind of day.
While patrons flooded the usual Augusta hot spots like Amen Corner and the clubhouse area, there was also a popular new place for shutterbugs: deep in the pines on the right side of the 10th fairway, the site of Bubba Watson's physics-defying hooked wedge shot during his playoff win last year. There's no plaque in the ground, but Masters fans were savvy enough to easily locate Bubba's corner in the trees.
"I've got the perfect slice for this," said 66-year-old Jim Synnott of Hamilton, Canada, after sizing up his imaginary shot off the famous patch of pine straw. "You also have a perfect shank," his friend added helpfully after snapping a photo.
Another new feature at Augusta this year is a freshly constructed hospitality facility called Berckman's Place, which is tucked behind the trees along the fifth fairway. Only a special badge will get you access to the party -- and in case you were wondering, "special" does not mean "media." But sources leaving the scene confirmed that the club offers great food, mammoth high-definition televisions and exact replicas of the 12th, 14th and 16th greens for guests looking to take a few putts. Who isn't?
Fans without club access still found plenty reasons to enjoy the day. First-time patrons were easy to find; they're the ones who whipped out their camera the instant they laid eyes on the famous scoreboard along the first fairway, and didn't put them away until they returned to their cars. If you want to meet a few, just offer to take their picture for them.
"It's awe-inspiring. The TV doesn't do the slopes and undulations justice," said 42-year-old Jim Senescu of Camas, Wash., moments after a reporter snapped his photo. "You could eat off these fairways."
Senescu added that he was aware of Augusta's patron code of conduct and promised not to take his lunch off the turf. But it's convenient that he mentioned food, because an affordable lunch is another Masters staple: A chicken sandwich and cup of beer can be had for $5, which is the kind of tradition people out here get behind.
"From the way you're treated, to the inexpensive food, it's just great," said Dan Letourneau, 60, who drove down from Rouses Point, N.Y. with his wife, Jan, to see Augusta after they scored tickets through the Masters' online lottery. The Letourneaus have a son who was born during the tournament, and seeing course was a bucket-list item.
"We had the Masters on in the delivery room, and he was more interested in that the delivery," Jan Letourneau said with a laugh. "It's our son's 19th birthday today, so that's what makes this even more special."
Finally, for fans looking for a simple Augusta experience, all they had to do was look down between their shoes.
"I've putted on worse grass than this," quipped Michigan resident Brooks Simpson while standing in the lawn near the first tee. "This grass -- we can't even believe it," added Karen Attridge, an Ontario, Canada, native moments after taking a photo in front of Augusta's clubhouse. "I haven't even seen a weed, yet."
On Tuesday we'll hear more from the players, who ultimately tell the story for the week, but for now Augusta National is weed-free and open for business, and that's more than enough.