Sunday at Augusta outside the ropes
From outside the ropes, it sure didn't look like Phil Mickelson was winning his first major.
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's a "tradition unlike any other." You'll be told that over and over again this weekend as you strap yourself in front of the television, watching the 2004 Masters unfold. But watching the Masters on TV and actually getting to experience it in person are two entirely different things. Truth be told, those of you at home will have a much better feel for the tournament -- who's playing well and who's not -- than I will, mainly because I refuse to come to Augusta and sit in press room watching TV monitors and scoreboards. Well, it's not so much that I refuse, just that The Mag is kind enough to let me roam. For those who've never had the chance to walk through the gates of Augusta National Golf Club, here are a few sights, sounds and thoughts from just outside the ropes on Sunday.
The day begins for me at No. 1, watching Tiger Woods and Jose-Maria Olazabal begin their rounds. I watch six groups tee off as I plot my day. I have no idea at this time I'm about to experience the strangest day of sports in my life -- a day both thrilling and frustrating. I knew greatness was all around me, but I never could get the perfect view on any of it.
The par-3 sixth hole has been a favorite perch all week, so I park myself right behind the tee box. Nick Price and Jay Haas are the first group I catch. And I must confess, I've been here since Monday and this is the first time I've laid eyes on Price. I had no clue he was even par to begin the day and still sniffing contention. Anyway, the hole is 180 yards, but I'm told it's playing 192 to the pin. Frederick Jacobson, the only golfer I've ever seen who wears a baseball-style wristband, hits an eight iron. That's right, an eight iron. And he hits it too far. No birdies to be found during my stay here. But there's a leaderboard off to my right. The board will be my best friend today, I soon learn.
I've pretty much avoided Amen Corner all week, but I find a nice spot for the late afternoon. I can see the 11th green, the 12th tee box and the 12th green from my perch. A group of students from the University of South Carolina provide the entertainment. I make the mistake of calling K.J. Choi, "Hee Sop Choi" (I'm a baseball writer, you should not be surprised I thought of the Florida first-baseman), so I'm the subject of much ridicule when we see a ball come flying into 11, then roll perfectly up the green and into the hole, giving "Hee Sop" an amazing eagle.
This is the par 3 that is said to be the place where green jackets are won and lost (mostly lost). I dispense some knowledge to my Gamecock buddies, telling them that Mark Love, younger brother and frequent caddy for Davis Love III, once told me that regardless of the pin (today it's on the front right), you aim for the center of the green. When the only players who aim for the flag end up wet, the boys think I'm a genius. I'm feeling good about my expertise now, so I predict that Phil Mickelson will put the ball in the water. Phil not only stays dry, he hits the prettiest shot on 12 that I will see the entire day. Oh, but it does not seem like Phil's day, not even with that great shot. The scoreboard is about to change. Ernie Els has made an eagle (his second of the day!) on 13 to move to 7-under. Even with Mickelson's birdie on 12, he is now two off the lead.
The par-5 15th is going to be the moment of truth for Mickelson if he's to make up ground on Els. That's what the experts in the gallery (me included, though after predicting Mickelson would die on 12, I'm not as willing to share my inner-most thoughts). And here comes a ball, and it's not looking good. It's rolling, rolling, rolling toward me, but ends up right behind a tree. It's Mickelson's tee shot. I want so badly to tell the guy next to me that Mickelson has just lost the Masters. But I keep it to myself. What happens next fools everyone. Mickelson punches out and it looks for sure like he's hit his lay-up shot too far. It rolls out of sight. Is it wet? Apparently not, but Phil's now looking at a difficult chip onto the green. He ends up with a par. He's done, I want to say.
I can see the 16th green from where I'm standing on the 15th fairway, but I can't really see the flag or the hole or the tee. One thing I do know is the crowd is going berserk what seems like every five minutes. Padraig Harrington has made a hole in one, I'm told, for the first roar. Then, "my buddy" Kirk Triplett (nice hat!) also makes an ace. Now, this is absurd. I hang around to "see" Els make a difficult par putt on 16 (a guy with binoculars tells me it was about 10 feet). I hear the crowd thunder around the time Mickelson's supposed to hit, but as I begin to make my way over to the 18th tee box, I hear a groan. "Mickelson missed his birdie putt," someone says. I'm about to reply, "Mickelson lost the Masters with that tee shot on 15," but I keep it to myself. About a minute later, the crowd is going nuts again over on 16. I now watch Scoreboard Guy climb the ladder with an 8 in his hand, which can mean only one thing -- the guy who said Phil missed the birdie did not know what he was talking about.
I've got no choice. It's been the greatest day I've ever spent on a golf course, but if I'm ever going to see anything other than a leaderboard change, I've got to get to the press center. I can't run, because the Masters police will nab me. So I walk fast, getting to my seat just in time to see Els save par from the sand on 18 and Mickelson make that winning bird. About all that's left to say is that back a month or so ago, I did a piece for the Magazine on Mickelson. We call the regular feature "In the Crosshairs" and in the story, we said it was now or never for Phil. Looks like it was now. I can't wait to get back to my room to see all the great golf I missed today by actually being here.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.