Monday, April 13, 2009

A Weekend At Augusta National

What a finale at Augusta National yesterday. The final hour proved how powerful psychology is. These phenomenal professional athletes are all subject to pressure and head games. I can't say that I've seen that much meltdown in a professional championship by so many participants. To see Tiger Woods hit a tree was bizarre....I know that shot!

I realized today that over the past year, I've told a great story many times and maybe today is the day to document it in cyberspace.

In February 2007 my wife and I were the invited guests of her cousin and husband to spend a weekend at Augusta National. The weekend was a wedding gift from a former Senator to my wife's cousin and husband. We were the fortunate ones invited to tag along. We flew into Atlanta on Saturday morning and arrived to the amazing weather forecast of snow! Yes, snow in Atlanta....not the norm. During our drive to Augusta, the snow turned to rain. We arrived at the club and were escorted to the Eisenhower cottage where we were to stay for the night. We were greeted by the Senator and his wife and another couple that were also the "fortunate guests". The weather cancelled our Saturday plans for playing 18 and the par 3 course. Lunch at the clubhouse wasn't a bad Plan B. We walked the grounds and took in the famous views.

The Eisenhower cottage was built after President Eisenhower left Washington D.C. The club believed that the president's love for the game would be great "p.r." for Augusta. The cottage was very spacious and had multiple bedrooms upstairs. The most impressive part was the pictures of the famous people that have stayed in the cottage. The most memorable picture was that of Reagan and Shultz in their robes sitting on the sofa making the decision at 2 a.m. on whether to join Thatcher in her quest to invade The Falklands.

That afternoon we had drinks in the cottage and discussed various topics. The Senator had mentioned that he missed the wedding due to a family reunion at Jekyll Island. The name quickly caught my attention, and I asked the Senator if he was familiar with the famous meeting at Jekyll Island where the Federal Reserve was conceived. He said "no".

Saturday evening we toured the clubhouse including the locker room, Crows Nest, wine cellar, and sitting areas. The most impressive part of the locker room was the name tags on the lockers. It was the "who's who" of corporate "male" America. I tried to imagine what it might be like to have a room full in there after playing 18. Warren and Bill playing bridge in the corner. Michael J. settling up bets from his round. The Crows Nest, where the amateurs bunk, was small and cozy. I can only imagine what their nights are like up there above the club preparing for the round of their life. The wine cellar below the dining room was really interesting. It was very very basic, but the handwritten names on the shelves that might go back many decades was cool. The wine steward pulled a $10,000 bottle off of the shelf to let us know what one looked like!

Dinner was very nice. The dining room was lightly occupied due to the weather. Some other former senators were dining a few tables over. I can't remember what I ate, but I do remember how well behaved I was. It was probably to most focused I was on my own behavior since my younger years. We engaged in a range of discussions from politics, golf, peak oil, and the history of Augusta National. The Senator is involved in an initiative that is seeking nuclear disarmament worldwide. I asked him who the most dangerous country was and he quickly said "Pakistan". After dinner, we relaxed in the cottage. Then off to sleep in our single beds.

We started Sunday morning with coffee in the cottage and read the paper. The Senator was reading the New York Times and he yelled out "who was talking about that meeting at Jekyll Island yesterday?". I said "it was me". He says, "it's all right here". The NYT had a special section on Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Chairman and it chronicled the entire meeting at Jekyll Island.

Breakfast in the dining room was great. It was one of the few weekends during the year when guests are allowed. There were a few other groups with guests as ourselves. The main challenge of the morning was the temperature. It was 28 degrees and our 8 a.m. tee time was in jeopardy as long as the temperature was below 34 degrees.

We went to the pro shop and made some investments in Augusta gear. The pro indicated that we might not tee off for some time. We went back to the cottage and waited for the temperature to rise. At 11:30, we were allowed to head to the practice range. Having played twice in the year prior, I knew the range would only expose my many weaknesses. I turned around, and the caddies came marching towards the range. Larry, my caddy, walked up and introduced himself. I quickly expressed my condolences for him having been paired with me. He watched my swing and quickly concluded that he was going to have to work hard in the hours ahead. I asked him who famous that he'd caddied for lately and he said "Clint Eastwood and Dan Marino". Uh oh.

The pro finally gave the go ahead to tee off. We walked to the first tee with caddies in tow. The pro walked out to watch the tee off. The Senator announced that we would match up in pairs per six holes. He asked me my handicap, and I said "20". John, our host, said "22". The other John says "14". The Senator than states that he and I will pair for the first six holes. As I walk to hit my first shot, I kept thinking "just hit this one straight". The pro, my foursome, and the four caddies were the pressure cooker. The tee shot went off fine down on the right side of the fairway. Relief! My second shot lands just next to the green and I'm thinking "this isn't that hard". But, as I prepared my chip, all of the warnings I had heard before heading to Augusta were "beware of the greens...they're like glass". Well, I chipped on the green as I would on a Houston course and the ball rolled off the back of the green. I then repeated the shot and chip on and rolled off the front of the green. My third chip was more proactive and I just chipped over the green! By this time, my partner, the Senator, was already putting out and signaled that our team has recorded a better score. The next few holes are a blur. The recovery from the first green took some time. The deep bunker on #4 took three shots to get out. That didn't help. By 7 or 8, a tempo of some sort for this hacker began to develop.

With the front nine complete, the back nine promised some more respectible golf. Amen Corner brought some great memories and fortune. Hole #12, the famous par 3, is beautiful. The Hogan Bridge is picturesque and creates great ambiance in the shady corner. We took a photo of the foursome by the bridge. I don't recall my club choice, but it was finally the right one and my tee shot landed 8 feet from the pin. Larry, my caddy, suddenly became jazzed. He said "we can make this!". Thank God for the "we". The greens are so challenging, but Larry would put a club on the green and say "this is the hole". Many times, I wanted to question the placement, but he has been caddying at Augusta for 40 years. I went with his line and sunk the birdie putt! Larry gave me my first high five.

13 and 14 were respectable. I duffed my tee shot on 15. The Senator walks by me and says "you can still do okay from here". I at first thought that he was heckling me, but Larry said, "we're okay". He was starting to act like we were now in a competition. I was teamed up with John now and we were making some progress. Larry pulled my 5 wood out and said "this is your club". He said "just hit it over the hill". I hit probably my best shot of the day. We walk over the hill and everyone's balls were in the same vicinity. It was probably 200 to reach the green over the water. John, our host, says to his friend John "you didn't come to Augusta to lay up did you?". John quickly replied "yes, I did". John hit a nice lay up in front of the water. I was deciding my fate when Larry says "I have your club". He hadn't put the 5 wood up yet. He said "hit it just like you hit the last one". I told him "Larry I never hit the same shot two times in a row!". He said "just keep your head down". Well, I hit the best shot of my hacker career. Larry excitedly yells "it's going in the hole!". The ball plugs on the back of the green ten feet above the pin. My second high five from Larry. I looked at Larry and said "can Marino do that?" and he said "all day long". So much for euphoria.

Hole #16, known as "Redbud", has the famous "two level" green. I'm in the right bunker preparing my shot. Larry yells "what are you doing?". I look over and he says "don't you know about this green?". No, Larry I'm a hacker. He walks up the green and stands 20' to the right of the pin and says "hit it here". Wow, I would have never figured that one out. I get out of the trap in one, but not down on the lower level. Two putts and we'll take a 5. My only thought on the 17th tee was to not hit the famous Eisenhower Tree that lurks on the left side. Eisenhower hated the tree and begged the club to remove it. I went right instead.

Hole 18 has tight trees on both sides of the fairway. I went with the safe 5 wood and hit a nice tee shot down the middle. The approach shot lands on the green. Relief. I'm lining my putt up for the birdie and the Senator says "Kirk, if you sink this one, I'm going to question that handicap you gave me a few hours ago". He obviously forgot about our first six holes together as teammates! Well, he successfully got in my head, and I very happily ended with a par on 18. After watching the tournament today, I'm even more estatic about that par. My wife was waiting up at the clubhouse watching us putt out. She said "how did you do" and I said "many highs and lows!". A great day it was.

I hoped for one memorable hole and ended up with 3 so I was elated. The bad holes quickly fade from memory (except maybe the three chips on #1 or the bunker on #4). Playing at 35 degrees didn't seem to matter either. What a memory and unique opportunity. To this day, I tell the story with great guilt because there are so many golfers that deserve the opportunity more than I did.

The picturesque 12th green with the Hogan Bridge.

The practice range.

The clubhouse.

The drive into the club.

Me and the Senator at the 12th.

Me and my mentor, Larry.

Larry lining up the birdie putt at 12.

The Eisenhower Cottage

The back porch at the clubhouse.

John and the Senator at the 12th tee.

Ice at Augusta National.

Looking back from the 15th green.

John on the 16th tee.

Me at the 17th tee. Note the Eisenhower Tree out to the left.

The 18th Hole

Us and the Senator and his wife

Our hosts and hostesses

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