Tiger, Jack Nicklaus and me

I grew up watching the Masters with Dad on TV. Actually going was another thing.

I’ve never drawn up a bucket list, for doing so would only remind Death that he eventually needs to claim me. But going to the Masters—as I did last week— would have ranked right up there with: a) seeing the Great Pyramids and b) sealing the inventor of Auto-Tune inside the Great Pyramids.

I grew up watching the Masters—sprawled on the floor as my dad cheered and cursed and snored in his chair. I remember Jack in 1986 and Tiger in 1997 and Greg Norman falling short in what felt like every Masters from 1942 to 2005. Plus, going to the tournament in person would save me from having to endure the TV guys going on about the damn azaleas. Such fragrant majesty!

Augusta National has so meticulously crafted its image as a place of tranquil, otherworldly beauty that it’s surprising to discover the club exists on our plane of reality, near strip malls and Waffle Houses and the like. I had anticipated moats and centaurs.

But once you’re on the grounds—magical! There is the water on 15 where Seve Ballesteros lost his ball. There are the trees on 13 where Phil Mickelson fired through. There is the green on 11 and, um, is that Greg Norman on his knees shrieking, “Why? WHY??” Greg, dude, you’re making a scene.

Twice I saw Jack Nicklaus near the clubhouse. Each spring, he and Arnold Palmer come to Augusta so everyone can remind them how great they once were and how old they now are. It struck me as a missed opportunity that Jack was wearing only one green jacket. The man won the tournament six times. Call me flamboyant, but I’d have had the jackets sized so they all could be worn at once. Would I be able to move my arms? No. But at Augusta I wouldn’t need to. Feed me, patrons, FOR I AM YOUR KING.

Heckling is frowned upon at the Masters. So I quickly deduced that at all costs I needed to avoid Adam Scott, the talented Australian who has switched to what is known as a “long putter”—a hideous contraption operated with a long, sweeping motion. Put it this way: when Scott carries his long putter up toward the green, he looks as though he’s coming to skim your pool.

Had Adam Scott triumphed at the Masters, Augusta National would have had to endure the indignity of hearing Jim Nantz intone: “No man has ever before won the Masters while putting with a Swiffer WetJet.”

There are other prohibited pastimes at Augusta. So much as crinkle a bag of chips 75 yards from a putt and you’ll get the kind of glare usually reserved for a throat clearer at the opera or a “non-Alec” Baldwin brother at the Oscars. And do not even think of bringing a cellphone, camera or gadget. The ban on electronic devices is so strictly enforced—and the punishment for violation so severe (loss of future ticket privileges)—that at no point did I see a single person making a call or checking a BlackBerry. I felt utterly disconnected from work and modern life. It was awesome.

And that’s not the only nod to olden times. Snack prices are absurdly cheap—a buck and a half for a big lemonade. Better still, the patrons have resisted the broader trend toward rewarding even the most mediocre of performances with a standing O. There is no silence as silent as the silent silence that greets a substandard shot at the Masters. Thousands of people simultaneously seem to be sending the message: Thirty feet from the pin? Dude, this ain’t the Honda Classic. (By the way, I’m not saying the terrain is steep at Augusta, but within two days I had the calves of a supermodel and the joint pain of the superannuated.)

Before you think the Masters experience to be uniformly civil, I should note that several times I saw grown men digging through the trash to retrieve a bunch of hard plastic cups with the Masters logo. Apparently it’s the perfect souvenir for that special someone who likes golf and bacteria.

During Friday’s round, Tiger Woods walked to the second tee and took a seat on a small bench. Behind a thin rope, my kids and I were so close that we could have given Woods a wedgie or slipped him my business card (he’ll eventually need help writing a statement of apology for cheating on his third wife, Snooki). Did we do either? No. We just stood there. And now, like Norman, Ballesteros and so many others, we are consumed by regret and by what might have been at Augusta.

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