By Michael Bamberger
Friday, April 10, 2009

You got a late start this year, and didn't make it to Augusta until Thursday. For the past few years, during Masters week, US Air has had two nonstop flights a day from Philadelphia to Augusta. Your one-way ticket cost $109 and the plane was not filled. Most years the price is about three times that and every last seat is taken, many of them occupied by middle-aged men in logoed sweater vests reading Dave Pelz in GOLF Magazine on how to play chip shots off tight lies. You read that, and suddenly your mind is drifting: it's Sunday afternoon, and you're paired with Ernie, and you've knocked it over the green in two on 15, and how are you going to get this next one to stop? For a lot of us, the Augusta National fantasy goes deep.

\n You watched the Wednesday activity from home. Attending the Masters each year is one of the great perks of your life, but just seeing the Par-3 Tournament on TV you're reminded how you got hooked into the Masters in the first place. The pictures suck you right in. Really, did you intend on spending the afternoon watching Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus stroll the little course? But you watched one shot and couldn't turn away. It's like those potato sticks, or kosher-for-Passover macaroons, or something. When Jack had a putt to go three under, Andy North, doing the TV commentary, said something like, "Jack's won everything else in golf, but he's never won this par-3 event, and I guarantee you if he gets to three under he'll be grinding the rest of the way trying to win this thing." Somebody else said, "Barbara needs more crystal." A wise guy would have said, "Like Barbara needs more crystal." But this is the Masters, bastion of civility, at least on the outside. \n

\nGreg Norman will tell you, however, that all bets are off on Sunday, "when you can smell the player's bad breath on your neck." Then it's every man for himself, within the boundaries of the code. The buildup to that moment is what makes the whole week.\n

\n On Wednesday, everywhere except Augusta, Ga., it was gray and windy and cold. At the tournament, everybody was wearing short-sleeved shirts and sunglasses, and the water sparkled. When Tim Clark made an ace, perfection itself, one of the green-coated members gave him a high five.\n

And that's where your head is when you arrive at the Augusta airport on Thursday. You get off the plane and walk across the tarmac (real tarmac, like in the Beatles photographs, not a jetway), and you enter the terminal and your head is swimming: the course, the tournament, the players. Frank Chirkinian, the old CBS producer, told you something like this years ago: the Masters is a play in three acts. Thursday and Friday are Act I, Saturday is Act II, Sunday is Act III. The course is the stage — find one that's more beautiful — and the players are the actors. You have your leads (Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tiger Woods) and your supporting players (Ed Sneed, Chris DiMarco, Trevor Immelman) and you need them all. The story is always and never the same. Maybe this is the year you get paired with Ernie. It's the Masters, the opening acts are underway and the first weekend of the new spring is about to arrive.

\n And so, most happily, you head to the baggage carousel, past an Augusta Chamber of Commerce display that has a statue of some guy you've never heard of and lush pictures from the course. You could identify the hole, no problem, if you weren't so eager to get your bags—one piece of luggage, one dead-man-walking golf bag, and get to the course.

\n And then, as you're heading to the Avis lot, you come across an eightsome, mostly men but not completely. They are not wearing soft spikes and Nike windshirts but tan boots and government-issue camouflage. There's an Army base in Augusta, Fort Gordon, and you guess that's where they're from. It was Fort Gordon soldiers taking a little R & R, a half-century ago, that were the first enlistees in Arnie's Army.\n

\n You say to the oldest among them, a white-haired man with stainless-steel glasses, "Are you shipping out or coming home?"\n

He says, "We're shipping out."

\n "Where are you going?"\n

\n "Iraq."\n

\n He is Brian Punty, a staff sergeant from western Colorado. His platoon is trained in every weapon you could name, but his hope is that none of his people will ever have to open fire, or return it. They will shoot, of course, if they have to. It's an MI group, that eightsome assembled at the Augusta airport — military intelligence. Their job is to help the Iraqi army do its job by interpreting and translating insurgent communication. Their work will save lives. Punty will be in Iraq for a year, while his wife and three of their four children remain at home in Colorado. The fourth, a son, is also in the service and will be in Iraq as well.

\n The sergeant is a Tiger Woods fan. He knows that Tiger's father, Earl, was a Green Beret. He sees in Tiger the influences of the U.S. Army: "His commitment to fitness; his use of strategy, the way he plots himself around the course; the way he's so cool under pressure."\n

\n Punty knows that many of the people in the airport are on their way to Augusta National to do nothing more strenuous than watch a golf tournament, and that what passes for "battle" on the course is, of course, nothing like it.\n

\n "It's an interesting juxtaposition," he says. "We feel like we're doing the most important work our country can ask of us, and some of us will give up our lives to do it, but we all know that life goes on, and people should enjoy the things they enjoy doing."\n

\n He waves his arm through the airport and says, "The fact that you have all these people here on their way to the Masters tells me that things are well in the world, and that's what we're working for."\n

\n He takes out a notebook to write something down. At Augusta, the theme for everything is green. This year, the crosswalk lines on the fairways are no longer white, they're green. Green on green. The pages in Punty's notebook are the color of sand. It's an Army-issue, camouflage notebook. In his world, for right now, everything's brown. But on Sunday night, at the conclusion of Act III, Punty, wherever he is, will find out, by e-mail or cellphone or maybe just by watching TV, which new champ is wearing the winner's green coat.\n

It's springtime in Augusta, on TV and on campus, and the message from Sergeant Punty comes to you in a single word: enjoy.

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