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Editor’s note: A matter of hours after Jon Rahm won the 2023 Masters, our man Michael McEwan lived every golfer’s dream when he pegged it up at Augusta National. What follows is his full and unvarnished account of a day unlike any other…
There are few things as tedious as hearing about somebody else’s round of golf. Having said that, perhaps you will indulge me this once because, whilst all men are created equal, all rounds are not.
On April 10, 2023, I was lucky enough to fulfil a lifelong ambition. I played Augusta National. As an accredited member of the media covering The Masters, I was invited to enter the annual media lottery, from which 28 lucky souls are drawn and allowed to peg it up on the iconic course the morning after the latest Green Jacket recipient is decided.
It is, in its own way, a tradition unlike any other. Dating back many years, the ‘Monday Golf Outing’, to give it its official name, is Augusta National’s way of thanking media for covering The Masters. Contrary to what some wizened hacks would have you believe, the Green Jackets do value the coverage they get. It’s not for nothing that they shelled out a reported $50million on a new, permanent media centre at the bottom of the driving range in 2017.
This was my third visit to The Masters. I was there in 2019 when Tiger Woods won his fifth title and, after COVID-19 scuppered return visits in 2020 and 2021, I was back last year to see Scottie Scheffler win his first major. Both times, I entered the media lottery. Both times, no dice.
This year was different. Let’s call it third time lucky.
It’s easy to say this after the fact but I had a strong feeling this was going to be my year. For example, on Wednesday afternoon, I ventured out of the media centre and popped down to the merch shop. Monday and Tuesday are intensely busy, but Wednesday is typically quieter, so, as the Par-3 Tournament was getting under way, I took the chance to duck out. After I’d emptied my bank account in the shop, I found myself next to the big leaderboard adjacent to the first fairway and considering going for a walk around the course.
Because most people are watching the cutesy chaos Par-3, the ‘main’ course tends to be quite quiet, so this is the perfect chance to see it. The strangest feeling came over me, though. “Don’t worry about it,” said a voice in my head. “You’ll get to see it all on Monday.” And so I went back to the media centre. It’s hard to explain but I almost expected to be drawn.
I was on FaceTime with my wife and daughter back home in Scotland when I found out. We were talking about my parents’ upcoming golden wedding anniversary when I glanced to my left and spotted the television screen behind the reception desk. It was displaying the names of the media who had been successful in the lottery. The last name on display: Michael McEwan.
“Holy f***!” I blurted out.
“What’s happened?” asked my wife, instantly panicked.
I replied: “I’m playing the golf course on Monday!”
We spoke for a few more minutes but I can’t remember a word of it. My mind was mush. After we hung up, I checked and re-checked the screen. Sure enough, it was happening.
My next call was to Bryce (Ritchie, the bunkered editor).
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Never mind what’s happening today,” I grinned. “Ask me about what’s happening on Monday?”
He twigged immediately. Bryce has been to The Masters three times. He knows the deal.
“No. F***ing. Way,” he replied. “Are you serious?”
“You’re playing Augusta National?”
“I’m playing Augusta National.”
There was nothing either of us could do but laugh. We’ve worked together for 20 years. Before we started going to The Masters, we watched it in each other’s homes. The idea that one of us was getting to actually play the course was surreal.
“I’m not even jealous,” he lied. “Honestly, that’s amazing.”
My next call was to my mum and dad. I’m the youngest of four and we’re not a particularly sporty family. That said, there were always a handful of events that I vividly remember being on TV growing up. The London Marathon is one. Wimbledon another. So, too, The Masters.
I have a particularly strong memory of the 1996 tournament. It was shortly before we swapped our home in the Orkney Islands for Glasgow. I can still picture dad beckoning me over to watch the action. Despite not being a golfer, he has always loved The Masters because of Augusta National (“Look at those azaleas!”) and Seve Ballesteros (“A genius!”). That year, he was insistent I watch it with him because there was a young guy “with a funny name” who’s “going to be a huge deal”. Tiger Woods, obviously.
The Masters was my introduction to golf. Had it not been for my parents watching it and encouraging me to pay attention to it, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be writing this. So, to tell them I was going to get to play the course was special.
I was basking in the well wishes of several fellow journos – and, thanks to Bryce breaking the news on social media, countless people on Twitter – when the trees fell near the 17th tee and Friday’s play was suspended.
I immediately started doing all kinds of mental gymnastics. Half the field had still to finish their second round and the forecast for Saturday was grim. Very, very grim. Several inches of rain was expected to fall overnight, with downpours continuing throughout the day. I even overheard two English reporters discussing the prospect of Saturday being completely washed out.
Sod the tournament, what did that mean for my round? If it went to a Monday finish, would my invitation roll into Tuesday instead? Alternatively, would they just carry the round over to next year?
I’d get my answer at a Sunday morning briefing for all lottery winners. In the meantime, all I could do was watch and wait. My gut – and several fellow reporters – told me it was Monday or bust. And that made for an uncomfortable weekend.
By Saturday lunchtime, I was feeling good again. A combination of the weather not being quite as bad as forecast and Augusta National’s investment in SubAir technology meant the course was holding up well against the conditions. Things appeared to be back on track.
Then came my next problem: I had a tee time but no clubs. I’m not an especially superstitious person but taking my clubs to Augusta felt like a sure way to jinx my prospects. I’d worry about clubs if and when my name got pulled. Ewan Murray, the golf correspondent for The Guardian, found himself in the same position a few years earlier and had managed to rent a cobbled-together set from a nearby second-hand golf shop. “You go in, explain the situation to them, and they’ll give you a bag to fill up,” he told me. “Dead easy.”
Around lunchtime on Saturday, I jumped in my rental car and went to the shop he’d recommended. By this point, the rain had gone from steady to torrential. I went in and explained the situation to an elderly gent behind the counter.
He fixed me a quizzical look. “I don’t think we do that no more,” he drawled. “Let me go check.”
As he shuffled out of view, I heard the unmistakable sound of an air horn coming through the speakers of the TV hanging from the ceiling. I glanced up. Play suspended. As Jim Nantz uttered the words “no more golf today”, I knew my chances of playing were slipping away.
At that point, the old guy returned. “Just as I thought, we stopped doing that a couple years ago,” he said. Pointing to the TV, he added: “Don’t think it’ll matter anyway. They’re still gon’ be playin’ on Monday.”
All at once, my heart sank and broke, and I trudged back to my car. I sat behind the wheel for about five minutes just staring at the rain. I took every splash of rain on the windscreen personally. It sounds ridiculous but I was, in part, dreading the inevitable influx of schadenfreude. I even started to mentally compose the first few paragraphs of a “How my Augusta dream turned into a nightmare” piece.
The last Monday finish at Augusta occurred ten months before I was born, so the prospect of such a delay in the year I got picked to play the course felt as inevitable as it did cruel.
Driving back to my motel, I tried to do the math. The leaders still had 11 holes of their third round to complete. To finish on time, they’d need to play 29 holes on Sunday. Not out of the question. There just wouldn’t be a huge amount of wiggle room. Assuming Mother Nature cooperated – and the forecast suggested she would – there was probably enough daylight for three holes of a playoff if required. Tight, but doable.
On Sunday morning, we had our meeting with Augusta officials, where we were given a list of dos and don’ts for our round. The prospect of a Monday finish came up. “If that happens,” we were told, “then unfortunately you won’t be playing.”
Worried glances were exchanged. Nobody said it out loud, but everyone was thinking the same thing.
By lunchtime, things looked gravy again. The third round had been completed and the leaders were scheduled to go out in pairs – another good sign – at their customary time (between 2.30pm and 3pm).
I still didn’t have any clubs, though. I called Augusta Country Club. No dice. I asked a few colleagues. No dice. Finally, I called the River Golf Club in North Augusta, where I spoke to head pro Wayne Ackerman.
Once again, I explained my predicament. “I’ll be honest,” I said. “I’m starting to run out of options. Please tell me you can help.”
“Sure thing,” said Wayne. “If you got money, we got clubs.”
Five minutes later, I was in the car. I figured I wouldn’t be the only lottery winner phoning him.
Clubs secured, I drove back to the media centre to enjoy the rest of the round. As Rahm and Koepka in the final group stood on the third tee, I glanced at my watch. Forty-five minutes to play two holes? Uh-oh! Forget two or three holes. At this rate, there would be no time for a play-off.
Over the next four hours, I became irrationally obsessed by Patrick Cantlay and his glacial behaviour. I’d beaten the odds by being drawn in the lottery in the first place and, for good measure, had seen off falling trees and rain delays only to be defeated by a multi-millionaire human traffic jam who moves with the urgency of a three-legged turtle? It felt like the universe was taking the piss.
It wasn’t until Rahm removed his baseball cap as he approached the 18th green that I relaxed. I checked the weather forecast for the millionth time in 48 hours. All good.
* * *
As dawn broke on Monday, I was already wide awake. Notwithstanding my 11.20am tee time, I had to pack my bags because I was driving straight to the airport in Atlanta when I finished up later that afternoon. Time was of the essence.
Per club rules, you’re not allowed to arrive more than one hour before your tee time. Any earlier and they’ll turn you away.
Having checked out, I drove to Washington Road. I wanted to be close in case of any traffic jams or hold-ups.
One of the best bits of advice I got was to have breakfast before arriving. With only 60 minutes to look around the clubhouse, get changed, go to the pro shop (this is where they sell the mega-exclusive Augusta National-branded merch) and hit shots, you don’t want to be wasting any time on eating. So, at 9.45am, I was in the Waffle House, dressed for golf and scoffing my budget brekkie.
At precisely 10.20am, I turned right onto Magnolia Lane where a sheriff’s officer waved me down.
“Good morning, sir,” he drawled. “Can I see your documents?”
I showed him my invite.
“Okay, 11.20am,” he said, studying the card. “Right on time.”
As if I was going to be late.
As he handed it back, the steel bollards lowered in unison.
“Just drive up to the clubhouse and they’ll take care of you,” he added. “Have a great day.”
The drive up Magnolia Lane has been filmed and shared on social media countless times. We all know what it looks like by now. Even so, it’s surreal. A couple of things: one, it’s a lot longer it looks; two, it’s infinitely cooler than you can imagine. All I could do was giggle to myself.
As I drove around Founder’s Circle and pulled up at the front door, a caddie opened the back door of the car and took away my clubs and a valet grabbed the keys. Suddenly, I was in the clubhouse. It’s a small, simple building with not so much as a thread out of place. It’s like a show home.
Off to the right as you enter, there’s a spiral staircase that leads to the Champions’ Locker Room. Ordinarily the preserve of Green Jacket owners, this space is used by media lottery winners, each of whom is randomly assigned a locker. Moving through the room, roughly the size of a squash court, I scanned the lockers looking for my name.
Suddenly, there it was: “Michael McEwan”. A brass plaque above my name showed which former Masters champion the locker was reserved for.
I’m not ashamed to admit I welled up. Seve, the first European to win The Masters, my dad’s favourite golfer and me, born in 1984 – and we all know what he did at St Andrews that year – getting to “share” a space with him? It was almost too much.
After spending far too much in the pro shop, I went to the range where my caddie – clad in the white overalls – was standing next to my bag. I really lucked out. Me and Glen, or “No Pin Glen” as his fellow loopers call him (apparently, he’s a bit shy at tending the flag!), hit it off immediately. He reckons he’s caddied more than a thousand rounds at Augusta National.
“Does it ever get old?” I asked him.
Now, a confession: I hadn’t hit a ball in 2023 prior to rocking up at Augusta. Genuinely. The first shot I hit was a fat wedge on the range. The next was far better. I then hit two 7-irons (beautifully, I might add) and that was it. Off to the first tee.
That’s where I met my playing partners: a Chinese reporter called Xieng Jiu; Alex Trautwig, a photographer with Getty Images; and Bob Casper. Bob is the long-standing host of Real Golf Radio. He also happens to be the son of the 1970 Masters champion, Billy Casper.
Apart from a few Augusta National officials, there was nobody else near the tee. After Bob ripped a drive down the middle, it was my turn to go. A lot of people have asked me how nervous I felt. The honest answer is not particularly. Sure, there were some butterflies, but nothing compared to, say, the Old Course. Missing the world’s widest fairway, invariably with a lot of people watching, is not something anybody wants to be known for.
I’ve played St Andrews three times, and, on every occasion, I’ve been extremely nervous. Augusta National brings its own pressure but the first on the Old Course is world-renowned, which Augusta’s isn’t. More than anything, I was just excited to get going. It sounds mega cheesy but as I stood behind my ball and looked down the fairway, I was thinking of my little girl and how cool it will be to tell her about all this when she’s old enough to understand.
As luck would have it – and it was luck – I hit a perfect drive; a lovely little cut that came to rest in the middle of the fairway just beyond the bunker. I even got a round of applause from the assembled officials. Rory McIlroy would have paid good money for that shot on Sunday in 2018.
I won’t bore you with a full blow-by-blow account of my round. Instead, here are a few highlights and observations.
First of all, yes, it’s hilly. Much hillier than it looks on TV and, in a strange way, much hillier than it looks from the other side of the ropes.
Secondly, we were playing from the members’ tees. All told, it comes in at 6,350 yards, not the 7,545 yards players competing in The Masters must wrestle with. We did, though, have Sunday pins to contend with.
The greens? Stupendously good and stupendously tough. On the first, I chipped on from off the right-hand side of the dance floor and, at first glance, I thought I had absolutely nailed it. I ended up off the front edge. “Welcome to Augusta,” said one of the other caddies with a knowing chuckle. On the fifth, I was about 25 feet from the flag and my caddie asked me to tell him what I saw. I had it around 60% weight and a little right to left. Turns out it was 110% weight and left to right. Because of the grain, some downhill putts felt slow, whilst some uphill putts seemed fast. Fast, slick and harder to read than Finnegans Wake, they are, hands down, the best greens I have ever putted on, all of which makes it remarkable that I had zero four-putts and only one three-putt, on the 16th, frustratingly.
There’s no doubt that the back nine is where most of the fun is to be found. Ten is fantastic fun – if you hit it in the right spot off the tee – whilst 11 is a simply brilliant hole. It was a lot different from how I’d pictured it in my mind’s eye. Not off the tee so much, but when you get up to the crest of the hill. The green is suddenly right there and, Holy Fuzzy Zoeller, it’s intimidatingly small. I made an exceptional five there after my one and only shank of the day from the middle of the fairway and a flubbed chip from next to the 12th tee.
And so to 12. Golden Bell. Arguably the most famous par-3 in the world.
What can I tell you? For one thing, it’s beautiful. For another, it’s terrifying. As you stand on the tee, you can’t help but think of all the would-be Masters champs whose hopes have been dashed by it. Jordan Spieth in 2016; Tony Finau, Francesco Molinari and Brooks Koepka in 2019. As I waited my turn, the words of Jack Nicklaus echoed in my mind. “It’s the hardest tournament hole in golf.” Thanks, Jack.
In the end, I hammered a 7-iron right over the top of the flag. It ended up being a little big but the sight of the ball in mid-air, sailing on that aggressive a line, knowing I’d (a) not shanked it and (b) cleared the creek was extremely satisfying. I made bogey but that was six better than Tiger managed on the final day in 2020, so I’ll take it.
Fourteen was a pleasant surprise. I’d always thought of it as being a bit like an ad break in the middle of an amazing movie. So wrong. It’s a seriously underrated hole.
Finally, eighteen. I’d promised myself that, irrespective of where my drive went, I’d throw my ball in the fairway bunker to try to recreate Sandy Lyle’s iconic shot in 1988. Particularly with this year having been his final Masters appearance, it felt only right. I rattled a 7-iron into the right greenside bunker.
A couple of putts later, it was over. With a few asterisks, I shot a 97. All things considered, I’m more than happy with that. Everybody shook hands, and, within ten minutes, I was back in the car and homeward-bound.
I’m now barred from entering the media lottery for the next seven years but, honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever re-enter. What’s the point? I got to live a dream and it completely exceeded my expectations. How could a second, or a third, or a fourth go possibly be better?
Amongst the many tweets I received, one stood out. “Today you will live the dream on behalf of us all,” it read. “Breathe deep, walk tall and smell the azaleas. Enjoy every moment.”
I absolutely did.
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