Masters 2015: The Annual Dinner in Augusta That Warms an Irish Heart

April 8, 2015

Magnolia Lane. Amen Corner. Button accordion, fiddle and penny whistle.

I’m sorry, did I get the question wrong? Those are the first things that come to mind when I think about the Masters. Magnolia Lane because the guards won’t let me past the gate that week. Amen Corner because, given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I played it in one-under double-bogey. The musical instruments because nothing says Masters week like a toe-tapping rendition of Blarney Pilgrim or Maid Behind the Bar performed in a crowded hallway by an octogenarian squeeze-box virtuoso, a girl fiddler and a lusty bodhrán thumper.

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Granted, the music most people associate with the Masters is that tinkly piano-guitar soporific that Dave Loggins penned for CBS. But “most people” aren’t lucky enough to score an invitation to Thursday night’s Meet the Irish reception. I’ve been going for years, and not just to fill up on sushi, chicken wings and cocktail shrimp. It’s a great opportunity to mingle and swap Irish golf stories with friends and colleagues I haven’t seen since late afternoon in the Masters press building.

To meet the Irish, one parks on the street near the entrance to Georgia Regents University and strolls under period street lamps and ancient oaks to a 19th-century manse with four chimneys and a green metal roof. There’s always an obliging bartender at the south end of the porch, but if you enter from the rear of the house, there’s an equally obliging bartender in the breakfast nook. The other ground-floor rooms, stripped of non-essential furniture, provide mingling space for gentlemen and ladies of various ages, all standing, all holding plastic plates, all waxing nostalgic over never-to-be-forgotten rounds on the great links courses of Ireland.

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First-timers invariably ask: “Why sushi? Why not bacon and cabbage, coddle or gur cake?” I’m not the one to ask, but I suspect Tourism Ireland offers sushi to discourage fickle sportswriters from defecting to a competing party hosted by TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. In any event, I’ve spent enough time across the pond to know that you can get practically anything in an Irish dining room. The gourmet dinner menu at my beloved Carne Golf Links offers fresh-caught wild Atlantic salmon, Irish spring lamb, and a poulet à la bretonne that would make a Frenchman’s legs buckle. (I always start with the seafood chowder.)

But no one goes to Meet the Irish to talk about food or natter on about the just-completed first round at Augusta National. We go to gush about gorgeous Royal County Down, host of the Irish Open, and to rave about ravishing Royal Portrush, site of the 1951 Open Championship and slated to host the Open again as early as 2019. Given an opening, I’ll enthusiastically effuse about Portmarnock Golf Club, site of the 1991 Walker Cup, and Pat Ruddy’s European Club in Wicklow, which an enthralled Johnny Miller described as “the first links I have seen with 10 par 5s.”

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There is no program, but halfway to midnight someone with a genuine Irish accent will stand on the third tread of the hall stairway and deliver the softest of sales pitches. It’s nothing more than a heartfelt thanks for the writers’ and broadcasters’ past support, an open invitation to play any of the island’s beguiling courses, and a reminder to pick up a brochure on the way out. Not that anybody’s in a hurry to leave.

As I said, I’ve been going for years, telling everyone that “the Masters doesn’t really begin until the Irish dinner on Thursday.” The truth is, I feel somewhat guilty. I’ve accepted Tourism Ireland’s warm hospitality without ever reciprocating — within the bounds of journalistic ethics — in a meaningful way.

Oh well, I’ll think of something. In the meantime, look for me down in Amen Corner with Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington or Graeme McDowell. You won’t hear it, but I’ll be humming a reel or a hornpipe. That’s my Masters tradition unlike any other other.

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