There really is nothing in professional golf that compares with driving into Augusta National Golf Club early on a Sunday morning in April, in anticipation of making your debut at the first Major of the year.
I say Sunday because the excitement has been building up for so many weeks. If it’s your first time, you just can’t wait to get there. Twenty years of anticipation is going to come to an end. Never mind playing the week before to warm up, my view was to stay away from any potential injuries and drive through the gates at the very earliest moment that you are welcome.
I can tell you I have never met anyone who was underwhelmed by this experience. Just seeing for yourself, finally, the lay of the land, how the clubhouse sits perched atop the hill with the course falling away into the distance, it really is a sight to behold for the first time.
Of course you are not here as a tourist but to compete with the world’s best players and the honour of putting on the champion’s Green Jacket, something only Fuzzy Zoeler has managed as a debutant. Is there a reason for this unusual stat? In truth, I think there are many reasons.
First, it’s difficult as a rookie not to just walk around in a fog of satisfaction that you are about to play in the first Major of the year at Augusta National. You’re here, playing, not watching on the BBC back at home hoping to catch sight of a European golfer at the top of the leaderboard. You find yourself for the first time ever in a merchandise tent, buying shirts for people back home. You watch the faces of spectators, or as they say at Augusta, patrons, themselves grinning from ear to ear as they take pictures outside of the clubhouse to prove to their friends that they once went to The Masters.
Then there are the other quirky things that remind you that you are somewhere just a little different, I remember being shown to my shared locker and thinking that having to share a locker must be because of my rookie status, only for Monty to be shown to his shared locker just a moment later and thanking the attendant profusely. Trust me when I tell you that we are not used to sharing lockers, but if you were told that you had a peg in the corridor and to leave your shoes at the door, for some reason at Augusta, even the world’s greatest players would say, ‘thank you very much for allowing me a peg’.
Basically, we are all in awe of the place, are only too aware of what an incredible golf tournament they run and would do anything to be able to come back. Of course, there is only one way, and that is to play your way back in, which is no mean feat on your first attempt.
A top-12 finish gets you back the following year, and it would be hard to find a golfer that could honestly tell you that, first time out, they wouldn’t be happy with that. Somehow, back in 2005 when the top-14 qualified, I managed to do just that.
I was sitting in the locker room with Chris DiMarco waiting for the tee times to be announced for the rain-delayed round three. An age had passed when Curtis, the locker room attendant, assured us that as soon as the times were announced we would be the first to know. I knew I should be paired with Tiger Woods, courtesy of the fact we were lying in joint third. Imagine our surprise then, when the television we were watching showed a two-ball teeing off the first hole.
A look out of the window confirmed that, indeed, play had begun, Curtis confirmed this was impossible as the tee times had not yet been published. Never have I seen such pandemonium in a locker room, players scrambling around in their shared lockers for a sleeve of balls and pair of golf shoes. Cue a mass exodus to the range where the panic continued.
It turned out that the club’s computer system had gone down, so the best thing to do was send off anyone who was ready to play, just like a Saturday morning roll-up! Never in the history of professional golf has this ever happened, but it happened the day I was paired with Tiger, in the penultimate two-ball. After which, I can confirm that hands that won’t stop shaking and trying to putt on greens where the ball wont stop rolling, is a very difficult mix to get right.
So how did I fare? Well, I got a front-row seat watching Tiger shoot 65, but we parted company for round four. I shot 69 to book my place back for 2006 (tied 11th), then watched on TV as Tiger holed his miracle chip on the 16th hole en route to winning the play-off. Not many win at Augusta on their first visit, but everyone has their own fond memories of their debut.
*This article was originally published in The Golf Paper Debut Edition on 8 April.