It was early on a Saturday morning in 1968 when a knock came at our door. Standing there was Dr. Leo Wade, one of two physicians in our tiny town of Union Point, Ga.
Dr. Wade, who loved golf, was about make the one-hour drive over to Augusta for the third round of The Masters. Dr. Wade’s son, Lee, was supposed to go with him but was not feeling well.
“I was wondering if Tony would like to go,” Dr. Wade asked my mom. She looked at me and said one word:
And on such random, spontaneous moments are lives forever changed. Because on that day I learned this: Once you visit Augusta National you are never same.
Remember the scene from the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy walks from her storm-battered black and white cottage, into a new world of bright lights and technicolor?
That’s what it feels like to walk onto the Augusta National Golf Course for the first time.
So many memories of that first trip:
**--Dr. Wade said: “Try this.”
My first pimento cheese sandwich at Augusta National. Never had a better one..
**--Bruce Devlin draining an impossibly long putt on No. 13 for an eagle and the roar that went with it.
**--Gary Player making a birdie putt on 18 to become the leader after three rounds. As the ball got closer and closer to the hole the crowd got louder and louder. Then came the explosion. By this point I had been to several college football games (we were only 30 miles from Athens, Ga.) but I had never heard a sound like that.
I would not be there on Sunday when the real history was made at the 1968 Masters. Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard. He should have been in a playoff with Bob Goalby. Instead Goalby, by the rules of golf, was declared the winner.
Goalby won $20,000 for first place. Whoever puts the Green Jacket on this Sunday will win about $2 million.
There were only five of us who played golf at Greene County High School and one day they brought us into a room and told us that we were the golf team. That was good enough to get us into the year book.
Mr. Ellis Foster, our principal, loved golf and made us a deal: If we ever got Masters badges (they were not tickets) for the Thursday or Friday rounds we could skip school and go. In 1970 or 1971 Eric Ashley and I cashed in on that deal and headed to Augusta. Trust me when I tell you it was a helluva lot better than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Little did I know at the time that years later I would be covering this blessed event for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and sitting in the press room next to the legendary Furman Bisher. Furman covered his first Masters in 1950 and returned for 62--that's right--62 consecutive years. Listening to him tell stories about The Masters remains one of my life’s true treasures. I still miss him terribly.
One year I got to watch a few holes from the CBS broadcast hut above the 16th green. I can’t tell you how I got up there but it was fun. A lot of history, including Tiger’s never-to-be forgotten chip-in in 2005, was made there.
In 2006 Ben Crenshaw, 11 years removed from his last green jacket, cobbled together rounds of 71 and 72 and was in contention on Saturday. I followed him for all 18 holes that day hoping to write about the magic that was still there.
But instead I wrote that, at 54, the length of the course and the pressures of the moment had finally caught up with Crenshaw. He finished 78-79. It was yet another reminder that, as former NFL general manager Bill Polian once said: “Father Time is undefeated.”
Thursday at 8:15 a.m. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will again serve as honorary starters for the 2019 Masters. They were very much in their prime when this teenage boy from Union Point saw them for the first time. They were majestic athletes then. They still are.
So the beginning of another Masters will give us equal parts celebration and reflection. And both, my friends, are still good for the soul.