Veteran AP racing writer takes a lap at Augusta

In just over 40 years working for The Associated Press, 38 of them in sports, I was fortunate enough to cover numerous big-time sports events. Among them were 47 Indy 500s, 31 Daytona 500s, two Olympics and one Super Bowl. Add to that list hundreds of games and tournaments in just about every sport at every level and it all adds up to quite a fun career.

Mike's Headshot

So there I was getting ready to retire in the summer of 2009 and I got to thinking about the events that I hadn’t covered and wished that I had. Tops among them was The Masters, which always fell on a week when I was covering another event.

Before I became AP’s Auto Racing Writer in 1980, I covered a few golf tournaments, including a couple at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, backing up the AP Golf Writer at the time, the late Bob Green.

It was eye-opening to spend time around golfers like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. They were approachable, friendly and easy to talk to not like some of the professional ballplayers that I had to deal with in those days.

And I’m a golfer, although breaking 100 is cause for a big celebration these days. So The Masters seemed like the Holy Grail. And it also seemed like an impossibility.

I was not about to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to buy tickets from resellers.

Then, in 2014, I heard about the Masters lottery. Each year, the powers that be at the Augusta track hold a lottery to give people a chance to buy tickets at face value for the big event in April.

I emailed my entry and promptly forgot about it, figuring the chances were about the same as winning big in Lotto. Much to my surprise, an email arrived in February telling me that I had won the chance to buy two tickets for the Wednesday practice session that April.

It was a little disappointing not to be going to the actual tournament, but it would give me a chance to see Augusta National Golf Club and those beautiful azaleas up close and personal.

I enlisted by brother-in-law from Florida an avid golfer to go with and we met at the Atlanta airport the day before our visit to the course and drove the 140 miles to Augusta with great excitement and anticipation.

That night, we ate dinner in a downtown Augusta steakhouse. As we finished, I heard a group of people at the next table talking about the tournament. I struck up a conversation and told them we were rookies and needed any tips they could give us.

They were locals and had plenty to say, including when to arrive, where to park. They also said we were likely to buy souvenirs, so the best thing to do was buy them right as we got to the course and then check them so we didn’t have to carry them around all day. It was great advice.

The course was everything I could have hoped lush, green and, happily, bathed in spring sunshine. As reported, the parking was free, the workers were smiling and friendly, the food was good although I did pass on the famed Pimento cheese sandwiches - and cheap. And the thousands of patrons don’t call them customers or fans were well-behaved and more than willing to converse about golf or whatever and give everyone a good chance to see what was going on in front of them.

After checking out the big scoreboard near the entrance and watching some big name golfers warming up on the practice range, we decided to walk the course from No. 1 to No. 18 as we watched the practice rounds that day. The course is far more hilly than it appears on TV. It was tiring, but it was a good decision, and we got to see Tiger, Phil, Rory, Ricky and so many more. It was a treat that kept us revved up through our dinner that night and on the drive back to the airport the next day.

It also inspired us to make the effort to do it again.

When we got back to our respective homes, we enlisted family and friends to enter the lottery for us, hoping for another shot at the tournament itself.

Amazingly, one of my brothers won the lottery for the same Wednesday practice in 2015 and after a bit of persuading and the promise of a nice dinner out handed the tickets off to me and the same brother-in-law.

It was a reprise of the previous year. We again had great weather and, this time, we spent less time walking and more time finding the best bleachers and grassy areas from which to watch. Another amazing experience and yet more of an appetite whetter.

Still, we talked about the probability that our two practice days would be the extent of our Masters experience and that was OK. At least we had been there.

The next month, while covering the Indy 500 for RacinToday.com, I was invited to a team party. One of my longtime racing friends turned out to be a member at Augusta and we got into a discussion of the tournament.

After a bit, I said, ``I’d love to see the actual tournament sometime, but it’s impossible to get tickets or at least get them for a decent price.’’

His reply, ``No, it isn’t.’’

Turns out that he wasn’t going to use his tickets in 2016 and offered them to me. It took about one second to accept.

The next April, my brother-in-law and I spent four glorious days and again the weather was magnificent watching Jordan Spieth turn the golfing world upside down on the way to his first Major championship.

The big different between a practice round and the tournament, fewer patrons to wade through on the course. Tickets are limited for the four tournament days and a whole lot more tension and focus from the golfers.

Those famous roars that roll across the course when a golfer does something special do make your hair stand on end. It was an amazing experience and one I relive in my mind quite often.

Now that The Masters is off my bucket list, hmm, what about the Kentucky Derby?

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