Always happy to oblige a County Mayo man, I led Eamon back up the hill past the fabled oak tree and the ranks of the entitled seated under green-and-white umbrellas. “Here it is,” I said, stepping up behind a two-deep line of suntanned spectators standing on the grassy bank behind the 10th tee. “You’re so close that you can read the time off the caddies’ Rolexes. And believe me, there’s no more beautiful sight in golf than a perfectly hit four-wood tracing a draw across the sky before plunging down this hill between the pines.”
Beaming, I turned to him. “Isn’t it great?”
That’s when I noticed that Eamon’s nose and spectacles were about four inches from the left shoulder blade of a beefy fan wearing the red and black of the Georgia Bulldogs.
“Of course,” I said, “It helps to be six-foot-seven.”
I tell that story whenever a Masters virgin solicits my opinion on the best places to go once that precious badge has been secured. For while it’s true that I’m well into my third decade covering golf’s most exclusive major, my point of view—both literally and figuratively—may not be universal. Do you really want to know, for instance, that I usually take my third-round power lunch par moi-même at the Chick-fil-A on Washington Road?
You do? In that case, I’m happy to give you a virtual guided tour of my Augusta National. Let’s start with the two-year-old, Tom Fazio–designed driving range that runs parallel to Washington Road. I spend roughly 20 minutes every morning watching the pros warm up, and I do most of that watching from the patrons’ sidewalk that parallels the target field. I do this for two reasons. One, as a reformed range rat, I fairly drool over this glorious practice ground, which marries the functionality of a lesson tee to the aesthetics of London’s Kew Gardens. Two, I can’t get enough of the short-game practice area, which challenges players with the same slippery slopes and Colgate-white sand they’ll encounter on the course. This is where you’ll see Tiger practicing one-handed chips and Phil performing his 360-degree putting drill.
When I’ve had enough preamble, I cut through the Pinkerton-guarded lobby of the press building and emerge in the pines on the right side of the 1st fairway. I never, I repeat, never join the throng at the 1st tee, where spectators are packed so tightly that they have to alternate breaths. Nor do I carry one of those canvas-backed aluminum chairs for greenside viewing. I count on my height, my wiles and my experience to afford me the best sight lines.
I walk up the tree line, pausing only to watch pertinent approach shots and putts, and I don’t stop until I reach the fairway bunker on the right side of the par-5 2nd hole. I linger there. It’s fun to watch players hit their fairway metals and long irons down to an amphitheater green surrounded by deep bunkers and vocal spectators. If I’m lucky, I get to watch some wretch self-destruct in the flowered ditch across the fairway, a spot the pros call the Delta Ticket Office. (“Because if you drive it there, you’ll be flying home on Friday.”)
I linger again, but just briefly, beside the 5th hole. Playing uphill with a fairway that tilts left, Magnolia, as it’s called, is probably the worst spectator hole on the course. What’s appealing is its relative solitude and the fact that you can one-up other badge holders by talking about it the way adventure travelers brag about their trips to Ladakh. “I saw both of Nicklaus’s 5th-hole eagles,” is the golf equivalent of, “I hooked the Loch Ness monster,” and you get extra points for knowing that Jack holed both of his mid-iron approaches during the 1995 Masters, when he was 55.
The point of all this walking and climbing is to get me to my favorite viewing point, which is the grassy bank behind and above the tee at the par-3 6th. Described in a 2009 Sports Illustrated article as “Augusta National’s most thrilling spectator perch”—never mind by which writer—the 6th tee provides a penthouse perspective on one of golf’s more intimidating short holes.
“From the treetop tee,” SI’s astute correspondent continues, “golfers launch iron shots over a ravine so deep that it conceals a busy crosswalk and hundreds of spectators seated on a grassy slope. The slippery green provides most of the terror—downhill three-footers can turn into uphill 30-footers—but I prefer the tee box. Stand close and you can pick up snippets of conversation as the players wait for the green to clear; and when they finally strike their shots, you can almost feel the club in your hands as your eyes follow the ball all the way down.”
My sentiments exactly. In fact, I find the tug of the 6th tee to be so strong that I have to limit myself to 30 minutes per visit, lest I lose the thread of the actual competition.
But what, you ask, of Amen Corner? Where does an accredited scribe position himself to witness Larry Mize’s stunning victory chip-in on 11 or Fred Couples’s Velcro-aided par on 12 or Phil Mickelson’s off-the-pine-straw-through-the-trees miracle six-iron on 13?
Honest answer: at a table in front of a 60-inch flat-screen in the press-building lunchroom.
Two reasons for that. One, writers covering the Masters tend to swarm around the high-def displays on Sunday, lest we miss what CBS is showing live to the world. Two, my tower is gone.
O.K., it wasn’t my tower. Painted Masters green and situated between the 12th tee and the 13th fairway, it was a mini-grandstand atop a steel pole that working press badge holders accessed by means of a steel ladder. The view was not only sensational, it was also panoramic. I’d have Seve Ballesteros arm-pumping his way across the 11th green to a deafening roar. I’d have Tom Watson and Ian Woosnam taking practice swings practically under my nose on the 12th tee. Across the pond I’d have Greg Norman and a handful of marshals searching for his ball in the shrubbery behind 12 green. Farther right I’d see Ben Crenshaw teeing off from that private patch of lawn that is the 13th tee, and if I turned around I’d have a down-the-barrel view of Chip Beck preparing to hit his third, with a wedge, into the sprawling grandeur of the 13th green complex and surrounding grandstands.
“That tower,” I told anyone who would listen, “is the hands-down, don’t-argue-with-me, best spot in the world for watching tournament golf.” And nobody argued with me.
But a few years ago, after the course had endured one of those off-season Fazio stretchings dictated by changing times, I strolled down to Amen Corner and then stopped, blinking in disbelief. My tower was gone—uprooted and cast aside like some pesky weed. I couldn’t even pinpoint the spot where it had stood. The terrain had been reconfigured to provide more space for seated patrons and enhanced security for the golfers. Which I recognized as a good thing, once I had stopped bawling.
So these days, although I no longer describe Amen Corner as “dead to me,” I spend little time there. You’ll find me behind the green at the par-3 16th, where a tall man can always find an unobstructed view.
At the end of the day, as you know, it comes down to the final pairings playing number 18. Spectators are at a serious disadvantage on this hole, which starts way down in the valley and doglegs right steeply up to the clubhouse. If you’re down low, you can’t see what’s happening at the green. If you’re greenside, you miss the tee shots and you probably can’t see the players in the fairway.
Well, you can’t. But I can see everything, including some spectacular sunsets, from my bench, 20-foot-high in the reporters’ tower, just left of the green.
Trust me, it’s great.