Archive for May 2, 2013

A Day at the Masters

May 2, 2013 1 comment
We've arrived! On the first fairway, looking back at the tee box with the 9th and 18th greens to the right.

We’ve arrived! On the first fairway, looking back at the tee box with the 9th and 18th greens to the right.

[Photo by Dan Nakano]

I have written several posts about our trip to Georgia last month, such as this one about restaurants in Athens and this one about the Georgia Museum of Art, also in Athens on the UGA campus. But I have yet to write my promised post on our day at the Masters golf tournament, now three weeks past. It’s tough. There’s so much to say, I hardly know what to focus on. In this post, I will tell part of the story. Perhaps more will follow in a second post.

Some background first, lifted from a post I wrote last August.

Augusta National Golf Club … runs The Masters, one of men’s golf’s four major tournaments, and for many players and observers, the best. I have had the good fortune of attending the three other majors: The Open Championship (familiarly known in the US as the British Open) at St. Andrews in 1990 and Troon in 2004, the US Open at Bethpage on Long Island in 2002, and the PGA Championship here at nearby Sahalee in 1998. But I have never gone to the Masters.

There’s a reason. It’s just about the hardest US sports ticket to get hold of. Tickets for the other three majors are made publicly available, but the Masters is like season tickets for team sports: ticket holders can renew their subscriptions, receiving tickets for life. Since the club isn’t interested in making a ton of money through ticket sales, a modest number of tickets is sold compared to other golf tournaments, and ticket prices remain low. Thus, ticket turnover is low too.

Ticket holders are barred by Augusta’s rules from re-selling their tickets, but of course many do, and the resulting prices are high. Once you get on the course, food prices are low. Indeed, the food is flat out cheap. Not cheap just by the standards of a sporting event, but cheap like turning the clock back a few decades.

There used to be a waiting list for available tickets, but the club abandoned that recently. Intead, it makes a small number of tickets available by lottery. You have to set up an account, log in, give them some information, and apply separately for tickets on tournament days (Thursday through Sunday) and on practice days (Monday through Wednesday). There’s a limit, 2 tickets per day on tournament days, 4 per day on practice days. I applied for both a year ago for this year’s Masters and struck out. I applied again a few months ago for next year’s tournament, learning a month ago that I would not be getting tournament tickets.

Now for the big news: Last night, I got an email informing me that I had won the practice round lottery. I was asked to log in for details. On doing so, I learned that I’ve won 4 tickets for Tuesday, the second practice day. Only Tuesday. I need to pay by September 15 or release them.

Not exactly what I was hoping for. Imagine flying all the way to Georgia, finding a hotel, and staying just for one day. It hardly seems worth the trouble.

Then again, the Masters! I can go! I can see the 12th hole at last. And the 13th. And the 14th. All of them! The holes any golf fan has memorized from years of watching the coverage on TV. (I failed to make this point — the other three majors rotate among courses. The Masters is always in one place. Players and fans come to know the course intimately.)

As you know, Gail and I decided to go. We bypassed the problem of finding a hotel room in or near Augusta by staying 95 miles away in Athens. And with four tickets in hand, we invited our Athens friends Dan and RuthElizabeth to join us.

When the day arrived, we awoke around 5:30, and walked out of our hotel at 6:30, just as Dan and RE drove up. First stop, Jittery Joe’s Coffee for coffee, tea, pastries, bagels. Then on to Augusta. The early morning drive through rural Georgia was lovely, with alternating woods and fields, the fields supporting a light fog layer. As it got brighter and warmer, we came to Interstate 20, then turned east for the closing stretch.

Whenever I have pictured this day, arriving at the Masters, I have imagined horrific traffic. Nope. The I-20 exit to Washington Road, one of the borders of the club and a main street of the city, was closed. We were forced farther east, almost to the Savannah River and the bridge to South Carolina, where we exited and formed two lanes of traffic that wound around, crossed Washington Road, and entered the club grounds. This didn’t take much more than five minutes. (It was around 9:00 AM now.)

We were directed to an aisle of parking, about nine aisles away from the course entrance. As we walked through the lot (I should say that the lot is a field of grass; I don’t know what it’s used for during the rest of the year), we found dozens of people selling lanyards at $5 apiece with plastic pockets that could hold your tournament pass. I was content to tie mine to a belt loop. And there was a strange guy holding a post some 15 feet high with signs attached containing various messages about Jesus. (Three days later, he would be arrested for saying aggressively hostile things to some of the patrons as they entered. Or maybe just removed from the grounds by the Augusta police.) Then we formed one of a series of lines leading to bag inspection, metal detectors, and finally a device that reads tickets to verify that they are real. Beyond this last checkpoint, we were in.

But where were we? It took some more walking and map studying to get oriented.

It turns out that there’s a long entry path. You walk in at the far end of the practice driving rang and make your way along one side of it toward the near end, the end with the players. With the range to your left, there is a bathroom building to the right. This is another special feature of the Masters. Typically, a course brings in lots of temporary porta-potties for the spectators. The Masters, partly because they spare no expense and partly because they know they’ll be hosting spectators annually, has a large permanent structure. We decided to stop there first. As Dan and I entered the men’s side, we were welcomed by a friendly gentleman, akin to a Walmart greeter. Then a young man directed traffic into two lines, depending on where you were heading. Additional people kept us moving, and another man (though I only noticed this at the end of the day) was busily wiping down the sink counter as each sink was used. At the end, yet another staff member thanked us for coming.

As one continues to walk the length of the driving range, one reaches practice chipping greens on the left. One now has the option of walking to the end, turning left, and falling in behind the practicing players, or curving right and into a wide pedestrian area with the giant merchandise store to the right and the first food operation to the left. Again, in contrast to other tournaments we’ve gone to where the merchandise tent would be just that—a tent—the Masters has a permanent structure. They run you up a ramp with switchbacks to lead you into the store. There’s a bit of a traffic jam at the entrance, as you reach to grab a basket or bag in which to put your purchases. Beyond that, there are hundreds of customers, and the first few steps are slow, but then it opens up as people choose various directions.

Like the entry gate and the bathrooms, the store was a model of efficiency. The key is huge numbers of staff. There are hats, shirts, what-not, available to grab in assorted places as you walk by. And there are counters with dozens of people behind them ready to help. Want a knit shirt, for instance, with a Masters logo on it? High up on the wall are 15 versions, with numbers 1 to 15. Color choices, logo choices, etc. You find one of the staff—and as crowded as the store is, many staff are free—ask for a number and a size, and he or she reaches into the shelves on the wall, grabs what you ask for, and hands it over. Not what you want? Ask for another number. We got shirts, hats, worked our way to the end, and lined up in the massive checkout area. They must have twenty lines. But each line has perhaps four pairs of people working four registers. One takes your stuff out and organizes it, the other scans it, you hand over your credit card, you get a big plastic bag with your purchase, and you’re out. What we feared would take half an hour took less than ten minutes.

Surely you don’t want to carry all your purchases around, do you? Well, just turn left and get in one of two new lines. One line is for checking your stuff. Several more staff are ready with giant plastic bags that you put all your purchases in, then you get in line, go up to the counter, hand over your bag, and it’s checked. We joined this line first. Then we watched the activity on the second line in awe. They had boxes of every imaginable size from just a few inches square to feet, stacked up, and a few lines with scales, cash registers, and people. This was the onsite UPS Store! And there was basically no line at all. You walk up, one of several men eye your purchases, grabs a box, puts what you bought in it, you go to the counter, it’s weighed, shut, sealed, you give the woman your address, she tells you the cost, you pay, and you’re out. Six days later, the box arrives at home. Nothing to carry, nothing to pack, and no wasted time. It was faster than the line for checking purchases.

Finally, we were ready for some golf. We walked back past the store entrance on the right and food on the left, through an open area with tables and diners, and onto the grass, sacred ground at last. To the right was a giant scoreboard with every participant’s name. To the left, the clubhouse and some other structures. In front of us, the first fairway. The tee box was back to the left, the green to the right. We decided to turn right and begin our walk around the course. (See photo above.) It was near 10:00 am by now. We would spend the next six hours walking the course in order, holes 1 through 18. The thrill of a lifetime.

More on the course in a second post. Here, as long as I’m talking about the non-course experience, let me say something about lunch. Well, before that I’ll describe my principal discovery of the day. Then lunch.

1. Principal discovery. How to put this? Well, keep in mind, the people who run the Masters are a pretty traditional group, “traditional” being code for a very narrow-minded group whose decisions on assorted policy matters are not always welcomed as just. Examples: their long-time exclusion of African-American members; before that, the years it took before they invited African-Americans to play in the Masters; and, until last year, the long-time exclusion of women members. Not everyone loves the members of Augusta National.

But here’s the thing about them that I came to understand. You know about God and the Jews, right? The chosen people and all that? God gave us the Torah and asked us to follow it. In return, God promised to take care of us. More or less. Exodus 19:5:

Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine.

There’s an important point here. In return for God’s gift, his choice of us, we aren’t supposed to ask questions. Don’t ask why the commandments are what they are. Don’t try to make sense of the law. Just do it (as others would be told millennia later). Do it and God will provide.

Simple, no?

Do you see where this is leading? I’ll spell it out. The lords of the Masters are our gods. They have chosen us, the lucky few who get tickets onto the grounds of the Masters. They have rules. We follow them. Don’t run. Be courteous to other patrons (that’s what we are—patrons, not fans). Be very courteous to the players. RESPECT! Follow these rules and the lords of the Masters will provide.

Again, simple. The greatest spectator experience in the world is yours if only you obey.

We obeyed.

2. Lunch. This is a case in point. Boy do they provide!

I have never eaten a pimento cheese sandwich. I didn’t even know until recently what it consisted of. I didn’t expect to like one. But I knew one thing about them: they are a Masters tradition, priced at just $1.50. I would have to have one.

After we walked the front nine, we headed to the food center that lies between an open spectator area and the tenth fairway. There was a large crowd. But again, Masters efficiency rules. One enters through any of perhaps five chutes. Each chute has identical food choices right or left, yielding in effect ten separate lines. First one finds shelves filled with “snacks”, such as bananas, or potato chips, or popcorn with Georgia pecans, or candy. Just past the snack shelves are the sandwiches, all pre-wrapped in green Masters-logoed paper. The pimento cheese. Masters club. Ham and cheese. Chicken breast. Tuna salad. Egg salad. Bar-B-Que. The most expensive of the bunch are the two hot ones, the barbecue and chicken, at $3.00. Beyond sandwiches are beverages, shelves again with the choices arrayed. Beer or lemonade in Masters-logoed plastic cups. Water in Masters plastic bottles. I can’t remember what else. There must have been Coke.

I had read about their good egg salad. And about the classic chicken sandwich. And the barbecue. What to do? At these prices, who cares? Gail grabbed a banana. Me the popcorn and pecans. We took one pimento cheese to try together. We each got barbecue. I got the chicken, Gail the ham and cheese. We got two bottles of water. Beyond the food was an open area, then the cashiers. Like at the merchandise store, they were experts at moving people through. I was about to get on line when I saw a freezer case in front of them with Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches. We had to try that. This was the one place where the staff had slipped. There were boxes of sandwiches, but no loose ones to grab. Someone had to get in there and tear a box open. I had my arms filled with sandwiches. I put them on the cashier counter, dug in, tore a box open, and handed out sandwiches to other patrons, with one for us.

Time to pay. So that’s five sandwiches, two waters, one ice cream, one popcorn, one banana. Our cashier rang it up. $19! That’s nineteen dollars! What would you get for $19 at a professional football or basketball game? Or a baseball game? I was stunned. But, see #1 above.

Time to eat. Barbecue and chicken: great. Popcorn: great. Georgia peach ice cream: great. Pimento cheese: not my thing, but I have to say, I liked it. Some bite from the pepper. Pretty good. I was tempted to run the chute again so I could try the egg salad. But I was full, and there were nine more holes to see, the most famous back nine in golf.

We walked them, nine to eighteen. The eighteenth brought us up to the practice green. The close proximity of the first tee box, eighteenth green, and practice green is another Masters wonder. And with no grandstands to break up the open space. I peeked over three rows of people to see what was up. There was Phil, putting and hanging out with Steve Stricker. Good timing.

Steve Stricker giving Phil Mickelson a putting tip, on the practice green at Augusta

Steve Stricker giving Phil Mickelson a putting tip, on the practice green at Augusta

[Photo by Dan Nakano]

Then we wandered past the clubhouse, the pro shop, some other areas out of bounds to us, made a right, and headed into the area between the merchandise building and the first food center we had passed six and a half hours before. Back in the store Dan and I went, so I could buy two more hats while Gail and RE got some drinks across the way. Out in three minutes. To the checkout line so Dan and RE could get the goods they had checked in earlier. Over to the chipping greens near the driving range, where Phil and Ernie and assorted others would make their way as we watched.

I drank my lemonade, gaining a souvenir plastic cup in the process. We had another run at the fancy bathroom. Then we headed out the gate to our car, turned onto Washington Road (away from I-20, as we were forced to do), down Washington into Augusta, onto a highway that heads back north along the Savannah River, with South Carolina across the way, onto I-20, and home.

A perfect day. Thank you Masters gods.

Categories: Golf, Travel