My memories of the 1997 Masters have nothing to do with Tiger Woods

March 22, 2017

The 1997 Masters will forever be remembered as a historic tournament, thanks to Tiger Woods’s 12-shot victory. But it’s significant to me for another reason: I played in that Masters as a 19-year-old amateur.

The previous summer I had played in the championship match of the U.S. Amateur at Pumpkin Ridge, outside Portland. It was a fairytale week, and I fell just short of my ultimate goal when Tiger summoned his now-legendary magic and beat me in sudden death for his third straight U.S. Am title. (Editor’s note: You can relive that match with the video playing on this page, or by clicking here.)

But that week produced more than runner-up honors: By advancing to the U.S. Amateur final, I knew I had clinched a spot in the ’97 Masters. I had seven months to think about it. When the invitation from Augusta National arrived in December, I got a kick out of the note at the bottom requesting me to RSVP. Um, let me check my schedule…

That first week in April, I drove straight to Augusta from a college event in Dalton, Ga. (the “Carpet Capital of the World”), about three and half hours west. I was in a beat-up gold Honda Civic hatchback. My sound system, with puny 12-inch subwoofers, was probably worth more than the car.

Mercifully it was dark when I pulled up to the gate. The guard let me pass, and I slowly rolled up Magnolia Lane, parked next to the clubhouse, and met an assistant pro named Doug Mauch who walked me up to the fabled Crow’s Nest. I had the place to myself. The other amateurs chose not to bunk there, and Tiger of course had turned pro.

The Crow’s Nest felt like a trip back in time. Simple but elegant, the space has big common area, and wooden partitions that separate the sleeping areas. I don’t remember if the TV picked up any channels, although I’m not sure I ever turned it on.

Here’s a confession: That first night, around 11 p.m., I snuck out. I quietly tiptoed down the steep staircase. At the base, just a few paces to the left, was the entrance to the champions’ locker room. It was unlocked, and I slipped in — I had to see if Jack Nicklaus had six jackets hanging in his cubbie. (He only had one.) The room was smaller than I expected, and there were only 28 lockers. Moonlight glimmered through a window. I never knew players shared lockers — Nicklaus’ name was inscribed on the same door as Horton Smith, who won the first and third Masters. Standing alone in the semi-darkness, I could almost feel the ghosts of past champions gathering around me.

I was also terrified of getting caught. After a few minutes, I crept back upstairs to my room. It was hard to sleep that night knowing what was ahead.

The next morning I rose early, registered and started to practice. I was on the chipping green when a security guard came over and said, “Is that your car by the side of the clubhouse? You’ve gotta get that thing outta here.” Pretty embarrassing. The guard moved it to another lot, then came back and said something else that surprised me: “You have to get your Cadillac.”

Yep, my courtesy car for the week. I have no idea if my loaner wheels broke an NCAA rule, but the statute of limitations has to be up by now, right? That ride looked pretty good at Augusta’s Taco Bell drive-thru.

I stayed in the Nest for two nights before moving to a rental house with my family. The clubhouse was sweet, but it was good to get away from the course — I was wearing myself out from all the practice right outside my door.

In the months leading up to Augusta, I had mailed letters to three players: Justin Leonard, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus, humbly asking each if he would play a practice round with me. Justin had spoken at an AGJA event I attended, and I met Norman once at a charity event. Jack was a shot in the dark, but why not try? All three accepted my invitation. I still have the letter from Jack.

I played with Jack on Tuesday; Warren Bladon, a fellow amateur, joined as our third. On the 9th hole, I hit my approach to the top tier of the green and had a downhill 30-footer for birdie. Jack said, “Play this thing six inches right-to-left.” I saw it breaking the other way, but didn’t question him. I played off his read, and of course the ball trickled down and dropped. I just shook my head and laughed. Jack gave me a thumbs up. It was a moment.

Bladon quit at the turn. (Who does that at Augusta?) So that left Jack and me alone for the back nine. It was late in the day and a truly magical experience. Walking up 18, I asked Jack about turning pro early. He told me how his dad was a pharmacist and had hoped Jack would follow in his footsteps. Instead, Jack played three years of college golf at Ohio State and turned pro. He said if I felt like I was ready, I should give it a shot. I ended up sticking at Florida for a fourth year, but I never forgot that chat.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Augusta grounds crew went to work rolling and mowing the greens. After playing the Par 3 Contest, I strolled over to the main putting green to work on my stroke. I dropped three balls and watched in amazement as they slowly rolled off the putting surface. I’d never seen anything like it. It was an intimidating preview of what was to come.

On Thursday I teed off at 9:20 a.m. with Fuzzy Zoeller. I made a nervy par on 1. The pin on the par-5 2nd was middle-left; I hit it middle-right and my ball rolled away from the hole, leaving 60 feet for birdie. When you have a 60-footer on a green that fast, there’s no frame of reference. I left the putt about 6 feet short and watched in shock as the ball made a 45-degree turn to the left and trundled to the front collar. I had 40 feet left for par. As I walked to my ball, Fuzzy turned and said, “Hey, partner, welcome to Augusta!” I later signed for a six-over-par 78.

Back then you played in twosomes and the entire field was re-paired on Friday. In round 2, I played with Bob Tway, a nice guy, but I didn’t have my best stuff. Before the event, I declined the opportunity to hire a local caddie, and I’ve never regretted it — my then-girlfriend, and now-wife, Kristi, was on my bag, just as she was at the U.S. Am the previous summer. The Masters is another wonderful memory we’ll always have.

That year the course was particularly firm and fast. Those conditions probably helped Tiger decimate the field. I don’t think I saw him once that week, even in a practice round. We were in different orbits. The Masters cut is usually around even par, but that year it was six over. I shot 79 on Friday and didn’t come close to playing the weekend.

But I’ve never had so much fun shooting a lousy score.

Scott is the head golf professional at Paramount Country Club in New City, N.Y. He and his wife, Kristi, have two children, J.C. 8, and Kaylie, 6.