AUGUSTA, Ga. -- When you get to play the Augusta National the day after the Masters as a media member, it's because you've actually won the lottery.
Every year the club holds a drawing for credentialed members of the press, who are given a ticket with a number on it for the opportunity to play the course. I hadn't entered the lottery for several years because the Monday after is often the most frenetic day of the week for those covering the tournament for a magazine, but I thought I would be pretty free this year. So when I was chosen as one of the 24 journalists who got a starting time, naturally I was thrilled. After covering 21 Masters, I would be playing Augusta for the first time.
As it turned out, I worked all night Sunday and Monday morning to finish my story for Golf World, "Separation Anxiety," about Phil Mickelson's dual-coach quandary. With an 8:30 a.m. starting time off the 10th, I didn't file until 8:10. After pushing the send button, I ran to the bathroom of our rented house, brushed my teeth and ran down to the car for the 15-minute drive to Magnolia Lane. I made it in 12, dropped my clubs off with the caddie staff, parked and walked on the 10th tee at exactly 8:30.
My group, which included Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press and Joe Logan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, had a few minutes before the foursome ahead was clear, and as I took the opportunity to stand still for a moment I could feel how jangled my nervous system was from no sleep and too much coffee. But from the members' tee -- 45 yards in front of the tee that is used during the tournament -- I somehow hit a good drive, down the left side and to the bottom of the hill. We were off, each of us with a caddie dressed in white overalls, and walking down the steep hill of the fairway and taking in the panorama from inside the ropes. I couldn't help putting my arm around Ferguson's shoulder and saying, "Man, here we are."
I then pushed an 8-iron into the greenside bunker and made bogey, which was fine. This would be a day of no expectations, a day to surrender to the surroundings, communing with the ghosts of Masters past, and of sheer enjoyment.
We didn't play anywhere near the same course that Zach Johnson had won on the day before. Although the hole locations weren't changed, it was obvious right away that the greens had been watered. They held quite well and putted slower, probably in the 10- to 11-foot range on the Stimpmeter. We had little wind, although the temperatures in the low 50s took a few yards off of normal carry.
The biggest difference from the tournament course came because we were required to play from the members' tees, from which the course measures 6,365 yards, more than a half-mile shorter than the 7,445 yards that the Masters field has to negotiate. All told, I'd guess that for the low- to middle-range handicap player, it's at least a 10-stroke difference in difficulty, while high handicappers particularly challenged by carries over water and short-game skills probably would shoot 20, or more, strokes better.
I really didn't care what I shot as long as it didn't turn out to be one of those helpless days. I mostly wanted to feel what it was like to actually stand over and try to hit the shots that I'd seen the world's best pull off for years. It's hugely different from watching from outside the ropes or from a grandstand. As I took in the individual shots, I got a much more acute feeling for the distance and the lay of the land and the shape of the ideal shot required. What looks routine from outside the ropes, and certainly on television, is much more challenging and interesting with club and ball. As a golf writer, it definitely deepened my perspective of what a Masters contender must face.
Famous shots like the second on 13 are as dramatic as it gets. But I've also got to say that the setting and design make them wonderfully inviting and almost comfortable. Sure, they are difficult, but mostly I was struck by what an interesting and tremendously fun golf course Augusta National must be for the members who get to play. It's a course that, even with the first cut added and all the new trees planted, gives you a fair amount of room. There are only a few places on the course where you can lose your ball or have to take an unplayable. For players who know how to move along, it's a course that can be played in well under four hours, walking.
By teeing off on the back nine, we were in the midst of Amen Corner right away. Strolling down the 11th fairway, it's pretty much beyond doubt that the expanse that includes the 12th green and the entire 13th hole is the most beautiful view afforded by an inland course in all of golf. And as far as that ethereal sense of standing on a hallowed battleground that you get on some of the most historic courses, the only places that I think compares to Amen Corner are the first and 18th fairways at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
I'll try not to bore you with a lot of play-by-play. In the interests of full disclosure, I'm about a 5 handicap who hits a lot of drives long and wrong (I say "about" because for the last year or so I've played fewer than a dozen 18-hole rounds and have only posted my score a few times). After my two best drives of the day, on holes 10 and 11, I pushed the ball into the trees a lot, which killed my chances of trying to hit 13 in two, and forced me to hit a lot of low, running punch shots under trees for my second shots.
At least on the 15th, which we played at 475 yards rather than 530, I was able, after an OK drive, to put my second over the pond and in the right bunker with a 3-wood, from where a good sand shot led to a birdie. In fact, for me the most fun part of Augusta were the wedge shots -- from the fairway and around the greens. The third shots after a layup to all four par 5s are especially classic. The tight turf, fast but holding greens, closely cut pins and dramatic contours around the holes make a well-struck shot something to savor for life. The best shot I hit all day was a pinched 60-degree wedge from about 55 yards to the second green, one of those all-too-rare perfectly flushed low ones loaded with spin. It landed past the right-corner pin, but after one big bounce sucked back hard to about 6 feet. I missed it -- I found the greens wonderful and interesting, and where the coffee and sleepiness and my own suspect stroke got me -- but I don't think I'll ever forget the sensation and sight of that shot.
My other most memorable impressions came from the par 3s. I'd always wondered if the shot on the 12th was a bit overrated for drama and difficulty, but standing on the tee I knew instantly it wasn't. There is something about the way the flag sits on the table-top of the right-hand part of the green (the traditional Sunday position) that makes it look particularly precarious. In the air, the ball seems to hang timelessly and leave the player with a real uncertainty about where it will land. We played the hole from about 150 yards to the pin, and I hit a half-decent 7-iron a bit long and left and took three to get down. But I'd never been even near the 12th green before -- the fans and press aren't allowed closer than about 75 yards -- and the feeling I got while standing on it is one I figure is not dissimilar to walking out on the stage of the old Globe Theater.
As many disasters as have befallen contenders on the 16th, I'd have to say it's the easiest of the four par 3s. The fourth is just plain hard, a long shot to a small target defended by a huge bunker and very difficult terrain around the green. We played it at 180 into the wind, 60 yards short of the back tournament tee (easy double for me). The 180-yard sixth is the most exacting of the par 3s because the three levels of the green and its Pinehurst No. 2-like fall-off make it extra hard to get the ball anywhere around the hole.
As for the par 4s, they are terrific and tough but slightly less memorable. I drove poorly to the right on the 14th, 18th and first holes, causing me to remember them as the hardest of the par 4s. I loved the short third hole, which we played at 340 yards. I'd actually love to see it played about 310 or so during the tournament to make it driveable and to bring back the chance for some swashbuckling. No matter where you hit a second shot from, it requires more precision than any approach on the course. A genius hole, but I'd still like to see the committee experiment with it a bit.
I bogeyed most of the par 4s, with two extreme exceptions. On the fifth, after another pushed drive and punch-out, I had a 70-foot putt from the front left of that roller-coaster putting surface to the right-back hole location. I made it. On my last hole, the ninth, a pulled but lucky drive left me only 85 yards to the front pin. At the top of my backswing I felt a surge of fear of being short, and the extra effort sent my ball long. My caddie, a wonderful guy named Stan who never over-caddied and offered only sound advice, suggested I putt the ball, but I wanted to try one of the scariest shots that Augusta offers, so I pulled out the 60 degree and tried for precise contact. I dropped-kicked the shot just enough and started walking. The ball didn't stop until it was 50 yards off the front of the green. From there I did a good imitation of Luke Donald the day before and took triple bogey. It gave me an 82.
I've finished with triple more than a few times, but never as happily.
Jaime Diaz, a Golf Digest and Golf World senior writer, joined the company in May 2001. Formerly with The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, Diaz has been honored numerous times by the Golf Writers Association of America.