AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was the best of times. It was the best of times.
There's really no other way to say it.
There’s a rhythm to every Masters week, and a light, loose opening day of practice serves as an idyllic lead-in to the main event. The 2016 edition of Masters Monday was one for the books: bright skies, cool breezes, completely cloudless. First-time patrons fired off cameras with abandon, frequently near the iconic first-fairway scoreboard. Many of those lucky neophytes scored their tickets through Augusta’s ticket lottery. Others strolled through AGNC’s iron gates via mysterious means.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” said Jeff Squires, a Cleveland native attending his first Masters. “It’s a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy. But I will say that, now that we’re here, there are no words to explain this.”
In one hand, Squires clutched a plastic shopping bag stuffed with Masters merchandise. With his free arm, he gestured toward the verdant fairways, unspoiled grass and pristine hills that were making their annual return to the spotlight.
It was a mellow afternoon, but it was not without a little action.
There was Fuzzy Zoeller having lunch and holding court under an umbrella on the clubhouse lawn. He was clad in his member green jacket and brilliant yellow polo, and he greeted friends and strangers alike with the same line: “Hey, how ya doin’?”
There was Masters rookie Emiliano Grillo alone on the putting green, slapping five-footers and taking frequent breaks to slap hands with his buddies on the rope line. Fun times for the whole crew.
There was Hideki Matsuyama and Danny Lee skipping balls across the pond on the par-3 16th hole, a practice-round tradition. They flubbed their first attempts before finding land on the mulligans, and the crowds rewarded them with a roar – I’m telling you, it was a roar -- proving once again that Masters fans are reliably sophisticated and also forgiving, especially on Mondays.
Savvy visitors also flocked to the scenes of two legendary Masters moments. Off the 10th hole fairway, crowds clomped through the trees to locate the spot where Bubba Watson ripped his physics-defying wedge shot that won him a jacket in 2012. There is no plaque in the pine straw, but Masters patrons know how to find it, especially those who had vested interest in the outcome.
“We made money on him on this shot – twelve hundreds bucks,” said Mary Anne Williams, a Baileys Harbor, Wisc., native who is apparently all square with the IRS. “When Bubba was down here, we thought it was over. Now, four years later, I plan to pick him to win again.”
“I’m a Bubba hater,” countered Lukas Willems, a friend of Mary Anne’s who was unable to dampen her spirit. “He hooked a nine-iron. Whoop-dee-doo.”
Bubba remains a polarizing figure, but one pro who remains almost unanimously admired is Phil Mickelson. In 2011, Phil found the trees right of the 13th fairway, then split the uprights with a 6-iron off the needles to propel him to his third green jacket. Ever wonder what Phil saw when he peered through those trees?
Officials are happy to help.
Each Monday-Wednesday of Masters week, gallery guards (Masters-speak for marshals) plant a tiny orange lawn flag in the turf to mark Mickelson’s spot, allowing fans to visualize exactly what Phil faced in that pressure-packed shot.
“People ask thousands of times a day,” said a guard on the scene. “All these years later, it hasn’t slowed down at all.”
Legend has it that when Phil returned to the 13th hole for his first practice round of 2012, he noticed the tiny flag, strolled over and plucked it out the ground. He then re-planted it about six inches away, stunning onlookers and stamping the spot for all time. “Then he tipped his hat to the crowd and moved along. He wasn’t going to try to hit that shot again,” the guard said with a laugh.
He’s right, of course -- there’s no need for Phil to try an encore, and certainly not on Monday. Today was bright and uninhibited and one to savor. On to tomorrow.