I have always been a fan of the Bucket List.
I don’t look at it as a check box to the grave. Instead I view it as a macro view of what else is important in life behind family, faith and God. That usually means travel, exotic locations, sites of historical meaning, experiences, and, of course, memories that could very well end up in your eulogy.
It’s taken some time, but I’ve been extremely fortunate and lucky to cross off a few biggies from my list.
Tour the Vatican and marvel at the Sistine chapel. Walk down the Avenue des Champ-Elysees at night with the Arc De Triomphe in full view and see Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Scuba one of the world’s top dive sites: the Blue Hole at Belize. Add in four or five bull sharks for good measure. Be there for a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl victory; not just be alive, but in the stadium in person.
High on my list was the Masters.
I’ve been staring it down pretty hard the past 20 years, not knowing if I could or would ever pull the trigger. I’ve been watching the world’s greatest golf championship in earnest probably since 1975, when Jack Nicklaus won his third green jacket.
Even though at that time no one in the family, including me, had ever picked up a golf club, I was mesmerized watching the golfers against the lush, green backdrop of Augusta National, and listening to the hushed tones of Pat Summerall and Vin Scully on CBS’ weekend network coverage.
Through the years, as the Bucket List got juggled around a bit, it seemed the Masters was getting further and further away from becoming a reality. I had talked to guys who had gone either on practice days or during competition, and I hung on their every word.
The allure and the annual tug of Augusta National was still strong, but life has a way of putting up road blocks — real or imagined.
I wrote a column for this magazine a number of years ago detailing my experience of finally getting to the Masters only to reveal at the end of the piece it was a dream sequence, much like similar sequences in the old TV show Dallas.
Bobby wasn’t dead and I wasn’t at the Masters.
Even then, it seemed I could only pretend.
Fast forward to Easter Sunday 2018. My youngest son, Carter, dragged me out of bed pretty early because he had a date with the Easter Bunny and an overflowing basket of goodies. I shuffled into the kitchen only to be challenged by my wife Melanie into a treasure hunt of sorts for my own set of colored eggs.
I found the seven hidden eggs with much needed help from Carter and my oldest son Zachary. Once all seven were gathered and opened (plastic eggs easily split apart), I found they contained various letters. The last golden egg directed me to unscramble the letters.
At 8 o’clock in the morning, this was no easy task, but somehow I was able to spell out the word “masters.” Smiling and proud I got this far, my first thought was I would be the master for the day and order up a special Easter lunch to my liking.
Before I could jot down my menu items, Melanie handed me a Fed Ex envelope that held a 2018 Masters Tournament program. My first thought now was … “wow, very cool, she got me a Masters program so I can follow along while watching it on TV next weekend.”
As you can tell, I’m not the brightest or most quick-minded this early on a Sunday morning.
She had to get me on the right track to finally open the program; to my amazement, out popped two Masters tickets. It was like having two winning lottery tickets right before my eyes!
You can bet I was fully awake then. I turned to Melanie, who was smiling and shaking her head yes.
I realized a Bucket List dream was a reality and I was speechless. And in my case, that’s a nearly impossible thing to be.
After some hugs and kisses, she explained in spy-like detail how this two-year mission came together this Easter Sunday — from working with a ticket broker for the Wednesday practice session and famous Par 3 tournament, to the airline, car rental, and accommodations with good friends who recently moved back to Augusta, Ga.
Melanie swore a posse of friends to super, double, international, MI-6, CIA secrecy after everything fell into place. She worked the plan, back rooms and secret communications in a way that would make Bond and Bourne proud.
In case you don’t already know, Masters tickets are some of the most expensive and difficult to secure in all of sports. Passes to the actual tournament have been in families’ possession since the first Masters in 1934. These prized tickets are passed down through the generations and awarded in wills after death.
If you own or acquire Masters tickets, you are prohibited from selling them. If you do sell them, and Augusta National discovers this, you will be barred from ever securing tickets from the tournament again.
Gaining entry into Augusta National became a bit easier and closer to possible with the advent of ticket services and brokers who legally secure Masters tickets from Augusta National for the secondary market, which makes it possible for fans like me to finally have a chance to go. For a price, of course.
A few media reports had tickets to practice rounds and tournament days doubling in price or going even higher this year because of the return of Tiger Woods, who was seeking a fifth Masters title.
My goals were simple, focused and honed after 30-plus years of Masters by TV only: see as much of the famed Augusta course as possible; see as many top players as possible; walk and soak in the holes that comprise Amen’s Corner and the back nine; walk the 18th hole and look up through that narrow chute that forms the first 200 yards from the tee box; watch the Par 3 Tournament from a mound between the No. 8 and 9 holes; see icons Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player swing the club just once; watch the players from close quarters on the driving range and practice putting green; grab an autograph or two if possible, but don’t beg like a drooling idiot; and refrain from breaking my credit card in the new gift shop.
But before any of that could happen, I had to wrap my brain around it, clear my eyes and choke down a few gulps of the awe-struck magnitude of finally having my feet inside of Augusta National and being at the Masters.
This place — from the simple, Southern elegance of the Clubhouse, Butlers Cabin and all the connected buildings, to Magnolia Lane and acres and acres of the perfectly manicured grounds that would have you believe you were in God’s Garden; Augusta National engulfs you with its immense beauty, respected traditions that personify a bygone civility, an honorable code of conduct, legendary stories of past champions, business tycoons and presidents, American wealth and exclusivity and a welcoming politeness that is truly sincere once those gates are open for Masters week.
If all that doesn’t have you in a state of reverential awe, then surely being able to buy that iconic pimento cheese sandwich and a Coke for 3 bucks will.
Once I got my worshipful wonder and emotions under control (yes, this was a very emotional experience), we were ready to go … shopping.
I succumbed to Melanie’s wishes to visit the Masters gift shop first, right off the bat. But this is no ordinary shopping experience. The new Golf Shop is twice the size of its predecessor, with 64 cash registers. There were 125 different styles of hats; an equal or greater number of polo shirts; an array of sweaters, vests, bags, mugs, books and belts. Simply every imaginable item that could logically wear the Masters logo was under this roof.
The Disney World-like line took 45 minutes to get in. We quickly perused every nook and cranny in an hour or so to finish up with two large bags.
It was Black Friday times 10 — but for good reason. You see, Masters merchandise can only be purchased at this Golf Shop at Augusta National during tournament week. No other place, at no other time. Not even on Amazon or Alibaba. Here alone can one buy the most exclusive and elusive wearables and golf gear in the world.
By the way, we didn’t have to lug around those shopping bags the entire day. Next to the golf shop, Augusta National offers a place to check the bags for free and pick them up at the end of the day. Or any order over $200 can be shipped home for free.
This is as good a time as any to say for the record that organizers of the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, NASCAR, Olympics, World Cup soccer or UFC, WWE, NCAA and any other alphabet sports entity could learn a thing or two from the Masters about how to treat fans and host a mega-sporting event.
These guys running around with green jackets (oh, sorry, walking around; running is prohibited at Augusta National) may look a bit stuffy and snooty, but appearances are deceiving. Augusta National’s co-founder Bobby Jones wrote a Masters message in 1967 that said “in golf, customs of etiquette and decorum are just as important as rules governing play.”
Mr. Jones obviously instilled that etiquette in anyone affiliated with organizing and operating the tournament. From Augusta’s chairman, to ticket takers and concession personnel, they all greet you with a kind hello and welcome and ooze Southern hospitality. That’s why people who enter the Masters are called not fans, but patrons.
Our first photo op on the course itself was at the giant hand-operated scoreboard with the international flags waving at the top.
Here’s an Augusta National rule: patrons can only use non-cell phone cameras and only during the practice days. No other camera, electronic device or cell phone is allowed onto Augusta National during competitive rounds. So, if you want photographic proof of your Masters experience, then plan on making it to those early week practice days.
The first hole where we saw a group coming through was the last — No. 18. We got lucky, as we watched defending champ Sergio Garcia.
I had my Masters commemorative pin flag with me in case of autographs and positioned myself behind some cute kids in hopes Garcia would stop and sign. No luck though, as Sergio explained to us that he could only sign autographs on the other side of the course near the practice range.
With little delay, we made our way toward Amen’s Corner: holes 11, 12 and 13.
For many years with very limited national TV coverage (Augusta National’s choice in their contract with CBS), the back nine holes were the only ones you saw and recognized.
The devilish 155-yard Par 3 Golden Bell No. 12 gets a lot of attention for its signature look and how it’s decided many a Masters. But my favorite has always been No. 13.
It’s called “Azalea,” and for good reason. It’s estimated that close to 1,600 azaleas line the 510-yard Par 5 from tee box and green. I’m a sucker for a good dog-leg hole, and this beauty has a hard turn to the left at around 290 yards.
I dragged Melanie through the trees along the right side of the fairway to point out as nearly as I could the exact spot where Phil Mickleson hit that iron shot off the pine straw between three trees — over 200 yards out to within 12 feet of the pin. I got a little emotional there, which had the wife rolling her eyes. But it was one of the most amazing golf shots ever in my book.
We paid homage to Redbud No. 16, the 170-yard Par 3 made famous by many hole-in-ones, and equally infamous for Greg Norman’s demise in 1996 when he let a six-stroke lead fade away and lost the Masters to Nick Faldo.
The huge grandstand and spectator area around No. 16 shows why thousands flock to Redbud to witness the place where the Masters can be won or lost with one swing of the club. It’s a beautiful and intimidating hole, with the long stretch of water and three green side bunkers just waiting to gobble up golf balls.
It was now time to work our way back to where we’d started for the Par 3 Tournament. So we meandered through various holes. At times, I think Melanie was more interested in smelling the Dogwoods and taking photos of the foliage. But her ears perked up when we happened upon some players with names she recognized.
Rickie Fowler is cute and wears colors well, according to the wife. Matt Kuchar is taller than he appears on TV. Rory McIlroy is smaller than he appears on TV. Spaniard Jon Rahm has a big, powerful swing and carries himself with confidence.
The world’s No. 1 Dustin Johnson made every shot we saw look easy. Aussie Adam Scott was practicing alone and garnered several “Adam, we love yous” from the adoring females lining the fairways.
Bubba Watson is truly all arms and legs, with a quirky swing. But he can really move the ball around to his liking.
Eventual Masters champ Patrick Reed wasn’t chatting up his practice mates. He kept a pretty stern and focused look for the half of a hole we shared.
It seemed every fairway or tee box we came upon turned out in our favor when it came to finding star players. In all, we saw 29 former Masters champions in action. Not bad for Augusta rookies.
As we worked our way back toward the Par 3 event, we decided to walk down the outskirts of Hole No. 1 when we saw the massive crowd encircling the tee box. That could only mean one thing.
He had missed the last two Masters due to his ailing back. But now, Woods was back, and considered in the pool of favorites to win. The golf Gods were looking down on us by giving us one hole with Tiger — not to mention another one of my favorites: former Masters champ Fred Couples.
Woods’ blast off the tee was a good 30 yards ahead of Couples’, but Freddie one-upped Tiger by putting his long approach 10 feet from the pin. Woods’ next shot sailed off the mark to the right.
As Woods walked by, I couldn’t help but notice he was the only player on the course flanked by armed security; they strolled through the fairway trees but had their eyes trained on Tiger.
While we rushed on over to the Par 3 tournament without checking the map, we got lucky again and came upon the little mound positioned perfectly between the eighth and ninth holes. We set up our $29 Masters chairs and waited for the fun to come to us.
And fun it was, as the players, to a man, were able to relax before the start of the pressure and grind that is the Masters. A group of guys sitting next to us mentioned they had held these sweet spots for a couple of hours waiting for Tiger. They were shocked when I told them Woods was probably not playing the Par 3 because we just left him on No. 1. They appreciated the new intel and scampered off in search of Tiger.
We witnessed a hole in one by young South African Dylan Frittelli. In his group were fellow South Africans, Masters champ Trevor Immelman and British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen. Frittelli made his Masters memory. I tried all week to teach Melanie how to pronounce “Oosthuizen,” but to no avail.
Soon after that hole calmed down, another roar erupted from No. 7 directly to our left. We couldn’t see what happened, but learned later that Tony Finau carded a hole in one and proceeded to celebrate so hard running and jumping he landed awkwardly on his left foot and dislocated his ankle.
We watched the video of Finau bending over in obvious pain while he snapped his ankle back in place. His shot attempt on our Hole No. 8 was not very good, and we knew why.
Finau did become one of the great inspirational stories of the tournament, as he underwent treatment for the injured ankle and played the entire Masters magnificently. He was in contention over the four rounds, and ended up finished tied for 10th; earned $286,000; and garnered an invite back to next year’s Masters because he placed in the top 12.
The highlight of the day was seeing the legendary trio of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player playing together in the Par 3 event.
I’ll never see three of the greatest players in any sport, at any time, together like this again in my life. The word special doesn’t do the moment justice.
I’ve grown to be a bit more cynical about sports over the years. But icons like these three men have a way of bringing you back to another time and place.
Heck, Watson proved he still has game by winning the dang Par 3 Tournament.
As the sun was setting, we happened upon young Jordan Spieth — the last man on the practice putting green — as he worked on final preparations for his opening round.
I watched intently for 20 minutes in the failing light as Spieth worked with his coach on every small movement of his putting stroke, shoulders, feet, head, arms, hands, alignment and club speed. It was boring, tedious practice.
I was enthralled.
There was time left for a photo in front of Butlers Cabin and people watching from a nearby bench. (You never know who you might see. We chatted with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, who was there with his family.)
I left Melanie on that bench as I told her to wait for me. I rounded the corner and began walking up the fairway of Hole No. 1, which is called Tea Olive. A security guard told me they were closing the course to patrons. I only asked for a few minutes for one last walk. He nodded and said, “OK, but make it quick.”
Walking on the rich, green turf felt like walking on air. Strolling up the first fairway alone, in the quiet, I soaked in every possible view and burned the beauty and the magic of Augusta National into my brain.
I thought of my Bucket List and how the Masters can never be truly removed. It’s worthy of more wonder and reverence.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.
MORE MEMORIES FROM THE MASTERS
I wasn’t the only golfer in Southwest Louisiana to experience his first trip to Augusta National and the Masters. Two long-time friends and golfing buddies, Ron Hayes and Morris LeBleu, did me one better by attending the final round of the Masters a few weeks ago.
This became possible after LeBleu won the right to purchase Masters Sunday tickets through the annual ticket lottery conducted by Augusta National. LeBleu has been submitting his name in the lottery for more than 15 years.
His name finally came up, and his first call was to Hayes, who quickly said yes, and their Masters trip planning began soon thereafter.
Their first of day of driving ended in Tuscaloosa; then it was on to Aiken, S.C., where their hotel was located. Hotel accommodations are extremely difficult to find in Augusta during Masters week and very pricey.
Hayes and LeBleu arrived at Augusta National at 7 am. They spent the entire day crisscrossing the hallowed course until the final putt by champion Patrick Reed dropped at the 18th green.
Hayes, a veteran McNeese sports analyst and play-by-play man, offered these Masters’ impressions:
“The entire experience in one word … joy. The overwhelming view of the Georgia pines surrounded by azaleas in full bloom crowned by the acres of dogwoods was a joy to see.
“The realization for thousands of patrons attending the Sunday round that their golf dream had come true was evident in the joy reflected in their grins and smiles throughout the day. The booming roars accompanying the spectacular shots of the world’s best golfers provided more evidence of joy at Augusta National Golf Course.”
Hayes explained what it meant to him to finally make it to Augusta National and the Masters. “I fell in love with golf while attending McNeese in the late 1960s. I would listen to golfers much older than me relay stories about playing golf at courses around the country that folks like me could only dream about seeing, much less playing. Years went by with more stories being told by more golfers, and I began to realize that the one constant throughout the stories was the dream of attending the Masters in Augusta.
“Occasionally, I would hear of someone making it to a practice round or the Par 3 Tournament. But I never harbored much hope to attend the actual tournament, much less the final round. That ended this year.
“Maybe Jimmy Cricket had it right when he sang, ‘When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.’ My golf dreams certainly did among the Georgia pines this year.” Masters memories from Ron Hayes.