Staff lessons from the Masters and Augusta National Golf Club

April 10, 2017

The 81st Masters is in the books, but it wasn’t without its surprises (Dustin Johnson!), heartbreak (Justin Rose!) and usual week-long thrills. Sergio Garcia is the new owner of a green jacket, but there was so much more that happened during the week at Augusta National Golf Club. Our staff reflects on their most memorable moments in our lessons from Augusta.

Never count out Fred

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Fred Couples for GOLF Magazine’s April issue to revisit his 1992 Masters win – the only major title of his career. He happily reminisced about the experience and his love for the Masters.

“I always felt like I should win there,” Couples said of Augusta. Had it not been for the back problems that have plagued him for the past two decades, it’s easy to imagine Freddie as the owner of multiple green jackets (he still had five top fives and 11 top tens over the course of his career at the Masters). Despite his age – now 57 – and balky back, Fred is one of a handful of older players who seem to transform into ageless wonders at Augusta.

“I think the excitement is (still) there,” Freddie told me. “I can play Augusta really well because I know it so well and I feel very comfortable on it.”

To every fan’s delight, this year was no exception. A second-round 70 propelled Couples into contention as we headed into the weekend. And even though Fred eventually succumbed to Augusta’s magnificent difficulty with a double-bogey on 15 and a bogey on 16 in his third round, his birdies on three of the first four holes in the final round still thrilled. This year, Fred finished T17. But the beauty of his performance is the fact that he gave us reason to wonder, what if? And for that reason, he remains one of my favorite players – and stories – year after year.

— Jessica Marksbury

Class is back in session

The Masters has a funny way of bringing people together.

I’m from a small town. Schoolcraft, Mich., if you happen to have a detailed map of the Wolverine state handy, is a village with three stoplights and one dive bar. Everyone knows everyone at the annual Independence Day parade, including the names of most dogs.

The coach of my high school golf team, Al Johansen, was also my middle-school math teacher. As a coach he was fun and fair, and I had a blast playing on the squad. (One year after I graduated, the team won a state title, a testament to my mediocre game.) As a teacher, Al was sharp and patient, but he was unable to mold me into a future physicist. You can’t win ’em all. Al is retired now and occasionally plays golf with my dad. When Al scored Masters tickets for the Wednesday practice round, Dad connected us by way of email.

Al’s wife, Cindy, was my senior-year English teacher. I adored her and her class, and while Al’s algebra lessons never clicked, I devoured Cindy’s creative writing assignments. There are countless individuals, circumstances and strokes of blind luck that can shape one’s career, but she is without question one of the biggest reasons why last week I was stationed at a work space in the Masters’ opulent media center. In his email, Al wrote that Cindy would be joining him in Augusta, and he included this cryptic line: “Cindy has an assignment for you.”

After stop-and-start storm delays, I met the Johansens on Wednesday near the giant live oak tree behind the clubhouse. Before we could even start walking, the horn blew again, wiping out the rest of the day. With much ground left to cover, we went to lunch at TBonz, my favorite joint in town.

Over wings, we caught up on the preceding years, and despite the rain, it was a special day. Cindy shared her story idea and, naturally, it’s excellent. I’ll always remember this Masters for more than just the tournament.

Now excuse me while I get started on my homework.

— Jeff Ritter

Comeback Kings: Kaymer and Augusta’s loneliest bunker

Somehow, in Thursday’s first round, Martin Kaymer found himself facing a shot from the least-visited but most beautiful bunker in golf, the magnificent Alister MacKenzie-designed sand sprawl 35 yards in front of Augusta National’s 10th green. These days, it sees no action. Back in 1934, however, it was a different story. It was plenty busy then, guarding a green directly to its right. But the hole was gauged to be too easy and the low-lying, punchbowl green to its right suffered drainage issues, including winter frost, so in 1937, architect Perry Maxwell constructed a new green on higher ground. The hole is no longer easy, as Kaymer proved.

The 2014 U.S. Open champ yanked his tee shot 280 yards into the trees. Amid the wet, arboreal piney mess, Kaymer had to take a drop. With 197 yards to the hole, he punched a recovery through the limbs and it finished way short of the intended target—finding the MacKenzie bunker and leaving him 78 yards in. Two photographers who captured Kaymer’s distress, including our own Robert Beck, said they couldn’t recall seeing anyone in that bunker in all of the years they had been covering the event.

Kaymer blasted out nicely, hitting it 85 yards and finding the green. He was six inches off on his 21-foot bogey attempt, and walked off with a double. The German star would go on to post a miserable 78. Yet, he rebounded for a 68 to make the cut. Strong comeback–but my favorite bounceback of the week was the reemergence, after an 80-year slumber, of golf’s greatest bunker, Augusta National’s last vestige of MacKenzie’s bunker-sculpting brilliance.

— Joe Passov

Green jackets are real people, too

For much of the week during my first Masters I walked on egg shells around the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. Green-jacket-wearing Augusta members swept the property, mostly watching and enjoying the golf, but also patrolling for improper behavior. These jackets had me scared. Scared that I would walk into an area I wasn’t permitted, do something I wasn’t supposed to or, worse, forget to leave my phone in the media center when I hit the course.

That all changed for me on Saturday morning. I was standing behind the 1st tee to watch fellow Palm Beacher Brooks Koepka start his round, and in front of me were about a half dozen empty green chairs.

That’s when it happened.

One of the three green jackets standing on the tee walked into the crowd, talked to four or five young children and brought them inside the ropes and plopped them down in the vacant seats, “Ok, you get two groups, then we have to give some others a chance to see,” he said. Then a second green jacket walked over and handed each of the children a Masters ball marker. One by one the boys and girls graciously accepted the gift, then turned to their parents in utter delight. Those smiles from both the children and their parents made my week.

The green jackets knew what they were doing; they were creating the next generation of golf fans. And to me, that’s one of the most human, genuine and important things we can do for this great game.

— Sean Steinemann

It’s really more of a palace, actually

Much ink already has been spilled over the latest, greatest addition to Augusta National Golf Club: its palatial new media center. When writers first arrived at the beginning of the week, they filed wide-eyed through the foyer and up the plantation-style staircase to high-tech workstations in an arena that overlooks the club’s glistening practice range. On Wednesday morning Craig Heatley, chairman of the tournament media committee, said the sumptuous space was a token of the club’s appreciation for all the media has done to help spread the gospel of the Masters. It was one hell of a thank you.

The building includes a full-service restaurant that serves up crispy fried chicken, creamy shrimp and grits, and the best corn chowder this side of Paula Deen’s kitchen. Columnists who broke a sweat grinding over their ledes could repair to the press locker room for a hot shower. (A colleague of mine had only one quibble: Where was the pool?) In the main work area every desk was equipped with a pair of monitors that allowed writers to keep an eye on all the action, from Amen Corner, to the Weather Channel, to what the players were saying in the interview room.

Alas, the working conditions were so comfortable, writers couldn’t pry themselves from their leather-bound chairs. On Saturday morning the press received an email from Gary Van Sickle, the Golf Writers Association of America president, noting that some post-round interviews had been regrettably light on attendance. “Part of the problem,” wrote Van Sickle (a former SI senior writer), “is they’ve given us technology that is perhaps too good — you can sit at your seat, watch the interview live or just listen with an earpiece, and then get a transcript. Those are all disincentives to attending.”

The irony was a rich as the Brunswick stew in the dining room, and not lost on the assembled press: Was the finest media center in the world actually deterring the media from doing its job? Fun theory, but not so much. Conversely, with the wealth of data, transcripts and video feeds at the writers’ disposal — not to mention a stellar wifi signal — coverage of the 81st Masters was likely as robust as that of any Masters before it, in the post-Tiger era, anyway. Writers madly wrote. Analysts endlessly analyzed. Tweeters aggressively tweeted. And just about everyone in the confines of the media palace couldn’t stop grinning.

Or eating.

— Alan Bastable

I’ll take a mulligan

Pro golfers don’t use mulligans, but us amateurs can still take advantage of them.

I’ll take one on Justin Rose.

I walked Amen Corner on Tuesday evening, just before 7 p.m., soaking in the aura and playing the part as tour guide with a colleague who was a Masters first-timer. We descended down the hill on 10, walked up the right side of 11 and took our time checking out the scene on 12, perhaps the most famous spot in all of golf. During our walk, we didn’t see one player. It was late, so it wasn’t unusual. Dozens of groundskeepers tended to the greens on 10, 11 and 12, but as we got to 13, workers were all off to the side, waiting for a lone player coming up the fairway.

It was gold medalist Justin Rose and his caddie.

Normally, seeing Rose out this late, by himself, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but I found it peculiar since he canceled his previously scheduled press conference that evening to extend his practice round. My reaction: Oh boy, canceling a press conference to get in some extra holes — this late — and on a Tuesday? Not good. Especially since his coach, Sean Foley, was watching from outside the ropes.

Even though Rose was smiling and as gregarious as ever, I thought it was a bad sign. He’s grinding right now. He can’t find his game.

But alas, we know the real story. Rose, who lost in a playoff to Sergio Garcia, had few issues with his game at Augusta National. Who knows, maybe he found what he was looking for that Tuesday evening. Or, perhaps (but less likely), players will do anything to avoid the media, who like me on this Tuesday, are always expecting the worst.

— Josh Berhow