That time Tiger Woods and I played Augusta National
There's something about the start of the Masters that turns every sports writer in the South into Scarlett O'Hara, before all her beaus ran off to fight the Yankees. The most hard-bitten hacks start gushing about azaleas, Amen Corner and Magnolia Lane.
Makes me want to reach for my smelling salts.
Not that I don't have my own Masters memories. Did I ever tell you about the time Tiger Woods and I went a few rounds at Augusta National?
It's true. I swear on my vintage Wilson 1-iron.
The first four rounds of the 1997 Masters, Tiger's first as a pro, he played, I followed. I walked all 72 holes of history, took copious notes and no shortage of pleasure as a 21-year-old African-American destroyed the course, the field and every negative stereotype known to the world of golf.
A friend and outstanding golf writer, who shall remain nameless but not blameless, suggested a scathing headline for the ages: Who's the Master now?
I was an arm's length away when Tiger pull-hooked his drive into the foliage on the 8th hole in the first round, en route to an ugly opening nine of 40. A scavenger hunt broke out in search of the missing Titleist while Tiger seethed, "This is how you lose a (bleeping) golf tournament."
History has recorded that he didn't lose the ball or the event. Shot 30 on the back nine. Went 66-65-69 from there to eternity.
But enough about him. The scariest golf played that week on that course came the morning after the green-jacket ceremony. In a tradition unlike any other, a couple dozen winners of the Masters media lottery got to play the course. I was one of them. Bill Murray did only slightly more damage at Bushwood Country Club.
I won't take you shot by shot because there were 102 of them and you'd probably want caddy fees. Just know this: Nick Saban never made me that nervous.
First and last time in my life I played golf with a caddy, but instead of hooking up with a grizzled old vet who knew Bobby Jones and every blade of grass, I landed the angry twin brother of Rerun from Good Times. He enjoyed caddying about as much as Tom Kite enjoyed finishing second that year 12 shots behind Tiger.
My guy's unique combination of incompetence and disdain reached its peak on the 12th hole, the heart and soul of Amen Corner. It was there that I became the incredible Cinderella story, the unknown who comes out of nowhere. I absolutely striped an 8-iron and stuck it hole high, a mere 4 feet for birdie on the meanest little par-3 in the world.
Angry Rerun read the putt two balls outside the right edge. I stood over my ball, listening to the birds chirping and my pulse pounding in my ears. As I started to draw back my blade, a voice from behind said, "Wait a minute."
Wait a minute? I'm about to make a birdie at Augusta National the day after Tiger Woods walked this way, and you want me to wait a minute? You cannot be serious. Strapping my bag to my back and tossing me in Rae's Creek would've been no more egregious.
He proceeded to give me what he thought was a new and improved read, one ball outside the right edge, and I followed it perfectly. Guess which of his reads was right? My would-be birdie skated just below the hole.
I tapped in for par - the first of two on my tattered card - and resisted the urge to strangle him.
The rest of the day was a blur of downhill, sidehill lies, putts that shattered the speed limit and futile descents into the seventh circle of sand traps.
All in all, it was a hellacious trip into the heart of golf heaven. On the bright side, just like Tiger four days earlier, I was 10 shots better on my second nine. He went 40-30. Me? A sweet little 56-46.
My invitation to return to the first tee keeps getting lost in the mail, but at the Masters, hope and sentimental hacks spring eternal. If I ever go back, I hope to enjoy the moment more, bemoan the results less and not make the same mistake 102 times. Because nobody likes an Angry Rerun.