An excerpt from Fanatic: 10 Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die by Jim Gorant, published by Houghton Mifflin June 2007. Copyright Jim Gorant. For more information go to jimgorant.blogspot.com
I'm walking through a grotto of trees, filled with the smell of newly fallen pine needles, past a cluster of low green buildings that include a massive gift shop with an impressive switchbacking walkway that seems like something out of Disney World. Ahead, the darkness created by the overhanging branches is broken by an opening in the treeline where the sun bursts through, sending long shafts of yellow spreading across the ground. This light brings forth a rush of anticipation, because I know that the sun-drenched clearing is the golf course. I find myself walking up on my toes a bit and lifting my chin to get a glimpse. Finally, I clear the forest and I'm here. I'm on the golf course at Augusta National.
The thing that hits me from this spot along the first fairway are the greens. Not the things the players putt on, but the array of green shades. It's green on green. The dark shadowy green of a still pond, the depth of a Coke bottle, the brightness of a watermelon. Green on green on green.
Once I drink in this sea of greens, I notice that the course is more open than I imagined. From here, I can see across six or seven fairways. Sure, there are trees, the famous Georgia pines, but the groves are not as thick, and more strategically spread out than I pictured. Next come the hills. The two-dimensional space of TV flattens out the slopes that the holes climb up and around. It's steeper than I imagined.
It's an odd feeling to be here, staring out at everything I expected combined with so much I never could have dreamed of. I walk out to the rope along the fairway. The grass is incredibly short and cut so that it leans toward the hole. It's yet another shade of green, Granny Smith green, and shiny, so that it looks waxed. Forget about how fast the putting surfaces are, it's hard to fathom how fast these fairways must be. Or as one guy standing nearby says to his wife and buddy, "These are fairways? Look at these fairways! Murph, she doesn't know, would you explain to her what a fairway looks like?"
I head out across the course. I'm sensitive to the things one never sees on TV. The marshals, who open and close the ropes along the fairway so that no one crosses when they're not supposed to, wear white jump suits and yellow hardhats with green numbers that correspond to the fairway they guard. On the one hand it's a practical and reasonable outfit-safe, cool, organized-but there's something about it that's also so self-serious as to be laughable. I mean, they're glorified hall monitors, crossing guards protecting pedestrians not from oncoming cars but from golf balls.
I'm also sensitive to the history. To walk the course at Augusta National is to be confronted by a steady barrage of memories and images. As I make my way around the back of the first tee, I can see Snead and Nelson hitting all those ceremonial first shots. Heading down the hill brings me face to face with the ninth green, where Jack Nicklaus made birdie in 1986 to kick off a streak in which he completed the last ten holes in thirty-three strokes for a final-round sixty-five and a historic four-stroke come-from-behind victory. His sixth Green Jacket, won at the age of forty-six.
Then I come to seventeen, the long par four that bends back up the hill to set up the final hole. In the fairway stands the Eisenhower Tree, named after the former president and Augusta National member because he hit his ball into it so many times that for years he campaigned to have it cut down. Beyond seventeen lies the fifteenth, a treacherous par five where make-or-break moments are piled up like so many pine needles, starting with Gene Sarazen's double eagle in 1935 (he holed a four-wood from 235 yards), which propelled him into a playoff. He won the next day in a thirty-six-hole head-to-head showdown.
At last appears Amen Corner, holes eleven, twelve, and thirteen, a par four, par three, and par five that zigzag back and forth over the treacherous Rae's Creek. Here again the moments are overwhelming, popping up in my mind's eye like a highlight reel from The Golf Channel: Mize's chip-in; Couples on the sidehill; Strange hitting into the creek. The physicalnity of it is striking, too. TV never shows how close the twelfth tee is to the eleventh fairway. It never captures the banked curve of the thirteenth fairway.
I find a terrific spot where I can see the eleventh green, all of twelve, and all of thirteen. For most people, Augusta National exists solely as an image on a TV screen, so upon arriving at the actual place there is a sort of backward recognition. Look at the azaleas and the Hogan Bridge and listen to the water tumbling along Rae's Creek, and I can almost hear Pat Summerall's voice and the tinkling strains of classical music. Instead of the broadcast bringing the place to life, the place animates the broadcast.
I move on toward the sixteenth hole, a perfect place to hang out during a practice round. The short par three requires players to hit the ball over a large pond to a narrow, sloping green. During practice, the huge galleries that sit in the stands around the hole chant "Skip, skip, skip" as players walk off the tee. Depending on how rushed they are and how well their practice is going, maybe half of them drop a ball on the downslope in front of the tee box and hit a low burner that skips across the water and, every now and then, hops up onto the green. Success isn't really the point; players get a huge cheer just for trying.
If the words "carefree" and "raucous" can ever be used in the same sentence as "the Masters," then it's in reference to this spot. Little pockets of betting pop up. When a player stops to hit a skipper, you hear the bettors calling to each other "Wet," or "Dry," to indicate on which result they're placing their money. Betting or not, the people here run the range of types. There are straw boaters, yacht belts, and calico pants beside jeans and T-shirts beside golf chic. The woman next to me wears a white shirt, pink sweater vest, tan shorts, golf shoes, and visor. Does she believe there might be an open tee time for her later in the day?
When I arrive at the course on Thursday morning it's raining, which has a weird effect at Augusta, not so much for the players as for the patrons. Like everything else, the lords of Augusta have figured out a way to control the rain. They have a SubAir system under the greens, some fairways, and some crossings, which, without getting too technical, allows them to suck water out of the ground and blow air up through it, thus drying things up quickly and keeping the playing surfaces fast and hard. Alas, there is no such system in most of the areas where the galleries walk and stand.
Instead, the rich Georgia clay-now I know what Scarlett was talking about-turns into a sort of maroon slop that creates a slight sucking sound when I try to lift my foot, and it permanently stains my shoes the color of a rusty pipe. To combat those problems, the grounds crew is throwing down something akin to that stuff grade-school janitors use to clean up vomit. The result is that over large portions of the course lingers a horrible smell that combines something earthen with a chemical undercurrent. Like detergent poured over rotting leaves and left in a sun-baked aluminum shed.
Despite the rain, I've come early because I want to be here when play starts. Jack Nicklaus is teeing off at 10:11 A.M., for what he says will be his final Masters. I'm not usually the type for hero worship, but for some reason I can't yet explain, I want to witness this. I want to see Jack called out on the tee for his last Augusta appearance. I want to see him hit his opening drive down the first fairway and then wave goodbye.
I'm not alone in this either. When the rain stops and Jack's time comes, I'm among a throng heading for the first tee. At one point we all crowd together as we wait for play to clear so we can cross a fairway. I overhear an older man talking to a guy standing next to him. "Two hours ago I didn't even know I was gonna be here," the old-timer says. "My son sent me a plane ticket and said, 'Why don't you come down to Atlanta for the weekend and see your grandkids.' Then he picks me up at the airport and we start driving out I-85. I said, 'Where are we going?' And he hands me these passes for Augusta. I couldn't believe it."
"You must be a good son," the guy says, looking at the boy, who's probably in his mid-thirties, and stands beaming beside his father, who's silver-haired, well-tanned, and probably half a head shorter. Both of them have rough features that make it look like they work outdoors. "Well," the son responds, "he's a good dad." "If you were gonna take him someplace, you sure picked a great one," says another guy, who'd been listening.
"Oh, yeah," says the son. "This is it. Everyone should come here at least once. You should have to. It should be a federal law that everyone go to the Masters at least once."
Nick Faldo, Tom Lehman, and Peter Lonard are teeing off as I arrive at the first tee, which is ringed by a crowd stacked about four deep. At the back of the tee, an ancient green-jacketed member sits on a bench made out of a halved log. As the players prepare to hit, this creaking man stands and announces them in the sort of classic deep-Georgia accent that turns four-letter names into two-syllable words, so that, for example, Mike Weir becomes "Muh-ike Wi-ear."
Finally, it's time for Jack to tee off. There's a buzz in the air and, glancing back, I see that the gallery has swelled to twelve or fifteen deep. When Jay Haas and Shingo Katayama walk onto the tee, a guy near me jokes, "That's what they're wearing? I thought you had to wear a tuxedo to play in the Masters."
Then Jack appears and a roar goes up. He acknowledges it with a quick wave and a sheepish grin. The three players shake hands and mingle amiably for a few minutes. Jack tees his ball and quips something to the crowd. I can't hear what he says, but everyone laughs. He takes a few practice swings. The gallery goes quiet.