The Masters – The Schwartzel Year

I wasn’t born with a golf club in my hand.  Heck, I never even watched golf growing up.  We were tough.  West Siders.  Football.  Tackle football with no pads – not a sport played by guys in white pants and shiny, white, patent leather shoes.  Oh man, but after I picked up my first club and played a round at Pine Hills “Country Club” in Scranton, I was hooked – or should I say more appropriately, sliced.

After that first round at your basic, run down, Bushwood Country Club look-a-like track, I  dreamed of just walking the grounds of Augusta National.  There’s something about it that is just classic, timeless and enduring.  Unlike other Major Tournaments, including the Ryder Cup, that rotate around the country and the globe, the Masters is held at the same place, same time of year, every year.  In a world that is constantly changing, this is consistent.  An annual event – much like the blooming azaleas and dogwoods that decorate the layout.

Growing up and watching the Masters around Easter was always something special.  The seasons were just changing in the Poconos, and the trees just starting to recover, but at Augusta, the course was in full bloom.  It gave you hope that warmer temperatures were just around the corner.

Never did I think I would be able to get access to the tickets to attend.  Years ago, I started to put my name into the lottery for practice rounds.  You see, the Masters tickets aren’t sold to just anyone.  “Patrons” must get on a waiting list years long – and the list is closed once again to new patrons.  Like most things at Augusta, face prices of the ticket aren’t very high, but tickets are very scarce.

The added restrictions make it difficult for the secondary market to capitalize on them as well.  Most badges are tied to a Patron.  If a Patron sells a badge and the badge holder gets unruly while at the tournament, the badge is confiscated and the Patron loses privileges.  That means the secondary market charges a hefty price for tickets along with a very hefty penalty if you don’t return the badge.  Therefore, ticket prices were always out of reach, let alone travel to the remote Georgia town.

After joining my current employer in 1996, I thought I might have a chance someday to host clients at the esteemed annual event.  As one of only three sponsors, my company has unique access to the event.  There are no corporate tents, just a couple of large houses along side of #10 that have been turned into hospitality areas for the sponsors.  My company will use the tickets and accommodations at some nearby houses as entertainment for our most valued clients.  This event is one of our most highly sought after tickets – and with good reason.

As the 2011 Masters approached, I asked my manager if I could put in for tickets to host one of my business partners.  She didn’t hesitate, probably thinking, what are the chances he gets them?  Little did she know I would receive an email congratulating me when my request was accepted!  I was offered two one-day passes to the opening round on Thursday with access to the company house.

The nomination process is difficult because you can’t commit the tickets until you have confirmation.  So it makes it hard to determine your client or partners’ availability.  After checking around, I was fortunate to secure a partner for the one-day event.

Getting to and from Augusta is also a challenge – especially if you want to make it a quick trip.  I would be flying in from Phoenix and my partner from Boston.  He also invited his new COO to join us and he would be flying in from Tampa.  He secured a ticket through a broker – and I have no idea how much he paid.

The cross-country travel meant I’d have to fly in on Wednesday and if I wanted to limit time on the road, I’d have to find a late flight on Thursday night.  Of course, flights into Augusta around the Masters are 1) very expensive and 2) late flights back to the west are almost non-existent. So, booking non-stop to/from Atlanta was the best option.

We rendezvoused in Atlanta late Wednesday afternoon and drove about half way to Augusta to our hotel in Madison, GA.  Madison is a very small town out in the sticks, but with a real southern flair to the homes and a quaint little downtown area.  We ended up eating at the Icehouse and I just had to have their Shrimp and Grits!  Great upscale restaurant for being out in the middle of nowhere with a real business-like atmosphere inside – perhaps it was all of the visitors that were headed to the Masters the next day!

The Icehouse in Madison

After an early night, we had to get up early to hit the road.  Of course, this meant setting my alarm for the middle of the night “body time”.  After a quick bite and some coffee in the lobby, we were on the road by 6:00am in order to get to the course as early as possible.

Getting in and around Augusta National was interesting.  There’s really nothing there (that we saw anyway) besides the course.  The club is on the north side of town, just off the interstate.  Augusta, the town, is run down and lacks character.  Non-nondescript buildings, many closed and your typical small town staples like the Waffle House.

We had to make a stop at the broker’s house not far from the course to pick up the 3rd ticket.  Quite a setup these brokers have!  They rent houses, host parties and shuttle their guests back and forth from the course.  This is not your run-of-the-mill scalping business!  No haggling here.

We parked a couple of blocks from the course, between the broker and the course.  Very easy parking given the prestige of the event.  As we walked towards the course, the excitement was building.  I was walking into my first Masters Tournament!

Once you enter the grounds, the first thing you see is a huge merchandise store.  Again, not any ordinary tent like other golf tournaments.  This was a full-blown building dedicated to selling everything Masters.  We wanted to start the day shopping so we wouldn’t waste time at the end of the day.  You see, most people would be storming the shops after the tournament since they didn’t want to carry their swag with them all day.  We had the luxury of the hospitality house!

Choices, Choices

After loading up on the ridiculously reasonably priced gear, we walked towards the course.  Little did we know, we just missed the opening tee shot!  This year, the Honorary Starters were none other than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus!  Ugh!  Better planning next time for sure.

Arnie & Jack’s Honorary Tee Shot

After dropping the bags at the house, located just left of #10, we headed out to walk the grounds.  The image below gives you an idea of how tightly concentrated the course is.  The small cluster of homes at the bottom center of the shot is where the 3 sponsor homes are located.  Just above that is #10.

Aerial Shot of Augusta National

This place is amazing!  Not a stitch of grass out of place.  Everyone so polite.  No waste scattered around the grounds.  Just pure, immaculately maintained grounds.  The colors are as vibrant and vivid as you can imagine.  Even the pine straw under the trees looked like it was placed perfectly beneath the trees.

Pure Perfection – Augusta’s 13th

We would end up sitting at 15 green – a short reachable par 5, with the green just over a small pond.  From our vantage point, we could also see 16 – a par three also over water.  For as long as we sat there, there wasn’t much excitement on either hole, so we started walking the course again.

15th Green – Almost our vantage point

One thing that doesn’t show up on TV is the elevation change of the course.  It’s very hilly with the clubhouse almost at the top of the course and everything else moving up and down from there.  For example, the 10th hole drops over 110 feet.  The total elevation change on the course is over 175 feet.

Today would belong to twenty-two-year-old Rory McIlroy and unknown Álvaro Quirós.  Both would shoot a 7 under 65 to share the lead on day 1 – making Rory the youngest ever to hold the lead at Augusta after the first day.  The only other notable event that took place – but we didn’t witness – was Henrik Stenson’s Masters Record for the 4th hole – a quintuple-bogey 8 on the Par 3.  Even I could do that!

We would finish the trek and cover just about the entire course – missing only a couple of the holes.

After a quick stop back up #10 to the hospitality house to pick up our goodies, we were back in the car and headed back to Atlanta.

Rory would continue to hold the lead through 54 holes, but when he came to #10, he famously pull-hooked his tee shot into the woods not far from the hospitality houses where we walked just days earlier.  This was the beginning of the end for the young Irishman.  He would suffer a collapse of epic proportions and finish T15 at 4 under.  This back 9 collapse would lead to the worst round in history by any pro golfer leading after the third round of the Masters.

In the end, the final round was a toss up of 8 different players holding first place during the day, but only South African, Charl Schwartzel would claim the title of 2011 Masters Champion – his first, and to this day, only Major victory.

The Masters is a must see tournament for anyone, golfer or otherwise as anyone can enjoy the meticulously manicured grounds, southern hospitality and historic venue.

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