AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Two double bogeys, five bogeys, never even sniffed a birdie. It was the best 81 of Randal Lewis' life.
“Dream come true,'' said Lewis, who at 54 is believed to be the oldest Masters rookie ever. “There's nothing that can be bad about a sunny day at Augusta and the first round of the Masters.''
A financial adviser from Alma, Mich., in real life, Lewis is living every duffer's dream this week. Entitled to a spot at Augusta National thanks to his title at the U.S. Mid-Amateur last fall, he played a practice round with Tom Watson, won a crystal pitcher in the Par 3 contest and, in the biggest treat of all, teed it up for real Thursday.
That he was in the running for worst score of the day hardly mattered. Nor did the fact that his Masters career is almost certain to be over by the weekend.
“I do have a great appreciation for it,'' Lewis said. “As I'm walking around here, I'm just trying to take in the scenery and all the sights of the crowds and just the beauty of the golf course. It's incredibly special. I'm very lucky to be able to experience something like this.''
Especially because he figured he'd lost his chance more than a decade ago.
Lewis came to golf late, not taking up the game until he was 16. As soon as he did, however, he was hooked, going from shooting 76 for nine holes to 75 for 18 in his first season. He played golf at Central Michigan, where he met his wife, Melanie, also a golfer.
He turned pro for about a month after graduation, then decided he'd rather play golf for enjoyment rather than his livelihood. He reclaimed his amateur status, and began climbing the ranks in the business world. But golf remained a big part of his life; when he and Melanie decided to name their second son Nick, Lewis suggested they spell it Nicklaus.
“We kind of subjected him to a life of a misspelled first name, but we thought that would be pretty cool,'' Lewis said. “Both my wife and I love the game, and Jack was always my hero.''
His son met his namesake Thursday, tracking Nicklaus down after the ceremonial tee shot and showing the Golden Bear his name badge.
“I said, `Mr. Nicklaus, I've got the two best names, yours and my dad's,''' the 19-year-old said. “He chuckled a little bit. It was pretty funny, pretty cool.''
As his family grew and his career flourished, Lewis continued playing tournament golf. He won his first Michigan Amateur title in 1992 and, four years later, reached the final at the Mid-Amateur, reserved for players 25 and older.
He lost 3 and 2 to John “Spider'' Miller.
“The first three years were pretty painful, and I took it the wrong way. I took it as a failure,'' Lewis said. “You get to a national championship final, you should be proud of yourself. Not, `Why couldn't you finish the deal?' So it hurt.''
He eventually came to grips with the loss, as well as probably never getting to play Augusta National.
Then, last summer, he reached the finals of the Mid-Amateur again. The match ended 3 and 2 but, this time, he was the winner. He was the oldest Mid-Amateur champion by five years, more than 20 years older than the average competitor.
“My ultimate goal in the game was to win a USGA championship,'' Lewis said. “Once I won the Mid-Am, that was the greatest goal that I had. This was just an unbelievable perq that went with it.''
Lewis has taken full advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
After his invitation arrived around Christmas, he sent Watson a letter – not an email- asking if they could play a practice round together. When Lewis was here in March, he ran into Nicklaus – the original, not his son – and introduced himself after a little prodding from the guys he was playing with.
“What a thrill for a guy. Never expected to play in the Masters, wins the Mid-Amateur Championship and here he is,'' Nicklaus said. “It's wonderful that the amateurs have the opportunity to play and be here.''
Lewis is not a particularly long hitter, and using hybrids off the tees didn't leave him many opportunities for birdies. But his score matters little compared with an unforgettable experience.
Even if Lewis isn't playing, he and his family plan to stick around Augusta National for the weekend. Then it's back to Michigan with “enough Masters gear to last me 10 years,'' and memories to last a lifetime.
“I kind of joked with my wife, they're probably going to have to have security guards escort me out of here,'' Lewis said. “It's just a place that you just want to be here as much as you possibly can.''
Follow Nancy Armour at www.twitter.com/nrarmour