For years, I have heard CBS use their famous tagline for the Masters: "A Tradition Unlike Any Other."
However, I never fully understood it until now. You see, I made my first trip ever to Augusta National this week for the Tuesday practice round.
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I had heard all the stories and talked to people who had previously been. "It's like no other place on Earth," they said. "You'll be amazed."
Yeah, sure, I thought. The accolades poured from their lips like that fine pink lemonade served at Augusta, but I never fully appreciated or comprehended what they meant until I went myself. And no matter how clear a picture I try to paint with my words, I'll never do it justice.
It began for me at around 5 o'clock in the morning. The nearest hotel room we could find was about an hour and forty-five minutes from Augusta, and with the gates opening at 8, with no idea what kind of nightmare traffic and parking would be, we didn't want to take any chances. Those concerns were quickly quieted, though, as was my skepticism toward the words of those who came before me.
The well-oiled machine that is the Masters was underway.
Multiple exits off the interstate all funneled travelers to our ultimate destination. There were no delays or glitches, no fists in the air from road rage or obscene gestures because someone cut us off. Even before we reached the hallowed ground, there was an air of decorum from all those headed to the same bit of nirvana. Inside of 15 minutes from the time we exited, we were being shown a parking spot. A spot, I might add, that didn't cost one red cent. My first, but certainly not my last, monetary surprise of the day.
We parked a mere 300 yards from the entrance. As we approached the gate, a hoard of workers were there to pleasantly greet each and every person who entered with, "Welcome to the Masters. I hope you enjoy your day."
They sounded like they actually meant it, too.
The employees of Augusta National were, without a doubt, the nicest, friendliest, most professional group I've ever seen, bar none. Yes, that includes Disney World, recognized globally as the kings of customer service. I would put the young staff at the Masters not only on par with Disney, but probably ahead of them.
I know. It was hard for me to believe as well.
Especially when you consider that most of them looked to be in college and probably only employed a week or two a year at the job. It is quite perplexing as to how they do it. They either pay really well for a temporary gig, or they hook tasers to them and give them a jolt if they don't perform. I'm not sure which, but either way, it works.
They even have incredibly happy workers in the restrooms. Yes, I said the restrooms. There are anywhere from 4 to 6 employees in each one, kindly pointing out empty stalls and urinals, so there is no line, no waiting. A couple of them stand near the trash can so if you miss when throwing your paper towels in the trash, they scoop it up and stick it in the can before you even know you were off target. Sort of the Dennis Rodmans of the john, as it were.
"Enjoy the rest of your day at the Masters, sir," offered with a smile.
Okay, so they are nicer than Rodman. If you can stay happy and cordial working in a restroom, you know this must be a great place to work.
Once we exited the restroom, it was souvenir time. Surely people would get pushy and irritable while shopping, right? There had to be a thousand people or more in there. Certainly we would wait in line at this stop, and come across some obnoxious, pompous jackass here, wouldn't we?
There had to be two or three dozen cashiers and at least that many or more disbursed through the shop to help you find what you needed; the right color or size, long-sleeve or short, trinket or bauble. And based on all of the official Masters gear that was walking out the door, you would think they were giving it away.
They weren't, but again, the prices were no more than at any other pro shop around the country. I would love to see one day's receipts from that place, though. Augusta National is very tight-lipped when it comes to things like that, but if you told me that little shop turned seven figures, I wouldn't bat an eye. There was a constant stream of people going through there all day long.
I was awestruck, and I hadn't even seen the course yet.
We checked our stash at the souvenir check (you didn't think they would make us walk around carrying all that stuff the entire day, did you?). Then, before us lay a site that can only be described as breathtaking. I've traveled around the country and been privileged enough to play on some pretty nice golf courses, but nothing, and I mean nothing, had prepared me for this.
When our feet first touched the grass (and honestly, I don't know if it's fair to call it grass. I've never seen any like it before), we all looked at each other with our mouths agape.
"This has to be fake, doesn't it?" one friend asked.
I was prone to agree. When people call that grass manicured, it isn't an exaggeration. I would swear that each blade was clipped, filed, coated with a base coat, then a thin layer of Luscious Lime Green polish, and topped with a hard yet pliable clear coat (I have two daughters. Don't judge me for knowing this stuff).
We decided to walk the whole course, from hole 1 to hole 18, watching whichever golfers we happened across. Picturesque doesn't do it justice. Gorgeous is an understatement. Words haven't been invented yet that can give you a picture of what I saw. Colors of azaleas that I didn't know existed, in full bloom (mine just have tiny buds on them).
After a few holes of wonder and awe, we were getting hungry. Concession buildings (not stands, but full-sized buildings) were spaced every 3 or 4 holes. This had to be where they lowered the boom on you, right? I've never been to any sporting event where I didn't feel like the concession workers had their hand in my pocket as I was placing my order.
Let's see, homemade egg salad and pimento cheese sandwiches (which were to die for) - $1.50. Soft drinks (including the best pink lemonade I've ever tasted, and all in a souvenir cup, no less) - $1.50. Peanuts, candy bars - $1.00. Beer - $3 domestic, $4 imports. And something (I can only describe as frozen heaven) called a Georgia Peach, which was peach ice cream pressed between two sugar cookies (quite possibly all homemade, but I can't say that for sure) - $1.50.
Before the day was done, we hit every concession building on the grounds. I gained about 12 pounds despite walking more than five miles on the day, and I spent less than $15. I spend that on a burger and soda at Disney, and almost that much on a hot dog and a beer at a Braves game.
I saw a lot of amazing things on my first trip to Augusta. I saw a myriad of golfers skipping balls across the water and onto the green after hitting their tee shots on the par-3 16th hole, apparently a tradition in the practice round. I sat in the grass on an 86 degree day in the deep south and saw only one insect the entire time, a lone mosquito just before we left. He was obviously lost, because I don't think his kind are tolerated there, since I didn't see an ant, gnat, or any other type of bug the remainder of the day, with the exception of the honey bees that do such a remarkable job pollinating those azaleas.
I finally saw Amen Corner, and made a check mark on my bucket list. I saw the legendary Gary Player, who at 77 is in better shape than any of the four in my group. I saw my pick to win this week, Graeme McDowell, who attended my alma mater, UAB (and wouldn't give us a single "Go Blazers," no matter how hard we tried).
In my head, I saw Nicklaus making that charge in 1986, and Palmer electrifying the gallery as he stormed up the 18th fairway with his Army in tow, and Tiger obliterating the scoring record in '97.
And I saw why they call it "A Tradition Unlike Any Other."