What’s it REALLY like when Average Joes play Augusta National? Our staffers break it down

April 11, 2020

What’s it like playing Augusta National Golf Club for Average Joe golfers? First of all, it’s surreal. And second of all, memorable. Obviously. The Masters holds a media lottery every year and a couple dozen lucky scribes get a chance to play the course the Monday after the tournament ends. We decided to ask a few of our staffers who have played to talk about their experiences. (And if you still want to learn more about the lottery, check out senior writer Alan Shipnuck’s column here.)

1. Who was your first call or text after you saw you won the lottery to play on Monday?

John Sodaro, video producer, played 4/13/15 (@sodaro_john): I found out from some of the Sports Illustrated crew at Augusta. The first call was to my wife. I had to get the OK to run up a few charges on the credit cards, starting with a trip Dick’s Sporting Goods to get some new Nike gear to wear during the round. (Editor’s note: John wears Nike everything.) The next was a text to some people at SI to tell them I wasn’t coming to work on Monday. They understood — as long as I brought my boss back a nice shirt.

Josh Berhow, managing editor, played 4/11/16 (@Josh_Berhow): I can’t remember the first call exactly. I know I texted a photo of my tee time card to a few different threads — one with my friends, another with my brothers, another to my father-in-law and then one last time to my wife. One of my brothers called me immediately to chat about it.

Jonathan Wall, equipment editor, played 4/15/19 (@jonathanrwall): I was one of the few who went home before the weekend and found out while attending an Easter brunch with my kids. I still recall receiving multiple FaceTime calls from colleagues at Augusta and wondering why they continued to butt-dial me. It finally sunk in after the third missed call. My first call was to my wife to let her know I was heading back to Augusta by any means possible. It was a harrowing trip back, but I somehow made it to the mandatory Sunday meeting with about nine hours to spare. Not kidding.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer, played 4/16/18 (@dylan_dethier): I honestly don’t know who I texted but I do remember the beaming faces of colleagues Sean Zak and Jess Marksbury coming up to tell me. I think that was the last time Sean was earnestly excited for me. I also remember how little time it took for the bitterness of old-timers who’d never won the lottery to sink in, given it was my first Masters ever.

Ryan Asselta, contributor, played 4/11/16 (@RyanAsselta): The first call was to my wife from the lobby of the old media center. This may seem sappy but I was indeed crying. Not sobbing, but definitely choked up telling her that I had been picked. Though I quickly went from tears of joy to pure anguish when I realized my colleague had not been picked for an eighth consecutive year, and I grabbed a tee time my first year covering the Masters.

Jonathan Wall gets ready for an approach to the par-4 10th.
Jonathan Wall gets ready for an approach to the par-4 10th.

2. How did you spend the hour you had before your tee time?

Sodaro: There are a lot of choices and the clubhouse is great, but I’m a grinder and wanted to spend as much time on the range as possible. I grabbed breakfast — Waffle House on Western Blvd. — followed by a trip to the pharmacy across the street from the club to get some Advil. Then I waited in the parking lot watching time tick by until I could drive down Magnolia Lane. Then it was 20 minutes in the pro shop getting merch for everyone except me, followed by 40 minutes on the range chewing up the nice turf.

Berhow: When they give you your tee time card they say you can get to the course an hour before that time and not a minute earlier. And surprisingly enough that hour flies. You’re greeted by a half dozen staffers when you get to the end of Magnolia Lane — that’s also pretty sweet, driving up it — and then are shown into the Champions Locker Room, which overlooks Magnolia Lane from the second floor of the clubhouse. I spent a good 10 minutes in there looking around and then went searching for the breakfast buffet, since I had a 10 a.m. tee time and hadn’t eaten yet. (Rookie move.) I decided not to waste any more time and went to the range to find my caddie. I hurried through a bucket of balls and then rolled a few putts before we drove over to the 1st tee. I stopped into the pro shop to buy some golf balls because, let’s face it, I wasn’t about to play this round with just any scuffed up ball. I needed some new pearly ones. That’s when I found out where exactly the breakfast buffet was located in the first place, so I fast-walked there to grab a bagel and then scarfed it down before I got to the tee. It was the fastest hour of my life.

Wall: I was a ball of nerves that morning and figured hunger pangs wouldn’t hit until after the round, so I grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks and waited patiently for the guard to give me the go-ahead. I snagged a handful of Augusta National matchbooks before ascending the spiral staircase to the second floor of the clubhouse. I soaked up the Champions Locker Room for about 15 minutes and then headed straight for the range. It was my goal to spend time on the range, putting green and short game area. I wanted the full experience. The first hour goes FAST, but I didn’t feel rushed at any point.

Dethier: I screwed up on breakfast big time, because I finished a story that morning and went straight to the course — but because I teed off at 11 something, they’d already taken breakfast away, while lunch wasn’t available yet. But I filled that void by hitting a bunch of balls. My caddie was overjoyed to see that 1. I could make contact and 2. I had a Sunday bag. I think that Media Day can be a wild card for those guys.

Asselta: I actually showed up early, which is a big no-no! My arrival time was 9:30 for my 10:30 tee time. After eating breakfast at Starbucks on Washington Road, I pulled up to the gate at Magnolia Lane at 9:28. A very polite Georgia State Trooper proceeded to tell me, “You’re a little early son,” and made me pull over to the side. Two minutes later, at 9:30 on the dot, he let be drive up to the clubhouse. The 60 minutes went by in a flash. I spent a few minutes in the Champions Locker Room and then hit the range where I met my caddie. My plan was to hit the ANGC pro shop after the round so I didn’t waste any time beforehand. A few putts on the practice green and the next thing I know I was shaking hands, taking a picture and teeing off on No. 1.

Josh Berhow blasts out of the bunker on the 17th hole. (This shot did not end well.)
Josh Berhow blasts out of the bunker on the 17th hole. (This shot did not end well.)

3. What was the best shot you hit? And worst?

Sodaro: My best was the second shot on 9, a 6-iron uphill from the same area where Tiger hit the tree root that Sunday. It hit the front of the green and rolled back off, but I got up and down for par. You really do have to stay below that hole on 9. The slope is crazy. My worst shot came on 4, when I hit it fat and barley made it off the tee box. I felt so locked in before that, playing the first three holes in three over. That triple bogey was a kick in the gut.

Berhow: For worst shot, it depends which terrible approach you want to pick. Either my pull from the 12th tee or my straight chunk into Rae’s Creek on my approach on 13. Gross. I wish my best shot wasn’t a punch out, but my best shot was indeed a punch out. I drove it into the left rough on the par-5 8th, didn’t do much better on my second and my third hit a tree. I was still in the left rough and surrounded by trees with about 60 yards to the green with the usual Sunday front pin, and I decided to punch a low 6-iron through the chute toward the green. There are a few mounds up there and I got lucky, as the ball hopped a few times, kicked right off the mound on a perfect line and nearly went in. I had two feet for par. (Let’s just say the way I play golf I get a lot of practice punching out.) Actually, it was a lot like this, only I was farther into the trees. So, yes, I’m Tiger Woods.

Wall: Can I have two best shots? I had Tiger’s exact shot from the chute to the right of 11 fairway (deep in the woods) and managed to pull it off, lacing a flighted 5-iron to about 20 feet. I couldn’t replicate the shot if you gave me 100 balls. The other was my tee shot on 12. My caddie told me the story of the times he caddied in the same group as Jack Nicklaus and the wisdom he imparted before teeing off: “Always take it over the tongue of the bunker.” Always. “It’s great advice, but you’re playing Augusta National the Monday after Tiger’s win. Fire at the flag,” he said. I hit a smooth 9-iron just over the flag to about 12 feet. It was a pinch-me moment. Even though I missed the birdie putt by a revolution, it was still the shot of my round. For worst, probably my tee shot on 18. After making a mess of the front nine, I started feeling myself too much on the back after going even through Amen Corner and pulling off a Mickelson-esque save from above the hole on 16. And then I snapped my drive on the closing hole into the right trees. Not only that, we somehow misplaced my headcover walking off the tee and spent what felt like an eternity searching for it in the Magnolia trees. I found my cover but ended up making double. I would’ve sacrificed my cover for a par.

Dethier: My best shot was probably pulling off that wedge shot on 15 that everyone talks about. It was legitimately scary — a pure feel shot off a downslope to a small, firm landing area. I hit it to about six or seven feet but missed the putt. My worst shot came when another caddie on 13 pointed to a tiny V in the trees where Jake Owen had allegedly flown his tee shot. Jake Owen?! I’m better than Jake Owen, I thought to myself. Not true. I took dead aim, thought bold thoughts and promptly hit a tree and fell into (a tributary to) Rae’s Creek.

Asselta: My best shot was my second on 15. I left myself 215 yards from the right edge of the rough. I pured a hybrid that never left the pin, carrying over the small pond in front of the green, and rolling to about 20 feet from the hole. I burned the edge for eagle and tapped in for birdie. Mission accomplished. My one shining moment at Augusta National. My worst shot was from the pine needles on the right side of 13. After driving it to virtually the exact spot Phil Mickelson did in 2010, I asked myself, What would Phil do? Of course I went for the green, and proceeded to blade one out of the straw down the fairway and into Rae’s Creek.

4. What was the most terrifying shot you had to hit?

Sodaro: Tee shot on 12. It looks so different standing on the tee box. I was last in my group to hit. After watching three balls find Rae’s Creek it made it that much harder. It looks like just a sliver of green to hit and the Sunday flag on the right makes your knees wobble.

Berhow: I have long struggled with my wedges — but recently fixed that! — and on 11 I took a hero line and dunked my second shot into the water short and left of the green. The drop area is in front of the pond with the pin tucked back left. It was about a 40-50 yard shot with the water to carry, which means a half-swing wedge — i.e. a terrifying shot to full off for a shaky wedge player. I can still remember how bad my nerves were for that one, yet someone I clipped it clean and put it to about 20 feet and two-putted.

Wall: Anything around the green. I’m a good wedge player, but the shaved areas around the green require you to nip the ball cleanly to keep it on the putting surface. I’ve never been more terrified about a routine up-and-down. You’re either hitting a chunk or blading it clear across the green if you don’t pull it off. The margin for error is razor-thin. I still get shaky thinking about some of those shots.

Dethier: Here are the five scariest, ranked:

5. Tee shot on 1 (Just make contact.)
4. Approach shot on 3 (Nowhere to land it.)
3. Approach on 11 (Dare you not to bail out right.)
2. Wedge on 15 (Just plain hard.)
1. Tee shot on 12 (The main event.)

I took dead aim at the flag on 12 until instinct took over and I yanked one long and left. Still, dry!

Asselta: Scariest was a chip shot above the hole on 6. My tee shot rested on the edge of the fringe above the hole, and for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine a way to stop the ball, or even slow it down on my second shot. Of course I chipped it past the hole and two-putted for bogey.

John Sodaro hits an approach to the 11th hole.
John Sodaro hits an approach to the 11th hole.

5. Best line your caddie said?

Sodaro: On 12, he said just hit it in the front bunker. “No sense trying to hit anything else.” Perfect call. I did and made bogey.

Berhow: I asked him at one point who the most famous person he caddied for was. After he paused I said, “You probably can’t tell me, can you?” And he goes, “No, I can’t. Sorry.” About 20 seconds later he looks at me and says: “But pretty damn famous.”

Wall: When my caddie told me to throw caution to the wind and “fire at the flag” on 12, the fact that I managed to pull it off makes it a top-five career shot for me.

Dethier: “F— it, you ain’t playing for that jacket. Let’s have some fun.”

Asselta: He pulled me aside after the 6th hole and said, “Hey, you’ve gotta relax. You’re playing well. Just think tempo and calm down.” And it did just that. My nerves settled down. If it hadn’t been for that little pep talk, I probably would have spent the day walking around the finest piece of land the game has seen as a complete ball of nerves.

Ryan Asselta walks across the Sarazen Bridge to the 15th green.
Ryan Asselta walks across the Sarazen Bridge to the 15th green.

6. What’s something that surprised you about Augusta that not many people would know about?

Sodaro: The size of the clubhouse and Champions Locker Room and the greens. The Champions Locker Room is really tight and it’s just an old-world class look to everything. You would expect something grand, but even though it’s not, it’s still perfect. You wouldn’t want it any other way.

Berhow: Everyone knows about the elevation changes and how green everything is, etc., but I was surprised by just how playable the golf course is for average players from the member’s tees. It’s about 6,300 yards and the fairways are crazy wide. Plus, even when you miss, the rough out there isn’t exactly Oakmont. The greens are no joke, so that can be a hell of a ride, but your average golfer can have a lot of fun out there.

Wall: The green complexes are impossible to figure out sans caddie. Some of the subtle breaks can’t be seen with the naked eye, which makes you question every putt during the round. I attempted to read each putt before having my caddie come in to give me the “official” line. I maybe saw half the lines he pointed out. I’m not kidding when I say I would’ve four-putted a handful of greens had it not been for my caddie. I now understand why it usually takes players a few years to figure out Augusta. The greens are a Rubik’s cube on steroids.

Asselta: The tricks the wind plays on you at 12. You’ve heard players talk about the wind above the trees, but you don’t realize the affect it has until you are standing on 12 tee. From the box I had wind in my face. That combined with Spieth putting one in the water the day before forced me to club up. I launched one right at the pin and it landed in the gully behind the green. No wind up above the trees. None.

Dethier: My biggest takeaway was just how much fun it was to play those Sunday pins I’ve seen on TV, and to realize how things look different when you’re the one standing over the ball (even without tens of thousands of fans). Imprecision is roundly punished, but precision is rewarded big time. There’s a reason guys can go low on Sundays, because truly great shots can funnel to those final-round pins — while slight misses will funnel farther and farther away. It’s a genuinely fun golf course, and it’s playable, and it was a serious thrill. Also, the birdsong seems real but those flowers? They change ‘em out at least once a day. Every day. There’s a whole lot of Disneyland at Augusta — perfection’s a pretty high standard.

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