So where was I?
Oh, yeah. Thanks for the reminder.
With 4 tickets to the Monday practice round, my wife and I got up nice and early with my brother and his wife to drive down to Augusta. My parents were nice enough to take the kids for the day.
The gates were supposed to open at 8:00 a.m., and I wanted to get there as close to 8 as possible. As we drove, it became apparent that we would be a little late. We crossed the Savannah River into Georgia around 8:15, and hit a wall of cars in the right lane. I assumed this was backed up from the main exit into Augusta. The traffic report on the radio said traffic was moving just fine into town. Next to me was an alternate exit that would take us on a little more roundabout way to the course. We debated what to do for a moment. After not moving at all, we decided to take the exit. As we did, the traffic report came on again. In two minutes, they had changed their story from, “Everything’s fine” to “The main exit is closed! Gridlock everywhere! Save yourselves!”
We were glad we took the exit, and had no problem going into town and finding parking. Augusta National takes care of their customers: parking is free. From the main road (Washington Road) in Augusta, you can’t see any of the golf course. It’s blocked by a thick wall of trees and hedges. Directly across the street are numerous strip malls and an IHOP. In case you were wondering.
Upon entering the gates and walking past the brand-new state-of-the-art driving range (naturally, the grass here looked better than any lawn I’ve seen), the first stop (besides the bathroom) was the gift shop. We figured we’d get the souvenir shopping overwith before the lines really backed up later. While it’s true that Augusta National takes care of its customers with free parking and reasonably-priced food, souvenirs are another matter. But they know they have you. I mean, where else are you going to get a Masters golf shirt or water bottle? And everyone NEEDs a Masters water bottle. We’re talking Disney World merchandise prices here.
The guy in line in front of us dropped nearly $1500 on merchandise. Yeah, I said $1500. I learned later that many people were doing this. They go out and get the items autographed and then sell them on eBay. Whatever floats your boat, I guess. I can’t exactly say that I have $1500 to throw away on golf shirts, so we did not follow this plan.
Finally, we were ready to enter Golf Nirvana. The entrance takes you right out by the first tee.
If you’re not a golfer, this probably doesn’t mean much to you. But Augusta is special. Like Disney, it’s as if the members have created their own hermetically-sealed world exactly the way they like it. They don’t have to answer to anyone. The course is immaculate. Every blade of grass looks perfect and green. We found one spot of clover on the 10th hole and figured someone got fired over that one.
There’s definitely a sense of history to the place. I was able to recognize various spots–there’s where Nicklaus birdied 17 at age 46, there’s where Tiger chipped in on 16, etc. You don’t really get a sense of the huge amount of elevation change from TV. The course is basically built into the side of a hill, and the slopes are steep. Some of the fairways look like ski slopes. And the greens are incredibly severe. I watched several guys practicing putts where the ball was taking 270-degree turns.
I didn’t care so much about following any one golfer around. I was there to see the course. Not all of the big names were out on Monday, but we did get to see Tiger Woods playing with Jim Furyk and Fred Couples. This was the very first public appearance by Tiger since the…well, you know. There was talk that he would be working to change his perception. From my point of view, he appeared to be interacting with fans the same as he always did, which is to say, not at all. Just my observation.
I’ll say this, though: these guys just kill the ball. My jaw drops when I see how far they hit it, and with such precise control. I watched some Japanese player I’d never heard of hit a tee shot on 13 that hooked precisely around the trees and landed in the middle of the fairway as though he’d placed it in the ideal spot. And these are the no-names!
Fuzzy Zoeller was entertaining the crowd by having kids come out of the gallery and attempt tee shots on the famous par-3 12th hole. They were duffing, topping, and hitting worm-burners all over the place. Then, one kid took a mighty rip and put one on the front of the green. HUGE roar. Now I know what an Augusta Roar sounds like.
The other fun spot was the 16th hole, a par 3 over a pond. It’s tradition for all of the players to skip balls across the pond to the green here. That was very entertaining, and more proof of how good these guys there. Vijay Singh made a hole-in-0ne doing that last year (it’s on YouTube).
While we were there, resting on a slope, my brother slipped his flip-flops off. A marshal immediately came over to him and discreetly asked him to put his shoes on. You do NOT go barefoot at Augusta National Golf Club. I pretended not to know him, then gave him crap later. This is what brothers do.
Disappointingly, the azaleas had been hit by the harsh winter and weren’t at full bloom yet. They had budded, but looked like they were still a few days away. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see it again. True to their word, though, food prices were very reasonable.
All in all, just an amazing day for a golf fan. This was one of those bucket-list destinations for me, and I’m thankful I got to see the place in person. I’d compare it to seeing a baseball game at Fenway Park, or a football game at Lambeau Field. Some places are more than just sports arenas.
For dinner, we were supposed to be meeting the rest of my family at a place called Shealy’s Barbecue in Batesburg-Leesville, SC. That’s Carolinean for “Middle of Nowhere”. It’s an obscure exit off I-20, just a shade closer to Columbia than Augusta. My brother Rob was coming down with his wife to meet us there and surprise my mom for her 60th birthday, where he would present her with tickets for the Tuesday practice round.
We found the place and eventually met up with every one in this 2-street SC town. My brother had read various travel guides and discovered that Shealy’s had a reputation for being the best Carolina-style barbecue around. Julie and I found the choice odd. Not because we’re against bbq, but both of my brothers and their wives have…shall we say…expensive tastes. They like the finer things. An out of the way bbq didn’t seem to fit with their personalities. But, whatever.
Julie and I prefer simple meals, down-home cooking, and local diner-type places. So, when we walked in and found that Shealy’s had one buffet line, flourescent lighting, and long tables covered with vinyl, it didn’t faze us one bit. The atmosphere was like a family reunion in the church basement. I could see the disgust written all over my sister-in-law’s face.
The bbq was pretty good. Carolina BBQ uses a mustard- or vinegar-base for their sauce, which I don’t care for as much as a tomato-base. But that slow-cooked pork and chicken is incredibly juicy and tender, and it’s hard to complain about that. Plus, they had awesome fried chicken. Top it off with both peach and apple cobbler from the dessert bar, and I gave the place a thumbs up. I’m not sure I would go way out of my way off the interstate to find it again, but it was a good meal. My brothers and their wives…well, let’s just say they won’t be returning.
Coming Up Next: one of the country’s newest National Parks. And a playground that farts.