AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Ladies and gentlemen,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said, “the 86th Masters is officially underway.”
It was Thursday morning in Augusta, Ga., and Gary Player had just hit his honorary opening tee shot. Then Jack Nicklaus hit his, and Tom Watson after that. (It appeared the latter’s went the farthest, by the way, judging by the sound off his driver.) The patrons cheered. Jose Maria Olazabel and J.J. Spaun were about 20 minutes away from their tee time, the first at this year’s Masters.
You, the Masters fan, undoubtedly watched it live. You were up early on this, one of the best days of your golf-watching year, and saw the first balls in the air. But what’s it like before, before anyone is even on the range, before anyone is in the gift shop, before the sun has even risen?
Let’s take a walk up to the first tee and find out.
It may or may not include a peak at the clubhouse and Magnolia Lane.
6:50 a.m. — I’ve been on the grounds for about a half-hour at this point. It’s misting, and it’s dark. It’s an hour-plus before the first tee times. It’s four hours-play before Tiger. Our walk begins.
6:55 a.m. — The range is empty. To the right of the range is a caddie dining area, where some of the loopers for the early tee times are eating. You can smell something getting cooked. (My guess is breakfast sausage.) On the path near the range, there are about a half-dozen workers with leaf blowers. To the left of the range, a few more workers are coordinating for the day.
7 a.m. — The path fans take to the first tee from the range starts just past the practice green. If you’re paying attention to where you’re going. I accidentally took an early turn up another path.
7:01 a.m. – 7:04 a.m. — I walked for about 2 minutes, took another turn, walked for a minute, and I recognized where I was. You know that lane with the magnolia trees on each side? The one where players drive up each day? That was on my left now. To the right was the clubhouse. Oops. I asked a driver of a cart if I could hop a ride back to the range, to which I was told he drove only the pros. That wasn’t me. I retraced my steps. Quickly.
7:10 a.m. — OK, we’re good now, and we walk past the gift shop. No one is there, minus the workers hanging up shirts. One of the things you’ll hear on the grounds is: “How’s the gift shop line?” At this hour, it hadn’t been formed.
7:12 a.m. — We’re about 50 yards to the right of the first tee, waiting for the OK to move up to the ropes. It’s still misting, and things are more visible now, but it’s overcast. At one gate, there are about 50 fans waiting to get in. At another, about 100. The green jackets and those with early access are small-talking. I can smell coffee. A grass treatment is placed on the ground, and suddenly the light brown blades become green again.
7:15 a.m. – 7:45 a.m. — As we wait, we join the chatter. Behind me, a group of five tries to figure how many Masters they’ve been to. There’s a first-timer. “Pinch yourself?” a man asks. There are umbrellas all around, most with just the word “Masters” written on them,” but a woman to my right has an older version, and it’s checkered with the tournament logo. “Great umbrella,” I say as I nod upward.
Her name is Kent Rigsby, she’s from Augusta, and her friend is Lene Abel, and she’s from Birmingham, Ala. It’s Lene’s first Masters, but Kent worked on the grounds for 25 years. Her favorite honorary tee shot? Any one that featured Arnie.
“He’d come in and thank us for watching,” she said. “He was the nicest.”
7:46 a.m. — I walk up to the ropes. Behind me, Franceso Molinari and his caddie make their way past a growing crowd of those who were allowed in early. We’ve been delayed from the original 7:40 start time, but soon, workers take off a plastic wrap covering the wooden bench, reach into a green box below it and fasten three boards to a green sign. They read: “86 Player,” “82 Jack Nicklaus” and “72 Tom Watson.”
It’s around this time, too, that the fan gates open.
“The running of the bulls,” a green jacket says behind me.
8 a.m. – 8:15 a.m. — The sun is trying to peek through, and it’s still spitting out.
Player, Nicklaus and Watson work their way down to the 1st tee, they hit and Ridley says:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the 86th Masters is officially underway.”