- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. It is exactly 6 a.m. when you pull up to Augusta National's Magnolia Lane gatehouse. You present the guard with your invitation to the media outing and a photo ID. He eyes both, gives the invite card a little skeptical flex to test the authenticity of the stock, checks your name off a list and instructs you to make a hard right into media parking.
You explain that you just want to take a quick spin down Magnolia Lane first, and then you'll come right back to the press lot.
He pauses for an instant, assesses your car with a look that says your Honda is a blight on his workplace and says slowly, "Sir, you can either take your little 'spin' down Magnolia Lane, or you can play golf today. Which is it going to be?"
Welcome to Augusta National.
Your unceremonious entry is just the first of several mild early-morning disappointments. When you check in with the starter for your 7:27 tee time at No.10, he informs you that the range is closed, picture-taking should be kept to a minimum and you will be playing from the members' tees (6,230 yards), not the Masters tees (7,270 yards).
You are, however, allowed to take a caddie, so you join a line that leaves you luckily paired with local looper Chris Bussey.
"First time here?" asks Bussey, who claims a 1958 birthdate but could pass for 60. "Whooo boy, then you better get on that practice green, boss, and I'll meet you later at the 10th tee. You try to work out the speed of these greens, and I'll try to work out last night's cocktails."
An hour later, you're standing on the 10th tee, facing one of the toughest par-4s in golf on five hours' sleep without the benefit of a single practice ball. You steer a driver 250 yards down the left side, let out a delivery room-sized sigh of relief and take your first joyful footsteps inside the ropes at golf's most prestigious venue.
Your playing partners aren't as fortunate. Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize winner from the New York Times, is a scratch handicapper with a laptop but probably hasn't threatened 90 in a decade. Richard Castka, a photojournalist from Hong Kong, has duffed one dead left off the tee. And Scotsman Andrew Cotter, a TV analyst for the BBC, apparently intends to play the 10th from the 18th fairway.
Bussey, sensing your smug demeanor, sidles up beside you and injects a little reality into your reverie.
"All right, boss, I guess we're both thrilled about that first one. I don't have to chase one in the jungle, and you don't have to hit another one cold in front of a gallery. But let me tell you something. There's a big difference between being a pretty good player and playing this golf course pretty good.
"Here's what it is: You hit it where I tell you, take the lines I tell you and trust my reads, and you and I just might do a little getting down today."
It's pretty clear who the real boss is in this relationship.
Bussey then explains that you have 206 yards to the front, 214 to the pin and hands you a 3-iron while instructing you to aim five yards left of the flag.
The first thing that strikes you as you address the shot is the severity of the fairways. The lie itself is perfect, as they are all day, but your stance is awkward at best the ball is above your feet and considerably downhill, turning your 3-iron into a 1-iron. You realize TV can't do justice to the undulations of the place. The clubhouse rests on the only flat piece of land on the entire property.
You haven't felt this reluctant over a shot since your 21st birthday, and the result is as predictable as is it is pitiful a skulled pull that travels 150 yards and provokes a disdainful grunt from Bussey. A conservative lob wedge and two tentative putts later, you walk off the 10th green with an opening bogey.
As you walk back to the 11th tee, you take a few seconds to review your goals for the day: No three-putts, play Amen Corner (Nos.11-13) even par and beat Arnold Palmer's opening-round 89.
OK, so Arnie's a 72-year-old man who had a 1,000-yard handicap from the big boy tees. So what? He also had several hundred rounds of Augusta National experience on you and an open practice range. We'll call it even.
No.11 brings another bogey of the same scrape-it-around vintage, and you arrive at the famed 12th hole facing 152 yards over Rae's Creek to the Sunday pin. Bussey tells you to aim between the bunkers 15 yards left of the pin, promising that "the ball always moves right once it gets up over Rae's Creek."
He's correct, and your Titleist Pro VI drifts right and settles down 12 feet under the pin. Your pre-putt rhythm is broken by an impromptu photo shoot from Castka, who is clearly inconvenienced by the game itself. You waste a perfect read by Bussey, leave your birdie bid a foot short but walk off one of the game's most treacherous holes with your first par of the day.
You commend Bussey for his read, and he runs wild with the compliment.
"Unless I'm drunk or dead, I can read these greens better than anybody here," says Bussey, who tells you there are 90 full-time caddies at the club. "I'll tell you what, if one of the top pros was to take a local caddie, they'd do a whole lot better. Guy like me, I've been around here 13 years. I can get you up and in from anywhere, because there ain't a shot I ain't seen or a putt I ain't read. But these pro caddies, they ain't here but for one week. Now you can't learn this golf course in one week. It's too subtle.
"I'd caddie the pants off of most of those fools. But that's their business, and I ain't going to worry with it. The Masters is my week off, and I'm happy to keep it that way."
The next four holes pass in a blur of ecstasy. You parlay another marvelous Bussey read into a two-putt par at No.13, overwhelm a bogey at No.14 with a kickaway birdie at No.15 and get up-and-down from the eighth circle of hell behind the 16th green. As you head to the 17th tee, you repeat Bussey's most recent line "That's what I'm talking about" to yourself and take stock.
First, you played Amen Corner in 1-over.
Second, you clipped Vijay Singh's final-round nine at No.15 by five strokes. Singh would have sold his boy Qass for your birdie on that hole late Sunday afternoon.
"Whooo, I could see that mess coming with Vijay," says Bussey, chuckling. "Tiger is used to playing with all that pressure; it doesn't bother him. But some of these other guys, like Vijay, you can tell they're swinging tense. Honestly, the first thing I would have done if I was Vijay's caddie would be to run in at the turn and get him a couple of doubles of any kind of liquor in the book to calm his nerves. Ain't no shame in it, and it would definitely have loosened up his swing."
It takes a minute to clear your mind of an image of Singh belching on air before a pivotal putt, but eventually your thoughts return to your own observations.
You now have no patience for the whining the pros do about the greens every year. The greens at Augusta National are fast, like about mach 4, but they roll so true it's like putting on a pool table. If you can't putt at Augusta National, you should buy a tennis racket.
Fourth, you're boot-heeling Arnie. Heck, you're only 2-over and the most intimidating holes on the layout are behind you. Forget Arnie's 89. You're going after Singh's Sunday 76.
As you study the view from the 17th teebox, one last self-satisfied thought shatters your focus: Ike was a total chop. The Eisenhower pine, so named because of the former President's many angry encounters with the tree, is at least 40 yards left of your intended line off the 17th tee.
In hindsight, you realize it was this five-minute visit to the land of hubris that ultimately sabotages your scorecard.
After a perfect drive, you cover the remaining 149 yards on No.17 like Helen Keller chunk 9-iron, thin wedge, two never-had-a-chance putts and a tap-in double-bogey. The doomsday run of holes continues with a bogey at No.18 (for a back-nine 41), a 3-putt double at No.1, another double at No.2 (induced by a snap-hooked drive) and a sloppy bogey at No.3.
Suddenly you're 10-over, Arnie's gone from stiff to stiff competition, and Bussey decides to tell you some tales to get your mind off the tailspin.
As you wait on the three groups stacked up on the tee at No.4, a 170-yard par-3, Bussey regales you with some quality inside information. He recounts his day under the bag for Wayne Gretzky, who shot 80 on his first trip around Augusta National but apparently fell prey to a nasty case of the Budweiser virus during his afternoon loop around the layout.
He tells you how he spent one scared afternoon caddying for club chairman Hootie Johnson, which leads to a conversation about the anxious existence of an Augusta National caddie.
"These bosses here, now they are some serious folks," says Bussey. "There are some bad men up in that white house. They do not play. When you first come in here for your interview, they take a picture of you, and that's the way you're going to stay. Whatever you look like in that picture, that's the way you better look forever. You don't change your hair, grow a beard or shave your beard off. You do, and they'll call you in, pull out that picture and say, 'This is you. I don't recognize the person sitting in front of me, and that's a problem. You fix it.'
"There's no jewelry, no gold necklaces or watches or anything like that. You better have on white tennis shoes, white socks and a white T-shirt. You better not have any logos on that shirt, nothing showing through this here white jumper. And you better be clean-shaved, I mean it. The first time you show up scruffy, they'll charge you $5 for a 50-cent disposable razor and force you to dry shave right there on the spot. You ever dry shaved with a cheap razor in 100 degrees? Man, I guarantee you that you won't never forget again after that."
Show-and-tell over, you continue your slow-motion train wreck. Shoddy iron play and the slickest greens in creation conspire to torture you over the next three holes. At the par-3 sixth, a weak 7-iron leaves you a 60-foot putt up a cliff-like rise to the back right pin placement. Your first putt rolls up the precipice, hangs on just long enough to take a peek at the upper plateau and then slides humiliatingly back down the hill, past your feet and off the green for a net result of minus one yard.
Bussey hands you a lob wedge and shakes his head. "You don't scare anybody but yourself with that putter, do you?"
You walk off the sixth with another double-bogey and finally stop what seems like a month of scorecard carnage with a par at No.7 (driver wedge two putts from 15 feet). You lip out a birdie putt at No.8, and finally come to the ninth hole with a cozy, three-stroke lead over Arnie.
You scald a perfect drive down the hill, hit an 8-iron from 155 yards just short, flip a wedge up to six feet and, fittingly, yank the par putt to finish with an unsatisfying 87.
Bussey grins sympathetically as you hand him $90.
"Nobody ever gets the old girl the first time around," says Bussey, who goes on to report that you hit 12 fairways, six greens and had 38 putts. "But you'll get her next time, boss."
There likely won't be a next time, not considering you'll have to wait seven more years before you can even enter the media lottery again. But as you stand beside the clubhouse and survey the most exclusive course in golf, you can't stop a smile. Augusta National is every bit as entertaining, demanding and pristine as advertised. You can always say you played it. And you can always say you beat Arnie in his last Masters.
You were King for a day.

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