YOU'LL PROBABLY NEVER GET INSIDE Augusta. OUR RECON OF HOOTIE'S HOUSE WILL GIVE YOU A TASTE OF WHAT YOU'RE MISSING
HOOTIE JOHNSON stands behind me in Butler Cabin-just like Phil and Tiger a year ago-holding a Green Jacket with a hand cupped under each lapel. "Ah buh-leeve you're a 44 reg-u-lahh," says the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, his accent as soft as an azalea leaf. "I believe I am," says I, the newest member of the world's most exclusive golf club. "Now let's slip that bad boy on, knock down some Red Bulls and Cuervo and play Amen Corner in our boxers. Whooeee!"
This is Golf Fantasy No. 1.
Golf Fantasy No. 2 is what really happened to me a few weeks ago: an all-day, all-access, behind-the-scenes, pre-Masters visit to the Wrigley Field of golf. Just me, a photographer, the photographer's assistant, an Augusta National escort and 10,000 of my closest dogwoods. Otherwise, with the exception of the occasional foursome, this corner of Georgia was more deserted than the lunar landscape. Hootie & Co.'s 365-acre compound is just off Washington Road, which never met a strip mall it didn't like. But as soon as the Augusta National security guard hands you a clip-on visitors tag and waves you toward the stately clubhouse, it's as if you were in a 1952 time warp. You can disagree with Augusta's membership policies (still not one woman), the latest course changes (now 7,445 yards, up 155 from a year ago) or Johnson's imperial stubbornness, but you can't find fault with the tournament itself. Win here, and obit writers have their opening graph ready for when you spin in. Augusta National is a three-way intersection of history, exclusivity and roars that shake needles from pines. It is Terrence Howard-cool, not only for what you see on the CBS broadcast but for what you don't. You pretty much know everything about Masters week itself, right? Eldrick Woods is the people's (and bookies') choice. Ernie Els will come close, but Retief Goosen will come closer. Sergio Garcia, who has more Michelob spots than majors, will leave muttering about his putter, which figures. After all, muttering is a Masters pastime, thanks to greens as slick as sheet metal and enough Sunday drama to make the pros gnaw their FootJoys. You'll see all that unfold on the family plasma. But what you won't see-what almost no one sees unless they are one of Augusta National's 300 members-is what's behind the green curtain. Until now.
Welcome to the Masters Club Room (left), a.k.a. the Champions Locker Room. Unless you're a past winner-or sneak past the security guard-there's no getting in here during tourney week. So just to be on the safe side: There are 28 oak lockers (Tiger shares his with Jack Burke Jr.), three bridge tables (Augusta matchbooks placed on the ashtrays just so), a green wingback chair, photos of the second, sixth and 10th holes, pics from past Masters Champions dinners and a glass case housing a three-button Green Jacket. We replaced it with a sports bra (kidding, Hootie!). Equally cool is the clubhouse library, where you can sit at the same desk (above right) used by Augusta member Dwight D. Eisenhower (whose other claims to fame include running the country for eight years and winning WWII). His Spalding Elite "General Ike" clubs are here too, as is The Right Hand of Lincoln, a cast donated to club co-founder Clifford Roberts by Pat and Dick Nixon in 1960. Tough to tell if Abe used the Vardon overlap grip.
The caddies room is seriously old school. There's a snack bar, a 1950s-style dispenser of Advil and Tylenol, a TV and lounge area, pin-placement charts, green wooden tables for cards and dominoes and rows of phys-ed lockers (right). It's a far cry from the more stately confines of the main clubhouse (above). A hamper near the door holds just-used white caddie overalls, though here's guessing that former NBAer David Robinson kept his custom-made pair after toting a bag for Corey Pavin in the 1997 Par 3 contest. Above the lockers is the 22-member Masters Caddie Hall of Fame, featuring present caddie master Gray Moore. Moore looped for Tom Watson in 2004, but it was one bag he wished he never had to carry. Not long before Watson was scheduled to tee off in the opening round, the two-time Masters champion learned that his longtime caddie and close friend Bruce Edwards had died from ALS-related complications. The scores are posted under Moore's photo: "75-75-Cut."
You've never heard Jim Nantz whisper, "And now to Verne Lundquist at the maintenance compound." But that's where we spent part of our fantasy day at Augusta. Talk about anal-retentive. This is where the grounds crew measures sand particles, making sure one size goes in the bunkers while another size is used as topdressing for the bent-grass greens. This is also home to the soil-grass-leaf disease diagnostics lab (left), complete with infrared analyzer. There's enough dried grass in here to make you think they're growing Augusta chronic '06 on the side. So huge is the compound that it has a 36-desk classroom, its own gas pumps and more machinery than you can shake a 3-iron at. We ate in the employee cafeteria, stood on the balcony overlooking "the big oak" and scaled the stairs to the Crow's Nest, where amateurs stay during tourney week. The only place we didn't see: the bikini-wax storage area. I left late that afternoon, just as a downpour arrived. Turns out Fantasy No. 2 was perfect save for one thing: It didn't last long enough.
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