News & Opinion

Upon 1st visit to Masters, a witness to ‘Tiger Slam’

Masters scene chairs greenside Augusta National
At Augusta National Golf Club, patrons often leave their chairs at a spot and know that their places in the gallery will be reserved upon their return.

It’s a long way from Albuquerque to Augusta, but 20 years ago, a dream came true before another one went unanswered

There was no way that I could ever be lucky enough to attend the Masters, until I was and did.

It was 2001, the year of Tiger Woods’ second win, the same year that I signed on to become a marshal working at the Masters.

This story starts with the family of an Albuquerque, N.M., golf buddy, Jack Brant, who grew up in Lebanon, Ohio. Jack’s dad owned the town’s hardware store. The Brants had Masters badges – badges that came with a story.

In the early 1960s, when Jack was a kid, Dick James, a PGA professional and the superintendent at the muni in Lebanon, drove Jack, his brother and two other local kids who played golf to Augusta to see the Masters.

James, as he had in previous years, rolled into Augusta, parked on the shoulder of Old Berckmans Road and went across the street to buy tickets. Told that the event was sold out, he put his name on the waiting list. He then walked back to the car and broke the bad news to the boys, and drove back to Ohio.

Before too long, James got a letter informing him that he’d cleared the waiting list and would get two badges and a parking pass, which he used the next year.

After only a couple of years, James told Jack’s dad that he’d been to Augusta enough times and had no interest in returning. Each year after that, he renewed the badges and gave them to Jack’s dad, who would reimburse him.

Over the decades, the badges rotated among the Brant family members. The annual ritual lasted until 2016, when James died.

“It’s amazing to me that we had those badges for 50 years,” Jack said. “More than once, we offered to pay Dick James’ way to Augusta so he could use them, but he said no. He wanted us to have those badges.”

In 2001, it was Jack’s parents’ turn to get them, but his dad fell ill. Jack and his wife were next in the rotation, but Jack’s wife already had made out-of-town travel plans, so Jack called me.

“You want to go to the Masters?” Jack asked. “The badges are paid for, the room is already paid for and it’s all non-refundable anyway, so what do you say?”

You bet, I said.

So, that’s how I got to the Masters. It was a glorious four days. Spectacular weather was a big part of it.

Watching Woods hold off David Duval and win by two strokes to complete the so-called Tiger Slam and hold all four major championships at the same time was another.

The feeling of being in The Church of Golf was still another.

Other memories stand out: speed-walking each morning to place my chair; watching guys in green jackets roll balls on greens, testing various hole locations; knowing that you could place your chair in a prime spot at 8 a.m. and hours later it would be exactly where you left it; the roars from various holes telling patrons elsewhere on the course that something big had just happened.

Other memories: The knowledgeable and polite patrons; seeing Byron Nelson on the first tee on Thursday; pimento-cheese sandwiches; buying that first Augusta National logo hat; and above all, the manicured turf and dazzling display of dogwoods and azaleas.

Notah Begay III, who is from New Mexico, played that year, thanks to victories at Memphis and Hartford during the previous summer. So, on Thursday and Friday, I speed-walked my chair to a spot by the rope to the left of the 18th green, watched some of the field go off No. 1 a few yards away, and then I followed him the rest of the day.

Begay was paired on Thursday and Friday with Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion. A couple of things stand out: Fanny Sunesson was on Begay’s bag, and Aaron was kind of a jerk, repeatedly berating his caddie. Such as when Aaron asked for a new ball: “No, the new sleeve. Not the open sleeve. The new sleeve! Now try to keep up with me this hole!”

The morning of Friday’s round, I spotted Aaron on the practice green and noticed he had a different caddie and

the crowd near him was buzzing about something.

“Who’s Aaron’s caddie?” I asked. “That’s Rick Reilly, the sportswriter,” said the patron next to me.

That second day, I watched as Begay failed to get on the right side of the cutline and Reilly failed as Aaron’s caddie, which Aaron repeatedly made a point to tell him. At one point, Sunesson told Reilly that Aaron’s clubs made too much noise as he walked. Worse, she even re-raked a bunker for him. To be honest, though, I don’t think Jim “Bones” Mackay could have satisfied Aaron that day. He shot 82 and missed the cut.

With Begay also missing the cut, my job covering the local New Mexico angle was done. So, on Saturday I turned into a pure spectator. I again started my day by speed-walking my chair from the gate near No. 5 green to No. 18, and then I stood at the rope behind the first tee and watched the entire field tee off.

As the players passed me, I’d say, “Good luck, Colin,” “Good luck, Shingo,” and so on. I find it noteworthy that, to a man, the foreign players said, “Thank you,” but to the Americans, I didn’t exist.

Through the day, the crowd at the back of No. 1 tee fell into a routine. When the Pinkerton guard saw that players were approaching, he’d tell us to step aside, which we did. After the players and their caddies passed through the opening we’d made, we’d all shuffle in unison back to the exact spots we had occupied, with zero jockeying or jostling.

Between tee times, I chatted with the Pinkerton guard, a guy in his late 50s.

“How’d you get this gig?” I asked.

“Some Army buddies. They called me up a few years ago and told me about it. We rent a house, get to see some great golf during the day and drink beer and play cards at night.”

Midway through the final pairings on Sunday, the guard briefly left his post to bust a guy talking on a cellphone. When he came back, I told him that this likely would be the only Masters I’d ever get to see. But if I could land a gig like his, that would be an entirely different thing, I said.

“You’d have to pass a background check, but if you’re serious, I can have you meet my supervisor this evening,” he said. “Meet us where the patrons cross No. 1 fairway at the end of the day. Our trailer’s not far from there.”

The final day was a blast. After three days, I knew my way around the course. In the afternoon, I climbed under the azaleas to the left of the pond on No. 16 and took a short nap. In four days, I never ran into my golf buddy Jack on the course. He spent his time following an assortment of players. We compared notes each night over dinner.

Late Sunday, by the time Woods arrived at No. 18, I was back in my chair – which was right where I’d left it, behind the notch in the rope that creates space for working photographers. In Golf Digest’s fold-out photo spread previewing the Masters the next year, I’m in the frame cheering as Woods’ final putt drops.

That’s how I went to the Masters. How I almost – but not quite – became a marshal at Augusta went like this: As agreed, I met the guard and his supervisor Sunday evening. The guard vouched for me, and his supervisor had me fill out an application and told me that if I passed the background check, there was a good chance they’d call. And then Jack and I went home.

Full of Masters memories, I went about my life, writing and making video about golf in New Mexico. Like Jack, I was now the envy of our golf group. When the first TV ad for CBS’ coverage of the 2002 Masters aired sometime around the Super Bowl, I remembered the Pinkerton job application I’d filled out. It also dawned on me that I’d changed cellphone companies, and my number had changed.

I called my old number. A woman answered. “Hi, you don’t know me, but I used to have this phone number. I’m wondering, has anyone from the Pinkerton agency called you asking about me?”

“Come to think of it, they did, and not too long ago. I thought it was about bounced checks or something.”

I had lost the supervisor’s business card. After calling Pinkerton headquarters a couple times and awkwardly and unsuccessfully trying to explain I was trying to reach a supervisor whose name I didn’t know, I gave up. As I hung up the phone, I knew my dream of marshaling at the Masters had just died.

In hindsight, though, I feel kind of like Dick James must have felt. I had seen the Masters – all four days of it – in fabulous weather. I’d been steeped in the ethic and beauty of the place. I witnessed history and came home with a story to tell. All and all, perfect, I’d say.

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.