AUGUSTA, Ga. - Strange, looking back, but the first golf tournament on any level that I ever covered, really covered, was the 1992 Masters. I was 25 and had been hired to write sports columns for The Augusta Chronicle - the "South's Oldest Newspaper" as we reminded people on the front page every day. You would think that knowing at least something about golf might have been something of a prerequisite for a sports columnist at The Augusta Chronicle. Somehow, though, I slipped through the cracks. And I kept a low profile by listening and nodding a lot.
Someone might say: "I think Couples at the Masters this year."
And I would nod and stay quiet rather than saying what I was thinking, which was: Do they let the golfers play in couples now?
The beautiful thing about Augusta is that there's golf knowledge everywhere just waiting to be soaked up. I have written about my friend David Westin, who is covering his 32nd Masters for the paper this year, and how he had to endure ridiculous questions such as: "Why do they use different clubs? Why don't they just swing harder or softer depending on how close they are to the hole?" The golfers, in general, were preposterously generous to me - I remember Ben Crenshaw inviting me to lunch and for two hours just explaining golf like he was talking to a young child, which, in golf terms, he was. Davis Love III was like that too. Nick Price. Gary Player. And Jack Nicklaus, of course. I learned golf at the footstep of kings.
More than anything, though, I would say that I learned about golf from the golf course. I'm not golf-savvy enough to say that Augusta National is the best golf course in the world, but it's the best one I know because there are lessons on every hole, because it challenges a golfer mentally, physically and, more than those, emotionally. Fulton Allem, another golfer who was kind, explained it this way: Every golfer comes down Magonlia Lane and his hair stands on end. The golfer who combs it best, wins.
With that, here is the Augusta National I learned ... 18 holes from 18 years of covering the Masters.
445 yards, par-4
Name: Tea Olive
The most prominent memory comes from the time I actually played Augusta - that was 1992. It is, to give you an idea, the last time I played a round of golf. I shot 72 ... on the front nine. The members quickly realized that it was probably best for everyone involved and also the environment and the history of the game if they never let that happen again. But before they banned me from tearing up their course and scaring the ghosts, I teed off at No. 1 - and even though I played in May, when the course was going into hibernation for the hot summer, when nobody was watching, that was about as nervous as I have ever been. There's a majestic view from the first tee, and there is history swirling in the air, and there is also a clubhouse to the right with windows that can be shattered if you hit a foul ball. As I remember, I topped the ball and it rolled down the hill about 90 yards, but right in the middle of the fairway. Striped it, as they say.
I can also tell you that once I managed to get the ball up on the fringe, I five-putted. Five-putted. That means, if they had put the tee on the fringe, I would have still bogeyed the hole.
575 yards, par-5
Name: Pink Dogwood
I remember Phil Mickelson hitting that remarkable shot off the pine straw in 2003 and setting himself up for a birdie. I have always had mixed feelings about Mickelson. His ability to hit miraculous shots makes him such a compelling figure. Nobody since Seve Ballesteros, I think—not even Tiger Woods—has had such an ability to hit the magical shot and make people around him feel so good. Mickelson's gift for golf has always seemed so much more public than Tiger's—whether it's true or just perception, Mickelson seems happy to share his game. Of course, this cuts both ways (See hole No. 13).
350 yards, par-4
Name: Flowering Peach
In 1998 Nicklaus chipped in here for eagle He was 58—it had been a dozen years since his near-miraculous 1986 win at Augusta. And yet, he believed he had a chance to win again. And because he believed, we believed. This was the greatness of Nicklaus. We all knew that he was 58 and he had a bad hip—he would have surgery in mere months—and we had already entered the era of Tiger. But we believed anyway because Jack seemed to have this ability, especially at Augusta, to become whatever he needed to become in order to win. He made a nice run that Sunday, shot 68, and finished sixth. It was a remarkable achievement for a 58-year-old man. Nicklaus, of course, was disappointed. He thought he was going to win.
240 yards, par-3
Name: Flowering Crab Apple
Flowing Peach. Flowering Crap Apple. Carolina Cherry. Please. This isn't a golf course, it's a fruit salad. They say that this hole was based loosely on the 11th at St. Andrews, for whatever that's worth. What I remember about it is that Jeff Sluman, at my first Masters, made the first (and only) hole-in-one ever recorded in competition here. Shortly after he made the shot, he looked into the gallery and saw his mother, Doreen. And she said, "Give me that ball right now." So he did.
455 yards, par-4
This is certainly the least seen hole at Augusta. It's way out on the Southeast side of the course. Nicklaus eagled it twice in 1995—on Thursday with a five-iron from 185 yards and on Saturday with a seven-iron from 165 yards. Unfortunately, he shot 78 and 75 the other two days and finished 35th.
180 yards, par-3
This hole has remained unchanged since 1975, which makes it a rarity at the Masters. One thing that Augusta offered for years and years was that certain sameness—the world may change around it, but Augusta National was always the same. The line I heard when I first arrived was that they still accepted Confederate money at the Augusta gift shop. But over the last 10 to 12 years, pretty much everything has changed at Augusta. The course has changed. The coverage has changed. The membership has changed (welcome Lynn Swann!). The 6th is a little oasis in the sea of change. Chris DiMarco made a hole-in-one here in the opening round in 2004, which is amazing enough. But more amazing, the next day, he came within three inches of doing it again.
450 yards, par-4
For example, here is a hole that basically looks nothing like it once did. Originally this was a 320-yard hole. And, like a pet dinosaur, it has just kept growing and growing. A few years ago, they added 40 yards to it, making it a monster of a hole where you have to pound the driver and then hit an awkward shot into an elevated green surrounded by five bunkers. It's hard, but it's not Augusta hard —that is, there's not a lot of imagination in playing it. It's probably my least favorite hole on the course now. Back in 1972, Charles Coody made a hole in one on the 6th— the last hole in one before DiMarco's. He came to the 7th and promptly made triple bogey.
570 yards, par-5
Name: Yellow Jasmine
Often the Masters is every bit as much about the loser as it is about the winner. That's what I thought in 2003 when Mike Weir beat Len Mattiace in a sudden-death playoff. Mattiace was a grinder who was playing in his first Masters at age 35. He was probably best known for surging into the lead at the 1998 Players Championships and then hitting two shots into the water at the 17th, the island green. Anyway, he chipped in at the 8th and shot a final-round 65 to force the playoff with Weir. When he lost, Mattiace broke down in tears ... but not, he said, because he lost. Instead, it was because he was proud of the way he and his game had held up under those extreme conditions. I felt like I knew exactly what he meant.
460 yards, par-4
Name: Carolina Cherry
The slope on the 9th green looks so severe, you are not entirely sure how any ball stays up there. This hole for me will always belong to Greg Norman from his gruesome collapse in 1996. He went into the final round with a six-shot lead and looked like a certain winner. But he began to fall apart right away. The moment when it became clear to just about everyone that Norman really was going to lose the Masters was when he hit his approach at the 9th, and it spun off the front of the green and rolled all the way to the bottom of the hill. One thing that tends to get lost in that year, incidentally, is that Nick Faldo shot a 67—low round of the day —to win by five shots. The story was Norman's collapse (how could it be anything else?). But Faldo truly was great. This was a fairly common Masters theme with Faldo (see the 10th hole).
495 yards, par-4
The Scott Hoch missed tap-in happened three years before my first Masters, but I did catch it on TV. What amazes me is that we still have not gotten a consensus on how long it was. Some say two feet. Some say three feet. Some split the different. But it seems to me that we probably should have an official length for the putt Hoch missed that would have won him the 1989 Masters. And to continue the Faldo theme, while that tournament is remembered for Hoch's miss, it was of course won by Faldo, who shot a tournament-low 65 on Sunday to force the playoff, one of the great comebacks ever.
505 yards, par-4
Name: White Dogwood
I got to know Larry Mize a little—this will always be his hole, of course. This is where he holed a sand wedge from 140 feet to steal the Masters from Greg Norman. This was a Butler-halfcourt-shot-falls moment in many ways because Mize grew up in Augusta, he worked the scoreboards at the Masters when he was 13 and then he chipped in to win the Masters in his hometown. It's hard to get much bigger than that. The interesting thing is that this shot sort of messed him up for a little while as a golfer. Everybody thought of him only as the guy who chipped in at Augusta, and he said he began to see himself that way too. Hey, you're 28, you've beaten the Shark with an improbable hole-out at the Masters, well, it's hard to imagine how you will ever do anything that tops that. It took Mize a while to come to grips with that and with the rest of his career.
155 yards, par-3
Name: Golden Bell
My favorite golf hole in the world. I can sit out there and watch players wrestle with this gem all day long. But I missed what is probably the most famous moment ever at this hole. That was 1992, I was, of course, covering my first Masters, and I was running all over the place trying to keep up with the action. I remember that Mark Calcavecchia made six straight birdies on the back nine and shot a record 29. I remember Corey Pavin made a little run, and Ray Floyd at 49 was fighting for the lead. Yes, I was trying to be everywhere all at once. When I got back to the pressroom, having seen Fred Couples wrap up the championships on the 18th, somebody said: "Can you believe the ball stayed up on 12." At which point, I replied: "I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about." It was later that I saw the way Couples' tee shot stayed on the bank—and out of the water— on the 12th. It was one of the biggest breaks in Masters history.
510 yards, par-5
There are 1,600 azaleas around the hole called Azalea - it is obviously quite beautiful. It was here that I saw Mickelson hit the ball over the green one year, putting him in position for one of his crazy trick shots. I wrote before about how when those shots work, they inspire. But when they don't ... ugh. And it was clear even before he tried it that this was the worst possible time and place to try a trick shot. Just chip it up near the hole like most everyone else would. But that's not Phil. "Oh oh," I said to the reporter with me. "Phil's about try to his floopty doopty shot." That has become my name for any Mickelson's ill-advised trick shot. The floopty doopty. He did, the ball almost went in. Then it rolled right off the green, and Phil made bogey or double bogey or something. And that's why Phil can be the most stirring and most infuriating golfer, both at once.
440 yards, par-4
Name: Chinese Fir
On Wednesday, I got to watch a little bit of the par-3 tournament on 3D television. It was pretty cool, really. You get these futuristic glasses that turn on and off and trade signals with the television. What was most interesting, and a bit surprising, about the 3D television is that it was not "come at you" 3D like in the movies. You don't duck away from golf balls. No, it was more like the 3D stretched backward into the TV—like watching golf in a big diorama. The thing that was amazing about it is that the depth is startling -- you can almost feel the hills, the elevation changes, the contours in the greens. This would be especially useful on the 14th hole, which on regular TV looks about as simple as simple can be. It is the only hole on the course without any bunkers, and there's no water,, and the tee shot is not overwhelming. But that green, as they say around here, is an elephant burial ground. Crazy hills. In 3D, it might look like Six Flags over Georgia. You will wonder how anyone putts a ball close to the hole.
530 yards, par-4
One of the pressures of being the hometown columnist at the Masters is that you can't miss the big story. You just can't. You prepare all year for that one week, and you have to get it right. You have to write what is on everybody's mind. Well, in 1993, everybody wrote the Chip Beck story ... everybody except me. You might remember the background of the story: Beck was trailing Bernhard Langer, and he came to the 15th, and on his second shot he laid up rather than going for the green, and he took quite a beating for that. But not from me. I didn't write one word about it. I wrote about Langer's crazy putting style or something. The reason I didn't write Beck was ... well, you might remember the background of the story, but do you remember the whole story? Truth was: Beck needed to hit it 236 yards into a breeze from a slightly awkward lie. And as he would tell me later, "I don't have that shot in my bag." Beck was down three shots and felt like if he birdied the hole he still had a chance. He wasn't going to throw away that chance on what he called "a stupid shot that would have ended up in the water." That was how I saw it too. I thought Beck did the right thing even though he did not birdie and finished four shots back. He played his game. A while later, I watched David Toms beat Phil Mickelson in the PGA Championship by laying up on the 72nd hole, a par-four, no less. I know people think that it takes guts to try the riskiest things, but I tend to think that more often it takes guts to not do the riskiest thing. Of course, I was in a pretty distinct minority that day—the "Beck should have gone for it" was clearly the consensus angle then, and for many people it still is. I missed it, and I am ready to concede that maybe they were right. But even all these years later, I still think Beck did the right thing.
170 yards, par 3
Probably my second-favorite hole. This is where, in 1986, Jack's son shouted "be right," and Jack, not bothering to even watch the ball flight, turned to him and said, "It is." This is where Jose Maria Olazabal made the most ridiculously hard three-foot putt imaginable—like putting down a slide into a wedding ring. And, of course, this is where Tiger Woods holed his remarkable up-the-slope-and-back-down-the-slope chip. The two things I remember most about that shot are: 1. That Tiger said he hit the ball toward a sliver of sunlight that had shined through the trees. That was his guiding light—like God was his caddy. 2. How surprised Tiger was when the ball went in. The high-five with caddy Steve Williams. The scream. Tiger gets emotional a lot, of course, but this was different because Tiger never seems surprised when his ball goes in. He always expects it.
440 yards, par 4
This is the hole with the Eisenhower Tree ... and the hole that cost Roberto De Vicenzo a chance at a playoff in 1968. De Vicenzo had birdied the hole, putting him in a tie for the lead with Bob Goalby. But De Vicenzo's playing partner, Tommy Aaron, had marked a par on his scorecard, and De Vicenzo did not catch the mistake before he signed his scorecard. By rule, par became his score, leaving De Vicenzo a shot behind Goalby. "What a stupid I am," De Vicenzo said at the time. Years later, I talked with De Vicenzo about it, and he still said that he was a stupid, even though, frankly, to a non-golfer, the rule seems pretty weak.
465 yards, par 4
So many memories here of course—the cheers for an aging Palmer and Nicklaus, Tiger's hug his father, the mini-leap of joy for Mickelson when he won in '04 and the putt for Mark O'Meara and so on and so on.
One of my favorite moments here, though, is not famous at all. It involved a golfer named David Frost. It was a Thursday, opening round, and he hit his approach way left and into the gallery. A guy saw it coming and dived out of the way. The ball hit his chair and bounced, super-ball like, into the CBS tower nearby. It rattled around up there for a second or two, then rolled out the back onto a walking path. It rolled down a hill and hit somebody's shoe, and then trickled down the hill some more while a security guard walked with it. Where it ended up, Frost did not have a shot and made bogey.
The lesson? Golf at Augusta can break your heart.