AUGUSTA, Ga. – Rory McIlroy replaced his regular caddie for the Par-3 Contest here with Niall Horan, one of the stars of boy band One Direction, and I think I speak for everybody when I say: !!!!!!
Niall has 22 million Twitter followers, all of whom appeared to be standing on a small patch of grass at Augusta National Wednesday. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you, but Niall is VERY important to a lot of people – more now than ever before, since our beloved 1D is reeling from the recent departure of member Zane Malik.
That’s what I meant. Look, I’m not in the right demographic to appreciate this, since I recently turned 31 nine years ago. But if you know a 13-year-old girl, you can understand the reaction of one Isabella Miller of Pleasant Grove, Utah, who rushed to the course with her father to place chairs in exactly the right spot off the sixth green so she could get a picture with Niall. It was 9 a.m. McIlroy’s tee time was a mere six hours away.
Just after 3 p.m., Rory teed off, Niall walked down the first hole, and Isabella stood in the 88-degree weather and nearly melted. Her problem was not the heat. It was the hot.
“Holy crap!” she mouthed to her father, David. “I’ve never been this close to him!”
She said she has been waiting for this moment for four years, yet it came suddenly. The Millers were just planning to watch golf, along with Isabella’s mother Tammy and her brother Alex, who was celebrating his 18th birthday, but that’s not important. What matters here is Niall.
It was a happy accident that they were here at all. The Millers attended a Monday practice round last year, but didn’t get to see much because of a rainstorm. Augusta National offered them four tickets to a practice round this year. They chose Wednesday. Tuesday night, David found out that Niall would be caddying for Rory. Judging from Isabella’s reaction, there has not been a rainstorm with such large ramifications since Noah built his ark. David described “pandemonium” as she called everybody she knew.
Niall and McIlroy walked to the first green. Isabella thought of her chair by the sixth green.
“I need to go back before I die,” she said.
She went back. Niall went forward.
Would fate bring them together again?
If Isabella’s excitement seems a bit over the top, you should know she was not the only one at Augusta National who had an emotional day. Earlier, club chairman Billy “William Porter Payne” Payne held his State of the Masters press conference, during which he confirmed that the State of the Masters is in fact Georgia, and then proudly presented what he described as “a beautiful cross-section of the Eisenhower Tree.”
You may remember that the famous Eisenhower Tree was removed from the 17th hole after a storm last year, and also that it was a tree.
Payne said the tree went through a process “to mitigate against normal shrinking, cracking and twisting,” and it won’t be long before some of his fellow members volunteer for the same procedure. Payne also said, and this is a direct quote:
“While we know the Eisenhower Tree is irreplaceable in terms of its historical significance, I am pleased to announce that we have been successful, so far, in preserving this famous tree’s genetics.”
Wow. First the Apple Watch, now this. The club has kept grass and a seedling from the Eisenhower Tree. Payne said – this is also a direct quote – “not surprisingly, they have already become some of our most loved and cherished possessions here at Augusta National.” I agree: That is not surprising.
Also not surprising: a 13-year-old girl trying to get closer to her favorite musician. When McIlroy finished on the sixth green, Isabella jumped the rope, which is against the rules at Augusta National, and took off running, which is definitely against the rules. Evidently the club’s bylaws contain a little-known exception for 13-year-old fans of One Direction, because nobody stopped her.
She tried to get a picture with Niall, and failed. But he did sign his autograph! And that was nice …
… but Isabella really wanted that picture. And since she had gotten so close, and gotten away with breaking two rules in the process, it seemed attainable.
“They can ban me,” she said. “I’m getting this picture.”
Niall was not the only celebrity on the Par 3 course. Golfers who walked from the fifth green to the sixth tee received a hug and/or kiss from Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, who selflessly served our country on the College Football Playoff selection committee. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Ben Crenshaw, who have combined to win 11 Masters, played in a threesome together, and Nicklaus aced the fourth hole, and that was pretty cool, but how many aces has Nicklaus had in his life? Like, a million? Back to Niall.
One tricky thing about golf courses, even a Par 3 course: They are big. You can’t always tell where the athletes will go. Isabella decided to wait on one side of a path, against a fence, while I joined the media off the ninth green. Niall met with reporters briefly. I pointed out Isabella and said she was hoping for a photo.
Niall walked onto the path and … got into a golf cart. I was not surprised by what I saw next: Isabella, bursting into tears. Her father put his arm around her. She cried into his shirt.
“I’m never coming back here!” she said.
I felt awful for her. Everybody there did. If you’ve ever been a kid with an idol, you can understand.
I wanted to run over and tell her that I was terribly sorry, but it would be OK, and perhaps it would cheer her up to know that Augusta National has been successful, so far, in preserving the Eisenhower Tree’s genetics.
But before I could get over there, a gentleman walked up to her.
“I’m Niall’s agent,” he said. “Nobody should leave the Masters never wanting to come back.”
He wrote down her home address. He said Niall would send her something. If you are reading this and happen to be a mail-delivery person in Pleasant Grove, Utah: Please hurry.