Thursday, May 1, 2014

The 2014 Masters - My Wednesday Par 3 Experience!

A few weeks late but I've meaning to give a quick re-cap of my 2014 Masters experience.

As many of you know, I'm an avid golfer (as much as a father of two can be!) and fan of the game.   For most golf fans, including myself, the annual return to Augusta National is often considered to be the pinnacle event.   It is extremely tough to win passes for tournament rounds or practice days through the club's lottery, so any opportunity to attend is a cherished moment of fortune for me.

Luck was shining very brightly on me this year as my old man won 4 passes to Wednesday's practice round.   He's a BIG fan himself, but he's also a righteous dude who loves his kids.....and subsequently gave two passes to my wife and I and the other two to my sister and her husband.   The date was set!   My wife was not able to make it that day (something I must correct asap!), but my little brother was more than happy to take her place. 

While Wednesday is still a practice day and many might think that this is less desirable than an actual tournament day, it is actually one of the finest professional golf experiences you can have as a spectator and fan.   You can spend the morning on the grounds of Augusta National, chomping away on $2.00 pimento cheese sandwiches, relaxing beneath the swaying Georgia pines as you watch players work their way around the course....but come early afternoon, you'll want to make your way over to the Par 3 course positioned on a great little piece of property behind the guest cabins that line the left side of #10's fairway.  

As a tradition, this Par 3 tournament is held every Wednesday during Masters week.   It affords players a relaxing and fun environment in which they can let their guard down just a bit and have their families join them for 9 holes of some pitching & putting.   Wives and children (and even fiances, in the case of Rory McIlroy) often "loop" (caddie) for their husbands and dads which can lead to some comical and/or memorable moments.   The players will also joke with one another and interact with fans more than at any other time.....simply put, it's terrific.

A few years ago, in 2009, I attended the Masters for the very first time.   It was one of the most memorable sports memories of my life.   Laying eyes upon the grounds of that course would have been enough - but I also enjoyed what will probably be the most epic, in-person autograph experiences that I will EVER have.   It occurred during the Par 3 tournament and was completely unexpected...

I'll save that story for another time :)

I think back on it often, and have always hoped for a chance to recreate that with another shot last month, I stuffed a few mini-sharpies in my pocket, eagerly pick up another Masters flag and kept my fingers crossed for some good fortune.

As with most things - the good deals never last forever.   ESPN was having difficulty in recent years making sure that they could get ample TV coverage of key player groups during their telecast time slot.   The reason?   Players were spending too much time between holes interacting with fans to sign autographs or simply goof around.   I was told this quite candidly when I reached my lucky spot from 2009.   Flag in hand, I found a great spot along the ropes and in the shade, where I pulled out my sharpie and prepared to hope for the best....until a couple security guards walked up and asked that I put the pen away.   They also asked that I not ask the players for an autograph, even though the spectators' guide specifically said that autograph seeking was allowed on the practice facility and during the Par 3 tournament.

I complied, of course.   But I respectfully asked the guards about the discrepancy between the two sources.   They pointed out that there were two areas on the Par 3 course where autograph seekers were allowed to post up, but that these were reserved for patrons 16 and under.   Uh oh.

"What's an old golf fan like me supposed to do?" I asked.

I received a few shrugs but one of the guards stayed behind to try and save the moment, "I know, sir. It kind of stinks, but these are the marching order we were all given this year.  Look, try and find a spot along the ropes out there where the players walk by and where there's not a bunch of us or official Augusta Marshals hanging out.   We can't make players stop signing if they start!"

Challenge accepted.

My brother and I tried here and there among the slithering Par 3's.   We took our time, being sure to balance our quest for ink with enjoying the day and watching some great golf shots.   We hiked up the hill along the left side of #6, towards the tee box.   There were some open spots along the rope, right where the players were making their way from #5's green to #6.   Fantastic!

We got comfortable and gave each other a reassuring nod.   No, we hadn't managed to get any autographs but we were now in a GREAT position to watch tee shots on #6 from about 20 feet away.   Success, but it only got sweeter as the very next threesome that came through began working their way down the rope straight towards us, signing autographs!

I looked around but didn't see any security rushing in to usher the player forward or chastise the patrons for pestering the pros......I glanced at the #6 tee box, looking for the Augusta Marshall to see if they cared - WHOA!   No, she didn't care, but more importantly, SHE was one of the first two female Augusta members, former US Secretary of State (and fellow Notre Dame grad :) Condoleezza Rice.   Regardless of politics aside, I always relish opportunities to see/greet/meet political figures in person.   It's usually an interesting experience, is rarely what I think it will be like, and always memorable.   Would I be able to avoid security detection and interact with Secretary Rice?

For the next two and a half hours, my brother and I had a wonderful time.   We managed to collect a few autographs and speak to some of the world's finest golfers.   We had some good laugh at our own expense and caught some unique moments between the pros and their families.   For example, while Jim Furyk was absentmindedly signing my flag, he was whispering to his daughter (who was caddying for him), letting her know who Secretary Rice was and, as only a father can do, letting her know that she WAS going to introduce herself and shake her hand.   That made me smile.

One of my favorite golfers is Miguel Angel Jimenez, "The Mechanic".   The guy is known for puffing away on Cuban cigars at all time, enjoying fine wine and possessing one of the finest skinny-guy-beer-guts in professional sports.   I spoke with him back in 2009 and I'm pretty sure we had the EXACT same conversation this year:

"Thank you for signing my flag, Mr. Jimenez.   What are you smoking today?"

"Cohiba." he grumbled in a thick accent, before blowing out a huge cloud of smoke and moving on down the rope.....


Awesome.   Love that guy.   I also had a pretty cool moment with Jose Maria Olazabal.   He won Green Jackets in '94 and '99.   He's one of the finest players to ever play the game but is truly more 'famous' in Europe than he is to American golf fans, particularly the younger generations.   I can remember watching him as a kid, though, and recognized him immediately as he walked off of #5's green.

"Good luck this week, Mr. Olazabal!" was all I could think of, but it caught his attention and he immediately flashed a warm smile and walked over to sign my flag.   He was very nice but seemed a little distant.   A moment too late, I recalled a conversation that my brother and I had earlier that day.   We realized that it was Seve Ballesteros' birthday.   A fellow Spaniard and 2-time Masters Champion, Ballesteros (who died in 2011) and Olazabal were close friends and perhaps Jose had his friend on his mind that day....I wish I had shared mine and my brother's remembrance of Seve.   I think it would've been appreciated by Mr. Olazabal.      
This post is dragging on, so let me get to the point.   A great day was had, and I left Augusta that day with many more great memories and a 2014 flag with a few signatures on it.   Here is the final result:

Starting in the upper left corner, there is newcomer Jonas Blixt (in red ink) who had a terrific showing this year!   The Mechanic added his unmistakable circled signature right above the red flag icon with Rory McIlroy's bizarre collection of loops immediately to the flag's right.   It looks like a child's rendering of the Olympic Rings to me!   Olazabal is the slick-looking slanted signature in black to the right of Rory's.

I thought that Aussie Jason Day would make another good go of it this year, but he struggled over the weekend.   I can say that he was absolutely fantastic to speak with and extremely nice/friendly.   As a side note, his wife is completely gorgeous and had a very real, endearing moment by our spot when their toddler began crying and was whisked away by a nanny.   Mrs. Day was obviously concerned for her child and looked torn as to whether or not she should stay with her husband (she was his caddie) or chase after their young one.   I can certainly appreciate that!   Mr. Day's signature is cool-looking "loopy" one in black ink, off the east coast.

Just south-by-southwest off of Florida's southern coast is the phenom, Jordan Spieth.   He turned pro last year and doesn't turn 21 years old until July!   If you caught any of Sunday's final round, you know that it began as a great exchange of "punches" between Jordan and eventual winner, Bubba Watson.   Spieth showed INCREDIBLE moxy throughout the week and undoubtedly has a lot of winning in front of him.   I am ecstatic to have his signature in my collection!

One of the more heartwarming stories from this year's Masters was the first father-son playing duo of Craig and Kevin Stadler.   The Walrus (Craig) was the '82 Masters Champion and is pretty well-known for his immense presence and Rollie-rific mustache.   He announced that this will be his final time playing in the tournament as he stayed on this long with the dream of one day playing with his son, Kevin.   Dream realized - it makes me tear up just to think about what THAT must have been like for them!  Kevin's signature is to the right of Spieth's.   I was unable to have the elder Stadler sign this y ear, though we shared a very comical interaction in 2009.....

K.J. Choi, a crowd favorite, is south of Texas.   To his left, in order, are Sandy Lyle ('88 Champion), Jim Furyk (2003 US Open Champion) and another favorite, Boo Weekley.   Boo attended the same High School as Bubba Watson who I played against throughout my competitive golfing career.

You guys had to know I'd throw that in there, right? :)   Glory days, my friends......glory days.

Unfortunately, I was shutout again in obtaining a signature from my old nemesis.....but one day.   I haven't spoken to Bubba since the Zurich Classic in '07, when I thought it would be real dorky of me to ask for an autograph from someone I used to play against.   Smooooth move, dork.   Moving on!   Above Boo's signature along the left edge is Lucas Glover (2009 US Open) in green, followed by Ian Poulter.

Other names on the flag are Thongchai Jaidee, Ken Duke, Lenny Melnyk, Mike Weir, Marc Leishman, Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, Mike McCoy, Jamie Donaldson, Steve Stricker, Graham DelLaet, Steven Bowditch, Joost Luiten, David Lynn, Chris Kirk, Peter Hanson and Derek Ernst.  

Now whatever happened to Madam Secretary?   Throughout our time at #6's tee box, Secretary Rice would mingle with the crowd quite often.   I had donned a Notre Dame hat that day and offered her a quiet "Go Irish!" as she walked by.   Luckily, this caught her attention and she came over to shake hands and chat for a few brief moments!   We talked about the Lady Irish getting pummeled the night before in the NCAAW Basketball title game.  I asked her if she was enjoying her first Masters as a member.....don't think I could have gotten much more rhetorical than that, but hey - what are you going to do?  

She wouldn't sign autographs while the tournament was going on, but she told me, for a fellow ND alum, she would if I could wait until after the last group.   Which I did, of course!   And she kindly obliged - that's her signature in green, to the west of the Mississippi River.

It was a another great day at one of my favorite places on the planet.   The tournament was a blast to watch and I was even fortunate enough to go BACK in person for Friday's round!   I followed Bubba as much as I could and watched as he rolled off the 5 consecutive birdies that propelled him in front of the pack, on his way towards his second green jacket.   What a great way to top it off and I believe the picture below sums it up nicely.

Thanks for reading (whew!) and keep collecting!


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