What happened when a club golfer played Augusta National?

Published:

Augusta National Golf Club is one of the most exclusive venues in world golf and getting a tee time on the hallowed Masters turf is the stuff of dreams for most amateur golfers, unless you happen to win the lottery. The media lottery, that is.

In 2019, Nick Wright did just that and was given the opportunity to play the course in its final round set-up, just hours after Tiger Woods’ famous victory.

THE MASTERS: Visit our dedicated Masters 2020 section

Here the former Golf World editor and single-figure handicap golfer talks you through the round of his dreams and reveals whether Augusta is really as hard as it looks.

Nick Wright in front of one of Augusta's Masters leaderboards.

At face value, the stub is just like any other lottery or raffle ticket – the generic type you’ll find on the floor in bingo halls and at school tombolas the world over every day. It’s pastel blue, a little over an inch square and on one side, as you’d expect, there’s a number printed in solid black type. But for the entire week at every Masters, hundreds of writers, photographers, journalists and reporters guard this flimsy slip of paper as though their lives depend on it.

RELATED: How to watch the 2020 Masters

There’s a simple explanation. You see, the ticket is confirmation of entry into golf’s most coveted game of chance – the annual draw to determine which fortunate 20 journalists will play Augusta National the day after the tournament ends. It’s a cliché to call the Masters’ media lottery golf’s equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket, but that’s exactly what it is – a Charlie Bucket-style opportunity for mere mortals to walk in the footsteps of legends and to get a behind-the-ropes glimpse into a fiercely-guarded, uber-private world.

A round at Augusta is a once-in-a-lifetime experience at any time, but Media Monday comes with some gilt-edged touches. The course is prepped to the exact same final round condition, the pins remain untouched overnight from their traditional Sunday positions and the lucky winners are given what the club calls a “member for a day” experience – the opportunity to drive down Magnolia Lane, change shoes in the Champions Locker Room, eat breakfast in the clubhouse and use the lavish practice facilities to warm up. The club even provides the services of one of its caddies free of charge, tip included.

Today’s warm and welcoming media outing is a far cry from what it used to be, though. Like everything at the Masters, it has evolved over the years. While it has been a tradition for as long as anybody can remember, it was originally offered on a first-come-first-served basis. Only when the line of journalists that would stretch outside the gates in the early hours of the morning became unsightly did the club switch to its current lottery system.

RELATED: Revealed - Who will win the 2020 Masters!

In the early days, the rule was that you could only play once per lifetime (nowadays, you cannot re-enter the draw for seven years once you play), and reporters were kept very much at arm’s length while on the property – reluctantly tolerated rather than welcomed. They were not granted access to Magnolia Lane, for example, and instead had to enter through the car park.

Inside Augusta National Golf Club.

The practice ground was off limits and there was often a split-tee system, which meant those who started their round on 10 missed out on the sense of anticipation that builds around the turn as Amen Corner looms. And as soon as the round finished, the media were very promptly ushered away.

RELATED: Masters 2020 tee times and groupings

The member-for-a-day concept was implemented by the club’s media-friendly chairman Billy Payne. Some of the more cynical members of the working press claim the upgraded Monday experience, along with the construction of a new palatial media centre in 2018, are merely PR stunts to distract journalists from a gradual reduction in their reporting privileges and player access.

Others view it as a reflection of Augusta National’s more open and accessible persona – the modern-day embodiment of Bobby Jones’ philosophy of welcoming and showing gratitude to those who put his tournament on the map in the early days and who continue to add to its mystique through generous and cooperative reporting. Either way, it’s an experience one doesn’t want to miss.

The draw takes place in private on the Saturday morning around noon, after which the names of the lucky 20 are displayed on large screens in the media centre reception and the main auditorium. It doesn’t take long for word to get around. They say it’s bad news that travels fast, but notification of a tee time at Augusta National reaches you at warp speed. I didn’t need to go anywhere near a TV screen to learn that my name had been pulled from the hat.

RELATED: Tiger's first Masters: Wood's incredible triumph remembered

As soon as I walked in off the course at the end of the third round, two German editors greeted me with a slap on the back. Sky Sports Golf’s Keith Jackson, who played a couple of years ago, tagged me in a good luck Facebook message. Friends, family and friends of friends of friends back in the UK knew I was playing long before I did. By the time I arrived back at my workspace and checked my phone, I had at least a dozen text messages waiting for me.

Augusta's undulations don't always come across on television.

The following morning at 10am, the lucky 20 assembled in the large interview room in the media centre with Augusta National’s Director of Communications, Steve Ethan, who outlined the schedule for Monday. I learned that my tee time was 11.10 and that I would be granted access to the club at 10.10. There was a question and answer session covering a broad range of dos and don’ts, which concluded with the subject that was on everyone’s mind – the weather.

The forecast for Monday was idyllic for golf – warm, blue skies and a light breeze – but that wasn’t the issue. The pressing concern was how the final round on Sunday would play out. Meteorologists were predicting that gale force winds and a possible tropical storm would hit middle Georgia at around 6pm, just as the tournament would be reaching its crescendo. The club had reacted by moving the final round tee times forward by several hours – with play now scheduled to conclude around 4pm.

RELATED: Patrick Reed's Augusta National course guide

While the majority of the journalists on site were contemplating the impact the earlier final round tee times would have on Tiger Woods’ pre-round warm-up, we had more personal concerns. Finally, a Japanese broadcaster broke the ice and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind. “What happens if the storm arrives early and play cannot be completed on Sunday?” The answer nobody wanted to hear was that the final round would continue on Monday and that the media day would be cancelled. “But there is some good news,” Ethan said with a smile. “You’ll still be eligible to enter the lottery again next year!” Never have so many golf writers so diligently studied weather charts.

Ever since my first Masters in 1994, my own clubs have accompanied me back and forth across the Atlantic in anticipation of a Monday tee time, only to return with me untouched during the week. By my calculation, I was at least £1,500 down on excess baggage charges in that time. And so I felt I was due.

Typically, however, this was the one year I had decided to leave the sticks at home. It meant I had a little over 24 hours to rustle up a set. TaylorMade’s Brand Director Ryan Lauder generously put a call into his Tour team, only to discover the company’s truck had left town just a few hours earlier.Eventually, I secured a set of Nikes from a local friend of a friend. Not my ideal equipment choice to take on one of the world’s most iconic golf courses but, hey, if they were good enough to win Tiger a handful of Green Jackets…

RELATED: Sir Nick Faldo on his three wins and how to play Augusta

The next hurdle is timing your arrival at the club. My invitation instructed me to arrive an hour in advance of my 11.10 tee time. I slightly jumped the gun, however, and pulled up to the security gate at 10.06. A gruff-looking sheriff in mirrored sunglasses approached the car. When I handed him my invitation, he advised that I was four minutes early and instructed me to exit the grounds. “Take a spin round the block,” was his suggestion. “By that time, it’ll be 10.10,” I protested. “Exactly,” was his response. He stood watching, hands on hips, as I turned the car around and pulled back out onto Washington Drive with my tail between my legs.

An hour later, having changed shoes in Zach Johnson and Tommy Aaron’s shared locker, acquainted myself with my caddie on the range and stroked about 30 excessively tentative practice putts, I was ready to go.

Playing Augusta National's scenic 13th.

Somebody once wrote that walking off the first tee with friends, free from the burden of carrying your own bag, is one of the most liberating and grandest experiences in golf. They were right. Striding up the first fairway, chatting amiably with my three playing partners, was a feeling of such carefree abandon it made up for pulling my opening tee shot into the pine straw just a few moments earlier. In all honesty, with what seemed like half of the club’s officialdom milling around me on the first tee, I was delighted to have sent the ball forwards vaguely in the right direction.

RELATED: Augusta Icons: The story of Amen Corner

The strangest thing about playing Augusta for the first time is that, despite being a rookie inside the ropes, you know exactly what’s coming. After a steady bogey at the 1st and a safe par at the par-5 2nd, I got my first taste of the course’s temperament at the par-4 3rd. For the world’s best, this 350-yard hole presents a conundrum: do you crunch a driver and attempt to make birdie with an awkward chip from a heavily contoured lie, or do you lay up and take your chances with a precise wedge shot.

I was forced into the latter option after a mediocre drive. I then pulled my 120-yard approach into the back left bunker. Unable to fire at the flag given the very real possibility of sending the ball off the front of the green if I caught it at all thin, I took my caddie’s advice and played sidewards, leaving a 10-footer for par.

RELATED: What does the Masters champion win?

I read the putt as a couple of inches from the left, as did my three playing partners. My caddie calmly said, “It’s an inch from the right.” Unable to commit to that line, I stuck with my original plan and saw the ball miss several inches on the low side as it seemingly moved up the hill. Lesson No.1: nothing is as it seems at Augusta National. Lesson No.2: listen to your caddie!

The front-nine is not as well-known as Augusta’s home stretch, but it boasts some all-worldly holes. The par-3 4th is one of the most difficult par 3s you’ll ever encounter. It’s followed by a long, dog-legging par 4. It’s not until you reach the elevated tee at the 165-yard 6th that you face a shot that actually looks enticing. Of course, it’s laced with danger. The back right pin is isolated on a slither of green behind a steep false front. From the sunken fairway at the par-4 7th, a trio of bright white bunkers completely obstruct the view of the putting surface.

RELATED: The story of the Green Jacket... and how it was nearly peach!

With wide open fairways and generous recovery options from the manicured pine straw, Augusta National isn’t at all penal from the tee. Its main defence is its green complexes. Severe undulations and false fronts around the greens combined with heaving swales on them mean there are no-go zones on much every hole – and they can change daily depending on the pins. Bunkers are used, not so much to punish errant shot-making, but to tempt you into taking on a risky shot.

The sprawling bunker on the Augusta's 10th is in play for amateurs.

Overall, Augusta National off the members’ tees was manageable and playable. As a high single-figure player, I had a fighting chance of a par at every hole. With no double-bogeys on the card, I felt I coped well – the highlights being playing the four-hole stretch from 10 to 14 in just two-over par, and making a birdie at 16. I enjoyed being able to unleash drives into wide fairways and the opportunity to figure out puzzles around the greens. With epic chips, I saved pars from the left of the 5th green and the back of the 15th, while I scrambled a bogey at 13 with a smart pitch, having found the creek with my approach shot. 

While Augusta National is not my favourite golf course, in many ways it is the pinnacle of golf in that it has everything – beauty, variety, tranquillity, risk-reward, towering pines, elevated open vistas and just the right amount of water.  Arguably, its greatest attribute is its ability to present the right type of challenge to each type of golfer. And that’s where its design genius truly lies.  

RELATED: The Insider's View: How Augusta will play in November

How this amateur golfer took on Amen Corner... and lived to tell the tale

The 11th, 12th and 13th holes at Augusta National comprise one of the world’s toughest stretches of holes. How would my eight-handicap game stand up to the challenges with which it would be presented? 

Hole 11 - White Dogwood

From the quiet of one of Augusta’s most secluded tee boxes, there’s no sense of the drama to come as you peer towards a fairway that tumbles up and down like a rollercoaster. The cambers and the left-to-right dog-leg camouflage your landing area, which is mildly unsettling.

As you walk over the final crest, the hole transforms from tree-lined to open-planned. And there it is, Amen Corner spread out in front of you in all its glory – the 12th tee and green to the right, and the par-5 13th stretching into the distance.

After a solid drive, I had 132 yards to the pin. My caddie handed me my 9-iron and told me to aim at the right edge of the green. “Everything will feed down to the hole.”

I did as instructed, the ball caught the right fringe and cruised down towards the flag. My 15-foot birdie putt grazed the hole and I tapped in for an easy par.

The approach shot on Augusta's 11th hole.

Hole 12 - Golden Bell

It’s difficult to articulate how surreal it feels to stand on the 12th tee. On the one hand, you’re acutely aware that it is one of the truly great holes – the scene of incredible historical heartache and glory.

On the other, it just seems, well, so innocuous. After all, how difficult can a slightly downhill 145-yard hole really be?

In true amateur style, I opted for a 7-iron in anticipation of a slight mishit. Instead I striped it to the back fringe, from where I three-putted down the slope. Still, what would Francesco Molinari and Brooks Koepka have given for a bogey the day before?

Hole 13 - Azalea

It was at this hole where I appreciated for the first time the vast disparity in length now between tour pros and amateurs.

Playing off the member tees, which were some 40 yards forward of the tips, I hit a best-of-the-day drive that barely made it to the corner of the dog-leg. A solid 4-hybrid up the right side of the fairway left me a 90-yard wedge into the green.

A slightly heavy approach saw my ball catch one of the slopes in front of the green and trundle down into Rae’s Creek. A 40-yard pitch to six feet enabled me to scramble a bogey.

I had taken on and survived Amen Corner with a very respectable score of two-over par.

Augusta National's 13th hole.

RELATED: Ben Crenshaw: "There's not much strategy left at Augusta"

My five scariest shots at Augusta National Golf Club 

The tee shot on the opening hole, Tea Olive.

With what seems like half of the golf industry milling around behind the tee, just making contact is your goal.

Tee shot on the 4th hole, Flowering Crab Apple.

A 200-yard par 3 where the penalty for coming up short is extreme. The front bunker is almost head height.

The approach to the 7th hole, Pampas.

Five bunkers surrounding an elevated green make it tough to find and hold the target. Go long and you’re dead. 

The approach shot to the 11th hole, White Dogwood

Even though you know you have half of Georgia to the right, you’re aware that a slight pull puts you in the water.

The tee shot on the 12th hole, Golden Bell

Sand front left and a diagonally angled creek. The slope is deadly and the green is just eight paces deep!

The tee shot on Augusta's 12th catches many out.

RELATED: How a scorecard mistake cost one man Masters glory

My key takeaways from a round at Augusta National Golf Club

It's actually easier than you would think

In the past year, many people have asked me what I scored at Augusta and when I tell them I shot 81 their jaws drop. But from the members’ tees, the course is fairly benign. It’s easy to keep the ball in play and you never get a bad lie – even in the ‘second cut’ or the pine straw, which is as well-manicured as the rest of the course. It’s all about the chipping and putting. My perspective is that it is relatively straightforward for mid-handicappers who have a few shots to play with but a very stern test for scratch players.

The bunkers are terrifying

You might be playing from pristine white sand, but the traps are deep and, very often, you’re struggling to see over the top of a lip. Not only that, you’re either playing into either a sharp upslope or you have to be wary of a steep runoff the other side of the hole. It’s
often best to play sideways! 

Augusta's bunkers are frightening for the club golfer.

It's very, very hilly

You’ve probably heard it mentioned countless times on TV over the years, but you just don’t get an appreciation of Augusta National’s severe topography until you see it in person. For example, the descent from the 10th tee to the green is 116 feet, more than the Statue of Liberty! During the winter, if they ever have snow at Augusta, it would make a great ski run. The real genius of the design is how those contours are disguised from a playing standpoint. Other than the steep climb up 18, which runs adjacent to the 10th, you never really feel the gradients are too taxing. 

The breaks on the greens are epic

The day after Tiger Woods stroked in a three-footer for birdie on the par-3 16th, I found myself 20 feet below the hole after a nice 6-iron into the green. I was just about to settle over the ball when my caddie interjected. “How much break are you playing?” I told him I was looking at about four feet. “Try 10,” he said. It felt like I was aiming at 90-degrees to the hole, but the ball traced a nice arc up the slope and then dived down into the hole!

It feels intimate but open

Augusta simultaneously feels expansive and intimate. The 1st tee and the 9th and 18th greens are a stone’s throw away from each other, while several hole pairs (1/18, 2/8 and 3/7) run parallel to each other, separated only by a slither of dogwoods. At the same time, it takes an age to walk from the clubhouse to the 12th green at Amen Corner. Elevated views across from vantage points such as the crest of the 8th fairway make it feel wide open.

How an eight-handicapper scored at Augusta National.

RELATED: The history and menus of the Masters' Champions Dinner

How to get a round of golf at Augusta National

Besides becoming a journalist, gaining a press pass to the Masters and hoping you win the media lottery, there are a number of other ways of sealing a tee time to play Augusta National Golf Club. Unfortunately, none of them are easy, but if you're really keen you could...

Become an Augusta National Golf Club member

Don’t get excited, it’s easier said than done. Augusta only has 300 members and it’s by invitation only. Unsurprisingly memberships only tend to come up when someone passes away.

If you do happen to get an invited then make sure your bank balance is pretty healthy as you’ll be joining the likes of billionaire Bill Gates. The initial joining fee is believed to be up to £30,000 but monthly subscription fees are said to only cost around £230.

Assuming you get the invite and you’ve got the cash then, presumably, you’ll need to be an exceptional golfer. Maybe not. According to Augusta insiders the average handicap of club members is only around 15.

Be invited by an Augusta National member

This seems far more realistic than becoming a member in your own right. We’ve all got Bill Gates’ mobile number, right? If you can find one of the club’s members then you’ll be more than welcome to play a round on the hallowed turf at their invitation. They don’t even have to play with you, they simply have to be on site and, as an added bonuses, your expenses all get billed to them!

RELATED: Inside Augusta National's clubhouse

Pull on the famous overalls as a caddie

Firstly, you get paid to wear the famous white overalls and caddie for members at Augusta National Golf Club (Did we mention Bill Gates is a member? Imagine the tips). Secondly, and definitely most importantly, you get to play the course once a year as a reward.

The Masters famous Pimento Cheese sandwich.

Work as a volunteer

This could be an urban myth, but it’s our understanding that people who  volunteer to work at the Masters are then inviting back the following month to play the course. Volunteer for the week? We’d happily sell the famous Masters Pimento Cheese sandwiches for a whole year to get a round at Augusta!

Play college golf at Augusta University

We’re guessing if you were good enough to do that then you already would be, but one of the benefits of attending the university is that your golf team get invited to play Augusta National once every year.

Become a golf author

Tell Augusta National that you’re writing a book about the club or the Masters and they may allow you to play the course for your vital research (just pretend you’ve never heard of Google). David Owen, the man begind The Making of The Masters, has certainly reaped the rewards having played the famed course on many occasions.

Apply for a job at Augusta National

Augusta National may be private but it still advertises vacant roles online. Get your CV up to date, practise your lawnmowing skills and keep an eye out. All employees get to play the course once per annum.

RELATED: Under anonymity the caddies tell us what they really think of the Masters