AUGUSTA, Ga. — This could be — and heck, on this sun-drenched afternoon, let's take a hit of warm Georgia air and say that it will be — a Masters for the ages. For those who haven't been following earlier, a few reasons for optimism: Tiger's here and he's healthy. Phil recently won an event. So did Rory. Bubba won two of them. Day, Rahm, JT: also winners. But on Masters Monday, the star of the show wasn't wearing a logoed hat and polo — it was the course itself. Same as it ever was.
This Masters opened for business this morning with a light breeze and a captivated crowd. Practice rounds are flooded with newbie Masters fans who scored tickets in a lottery held last summer, and this is their moment to bask in Augusta in full glory, starting with the turf below their sneakers.
"It almost feels fake. It's like carpet," said 26-year-old Sam Stark, a college golf coach in West Virginia and Masters first-timer. "My dad is a course superintendent, and I can't even imagine how much time goes into this."
"It's just surreal. How do they get it so green? Do they spray it?" asked an awestruck Tom Sottek of Nashville, who brought along his brother, Greg, daughter Tyler and dad, 83-year-old Neo. "And the crowd is almost subdued, like they're walking on hallowed ground."
The crowds will heat up as the week rolls along, but in the meantime the Sotteks are living a golf fairytale, which included a chance encounter with Ben Crenshaw Sunday night while dining at Luigi's, a popular Italian joint in town. "I told him I saw him play in 1978!" gushed Greg. And yes, eating pasta in the general vicinity of a two-time green-jacket winner only happens during Masters week.
And what about the Drive, Chip and Putt contest, which just wrapped up its fifth edition? There was Kate Nakaoka of Mililani, Hawaii, one day after competing in the 10-11 year-old division, strolling the grounds with her parents and little sister. Kate received tickets for the fam for her participation in Sunday's contest, and even though she didn't play as well as she hoped — "It was scary and there were a ton of people watching," she said — one day later it was all good. "Her coach told her to look for weeds," joked her dad, Brent.
Not far from the 1st-hole scoreboard, where picture-taking patrons congregate all day long for that perfect Christmas card shot, a new, spectacular merchandise center is making its debut this week. Lines were too long for GOLF.com to launch its own investigation, but early reports are encouraging.
"Last time the lines were a lot longer and it was a little tight," said Chris Drake, a Phoenix resident attending his second Masters. "The logistics now are much better, and five years ago the most expensive shirt was $85. Now it's $120. Still reasonable."
Prices have evolved, but the prime areas on the course have remained the same. On Monday morning fans hit all the hot spots: Amen Corner. The putting green. The opening tee. The 13th. And the grandstands on 16, where pros skip shots across the pond. Here's Si Woo Kim's attempt today.
Another popular spot lies deep in the pines off the fairway at No. 10. That's where informed patrons stride to the area where Bubba Watson hooked a gap wedge through the trees and onto the green to set up his dramatic playoff win in 2012. "I think it's just absurd to size this up, said Joe Tamagni, of Orange, Conn., while standing on the spot, which has no marker and six years later still doesn't need one. "I was a single-digit handicap for a while, and there's not a snowball's chance in hell I could hit a shot like this, under the kind of pressure he was under."
But there was no pressure on Monday, as players took casual spins around the course as singles, pairs or threesomes.
Late in the morning, Rory McIlroy arrived at the 12th tee with with Matt Parziale, the Massachusetts firefighter who earned his spot by winning the Mid-Am last fall, and Wes Bryan, the former trick-shot artist turned-Tour pro. Rors took a couple quick practice swings and launched at shot that landed on the green and settled a few feet from the pin. Then he dropped a ball and aimed another at the right side of the green, where the pin will be placed on Sunday. That one missed the green but again, it's all good.
On his way off the box, McIlroy made eye contact with a young fan, 7-year-old William Roeser, a Georgia native, said hi, and flipped him an extra ball. William confirmed that Rory is his favorite golfer, and why not? You can buy many things in that new merch center, but a McIlroy original ball isn't on the shelf. As for Rory, he'll step into the spotlight later this week. For now, Augusta National reigns supreme.