It just occurred to me that 20 years ago I went to Augusta National for the first time to cover the Masters for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Mark O’Meara won with a birdie putt on the 18th hole, but that wasn’t my only memory from the 1998 Masters.
I mainly remember how excited I was when I got off my flight in Atlanta and hopped in my rental car for the two-hour drive to Augusta. It was getting late in the day, but I drove past my hotel and went directly to Augusta National. I did not want to wait until the next morning to see the course, particularly the back nine.
Back then, they televised only the last nine holes, so everyone knew those holes like they knew the holes at their favorite course. The sun had begun to set by the time I arrived, but I went to the 10th tee and decided to walk the back nine while the maintenance crew worked furiously to prepare for the first round the next day.
The first thing I noticed was how severely downhill No. 10 was, much more than you notice on TV. At No. 12, I walked across the Hogan Bridge that spans Rae’s Creek and took in the azaleas behind the green at one of the most famous par-3s in the world.
Not to get too sappy about it, but it was just flat-out cool to see this hole more than any other hole, and at one point in the four visits I made to Augusta, I spent the whole day in the bleachers that allowed you to watch golfers on the 11th green, 12th hole and 13th tee.
It’s hard to believe that golfers of this caliber would have such a difficult time with a 150-yard hole like the 12th, but they do, and always will. It’s because of the wind. The day I was there watching, it looked like it was blowing one way on the 11th green and another way as golfers threw up blades of grass trying to figure out which iron to use.
By the time I finished walking the back nine, the headlights were on the maintenance carts, and I could barely see the fairway as I headed up toward the 18th green.
If anyone ever asks what my favorite assignment has been in my 35-plus years as a sportswriter, I always say the Little League World Series in 2004 when Michael Conforto was the only 11 year old on a Redmond North team that competed in Williamsport, Penn. I played Little League baseball in Redmond way back when Bear Creek Village used to be Buckley Field in the 1960s.
That was every kid’s dream to play in the Little League World Series, and it was fun to see a team from my hometown make it. I still have a Redmond North T-shirt and continue to follow Conforto’s career – he hit a home run Thursday for the Mets, and not surprisingly, he was a heck of a center fielder for that Redmond North team.
But the Masters is a close second to that. I know it can seem stuffy from afar with all of those conservative green-jacketed guys roaming the place and enforcing all of their rules. But I always had a great time there.
On Saturday there is likely to be a rain delay in this year’s Masters, and I always enjoyed rain delays because it gave me a chance to have free beers with other writers in the media center. And following rain delays, it was much easier to see the golfers because a lot of the wet patrons went home and weren’t there when play resumed.
One year when I was there I sat in the front row for a Tiger Woods press conference. I was nervous as heck because I knew I was going to try to ask him a question about his dogs. When the green-jacket guy pointed to me to ask my question, I remember how my heart was racing and palms were sweating. What I was about to ask would be greeted with scorn by golf scribes who were there to find out about Tiger’s golf game, not about his border collie and some other kind of dog he had, I forget exactly what.
I spit something out about his dogs, asked him what they were like, what he fed them, what he liked about them, and he smiled and answered the questions, appearing to like the break from the golf stuff. I wrote a column about it, and it’s somewhere on the Internet.
During the tournament, they have a media lottery, and if you’re lucky enough, you get a chance to play the course if your name is drawn. Mine was drawn twice, and both times I played on the Monday morning after the Masters ended.
They kept the pin placements exactly where they were on Sunday so you’d get an idea of what the professionals faced in the final round. They had us play from the member tees, and that was well and good, but I wanted to play from the back tees where the pros played. Not because I’m good enough to do it – I’m a 12-handicapper – I just wanted to see what it was like for them.
The guys in my group the first time I played the course didn’t want to do it, so I went back there by myself, to eight or nine of those tees, and joined my group on the others at member tees. I can’t remember what I shot in either round, somewhere in the high 80s, maybe the low 90s – I wasn’t terrible, wasn’t great, something in between. I do remember almost getting a hole in one at 16, the ball ending up a foot from the hole, but other than that, nothing of note, but no balls in the water either, so I had that on Sergio Garcia anyway.
Those memories will run through my mind while I’m watching this weekend, getting caught up in the Masters all over again.