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From famous to obscure, check out these Masters experiences

Joe Avento • Apr 9, 2020 at 2:00 PM

The Masters was supposed to start Thursday, but as we all know it isn’t happening. Hopefully, it will be played in November, as is the current plan.

In the meantime, we bring you my Top 10 Masters experiences, accumulated throughout the years while covering the tournament 17 times.

Most of them aren’t major moments in Masters history. They’re just my favorite experiences while covering the season’s first major in what many consider the most beautiful place in the world.

And believe it or not, somehow, none of them involve Tiger Woods.

No. 10

RAIN DELAY

One year during a delay caused by a thunderstorm, players were doing what they could to kill time waiting to resume play.

Jerry Kelly told me he was going to “eat a dozen Krispy Kremes and go into a coma.”

Ernie Els wasn’t in the mood to tell me what he was doing because as I opened the door and kind of barged into the players locker room, I woke him up from a nap he was having on a bench. I didn’t ask him.

As I opened the locker room door to leave, I came chest-to-chest with Fred Couples. I figured I had caused enough trouble in there and went outside to see who I could find.

No. 9

GARY PLAYER MOCKS ME

Gary Player has always been revered at Augusta. In his advanced age, he had become more or less an honorary figure while still competing, but the three-time Masters champ still had a sharp tongue.

During a practice round at the ninth hole, a par-four with an uphill approach to a dastardly green, Player hit a shot that just missed the green.

“Nice shot,” I told him when he arrived.

I can’t recall exactly what he said to me, but it was something having to do with my eyesight being as good as Ray Charles’ if I thought that was a good shot. He also told me he never wanted me keeping his scorecard.

Jokes aside, he then proceeded to demonstrate to us how to use a hybrid — they were all called rescue clubs back then — to chip onto the fast green. Funny thing, though. When he hit the exact same shot in the tournament, he chipped with a wedge.

I just hope nobody sitting there said “good shot.”

No. 8

AUTOGRAPH HOUND

My son Dominic joined me in Augusta a couple of times to take in the practice rounds. Once when he was 9 years old, we were hanging around the practice range and he was getting autographs on his Masters hat.

Fred Funk came by and signed with a smile. Tim Herron was friendly as could be and the man called “Lumpy” made a fan for life. Dominic even met Henrick Stenson before Stenson became one of the best players in the world.

Everyone was so happy and accommodating.

And then along came Colin Montgomerie.

Every kid along the rope held out their hats and flags, asking for his autograph. Monty never broke stride, ignoring their pleas as if they weren’t even there.

Montgomerie always catches flak from American fans, and at least two of them know why that’s a good thing.

Two years later, Funk was at a Johnson City Country Club outing hosted by Mullican Flooring, and Dominic got to play one hole with him. It was the par-3 seventh. They combined to birdie the hole with Funk’s tee shot finding the green and the kid making a 15-foot putt.

No. 7

HIT IT, ALLISS

Many golfers who leave a putt short grumble the phrase, “Hit it, Alice.”

Nobody could ever figure out who Alice was.

I did one day in the late ’90s when I ran into the former player and TV commentator Peter Alliss, he of the famous British accent and the man called “The Voice of Golf.”

I had read somewhere that he might know the origin of the phrase. We sat on a bench and talked about his playing career — he won 21 tournaments as a pro — and his announcing. I asked him about the saying and he ’fessed up.

He said it might have originated with his father, but it probably wouldn’t have made it into the lexicon of golf if that was true.

It more than likely originated in the 1963 Ryder Cup. While playing Arnold Palmer in a singles match, Alliss badly missed a short putt. Someone in the gallery yelled, “Nice putt, Alliss.”

Somehow through the years, the saying morphed into “Hit it, Alice” as if leaving a putt short was not a manly thing to do.

We had a good laugh. Alliss wasn’t upset to be associated with the phrase. He acted like he had never been asked about it, but I knew better.

No. 6

PHIL’S HUG

It was a hug for the ages.

Phil Mickelson won his third Masters in 2010 and this was made even more special by a person in the gallery.

Moments after he walked off the 18th green, he pulled his wife, Amy, close to him. He held her like he would never let her go.

We were standing close enough to hear their sobs of joy.

“This has been a very special day and a very special week,” Mickelson said afterward. “To have Amy and my kids here to share it with, I can’t put it into words. It just feels incredible.”

Amy Mickelson had been battling breast cancer for the past year. Her long-term prognosis was good, but she had been undergoing grueling treatments and had not traveled to a tournament. So for her to be on hand when her husband won his fourth major championship was an emotional experience for the entire family.

As the hug wore on, Mickelson realized he still had some work to do. He went into the scoring area and signed his card.

No. 5

OOSTHUIZEN’S DOUBLE-EAGLE

During the final round of the 2012 Masters, I wanted to get a glimpse of Bubba Watson early in the day before I sat down to do some writing. The press room was located along the first fairway. When I got out there, Watson and Louis Oosthuizen were finishing up on No. 1.

My timing was perfect because I really wanted to see how Bubba played the par-5 second hole, which is reachable in two shots and always winds up providing some early fireworks.

I hustled down the hill outside the ropes to where I figured their drives would land.

Of course, Bubba outdrove Oosthuizen by quite a bit.

That’s when the magic happened as Oosthuizen took dead aim at the middle of the green.

From my column that day: “As his 4-iron shot headed toward the green, the crowd began to cheer. When it landed, the noise got louder. The ball took a turn on a ridge and headed toward the hole and the roars began in earnest. They grew and grew to a crescendo.

“Then ... sheer pandemonium. The usually reserved Augusta gallery was going absolutely bonkers. Oosthuizen’s Titelist had nestled in the bottom of the hole. The reaction of the patrons near the green said it all. This was no great shot. This was a once-in-a-lifetime effort. We saw history and we knew it.

“And it put Oosthuizen in the lead on Sunday at the Masters.”

Watson said “I wanted to run over and give him a high-five. It was amazing to see the crowd like that. The crowd roared forever. That’s what you see as a kid. And I got to see it.”

Oosthuizen didn’t keep the lead (more on that in No. 1) but his first-ever “albatross” was only the fourth in Masters history. And thinking about the reaction of the crowd still gives me chills.

No. 4

TALKING TO RORY ABOUT ETSU

As many know, Rory McIlroy, currently the No. 1 player in the world, came pretty darn close to playing for East Tennessee State.

In fact, McIlroy actually signed a letter of intent to play for coach Fred Warren’s Bucs.

He never did wear the blue and gold, though, and he told me why one day in 2010 after the first round of the Masters.

“It could have been good,” McIlroy said. “But college just wasn’t for me. I liked the area. I spent a few days in Johnson City, and it’s a nice place. But like I told Coach Warren, even if I did go, my heart wasn’t set on graduating. I was going to turn pro.”

Instead of attending ETSU, the Northern Irishman turned professional and had won more than $5 million by the time he was 21.

“It’s been a pretty good decision,” McIlroy said with the smile of a young multimillionaire.

McIlroy now has career earnings of more than $50 million. Pretty good decision, indeed.

At the time, his caddy was J.P. Fitzgerald, who was an All-Southern Conference golfer at ETSU in 1989.

“J.P. started as my caddy, but now he’s a good friend,” McIlroy said. “He can still play, too. When we go home we try to hook up for a couple of games. He can still hit it.”

No. 3

MEETING GENE SARAZEN

OK, I didn’t actually meet him, but the 1935 Masters champion met me.

I was standing in line at an Augusta restaurant trying to meet up with some business associates of my father when I felt someone hurriedly bump into me. I was a little taken aback that someone would elbow past me ahead in line.

I didn’t realize who it was, and all I saw at first were his shoes, which had shiny buckles on them.

When he got past me I realized it was Sarazen, the man nicknamed “The Squire.” He was 87 at the time — he lived to be 97 — and had been serving as an honorary starter at the Masters along with Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. He was on his way to his usual table, one reserved especially for him.

Sarazen made what is known around Augusta National as the “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” when he holed a 4-wood on the 15th hole for a double-eagle during his triumph in the second Masters.

Only years later did I come to appreciate the man who changed his name from Eugenio Saraceni because he thought it sounded more like a violin player than a professional golfer. He won seven majors during his career.

I have read one of Sarazen’s books, “Thirty Years of Championship Golf” and just recently began reading “The Squire. The Legendary Golfing Life of Gene Sarazen.”

As I read each page, I feel fortunate to have at least had some contact — call it a brush with greatness — with one of the game’s early greats.

No. 2

PLAYING AUGUSTA

Each year, sometime during the weekend, a list went up on the wall in the press room. That list was maybe the most important list any of its inhabitants have ever been on.

It’s the list of media members chosen to play Augusta National on Monday, the morning after the Masters — with the Sunday pins still in place.

In 1994 I made the list. I was certain I did because I walked by and looked at it 100 times to make sure it was true.

They even spelled my name wrong, but I told them if I can get to play Augusta National, they can call me anything they want.

After writing about the first of Jose Maria Olazabal’s two Masters victories on Sunday evening, I hit the sack. I remember rolling over every 15 minutes looking at the clock. If there was ever a morning I didn’t want to oversleep, this was it.

“You don’t sleep much the night before you play Augusta National,” I wrote at the time.

Because the demand was so high and they wanted as many people as possible to get the experience, back then being drawn in the lottery meant you could not enter it again — ever. We treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience because it truly was.

That was true until a few years later when things changed. In 2003 I found out the rule had been amended to once every seven years. After doing a little math, I realized I was indeed eligible again.

When the list came out, there I was again. A second round finally brought my only birdie at Augusta, on the par-five eighth.

Along the way, I played Amen Corner — in two rounds — with five pars and a water-logged triple-bogey on No. 12, Jordan Spieth’s favorite hole. I still never managed to break 84 and that was mostly from the members tees. We slid back to the championship tees a few times, but were discouraged to do so.

When Bobby Jones began Augusta National with Alister MacKenzie designing the course, they wanted a place that would challenge the top golfers and let the average player shoot his handicap.

For the record, in 1994 I shot 85 at Augusta National on Monday and 86 at Pine Oaks on Tuesday. The second time around was about the same, an 84.

The scores were irrelevant, though. Walking those lush fairways, with a white jumpsuit-wearing caddie giving me yardages and handing me a club — even if he grimaced when I pulled a putt on the world’s most famous greens — was an incredible experience.

I even kept a divot from the ninth hole and planted it in a pot when I got home. It lasted a few months.

Yes, it’s a special kind of euphoria you feel when you see your name on that list. Only golfers can truly appreciate it.

Any time I get into a conversation with someone going on about the fancy and exclusive courses they’ve gotten to play, I wait and listen. Then I drop the A-bomb. When you say Augusta — especially when you say it twice — you’ve said it all.

No. 1

MASTERS PLAY-BY-PLAY

After Oosthuizen’s double-eagle in 2012, he and Watson got down to business.

They ended up tied for the lead through regulation after each missed a birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have given either one of them the green jacket.

That sent them back to the 18th tee to start a sudden-death playoff.

I was in a media tower next to the 18th green and saw them play that hole twice, once in regulation and once in the playoff.

When they headed to the 10th hole, the long par-four, for the second playoff hole, the majority of the gallery stayed in their chairs. They were hoping the players would be back since No. 18 was to be the third playoff hole as well.

Next to the media tower was a tower where the live radio broadcast was being done. They had a small TV monitor and I was able to see both players hit errant shots off the tee.

The gallery below looked up wondering what was going on so I started doing impromptu play-by-play from what I saw on the monitor.

I told them Bubba’s drive went into the woods. They moaned.

Then when Watson hit one of the most miraculous shots in Masters history — he hooked a shot with a gap wedge 40 yards off of pine straw, hit it 155 yards and got it on the green — I let the folks know.

They cheered with wild approval, and suddenly I was feeling like Jim Nantz.

When Oosthuizen missed the green and failed to get up and down for par, Bubba had two putts to win.

When he nestled the first attempt up next to the hole, I informed the patrons “Bubba’s gonna win!” It wasn’t exactly Nantz quality play-by-play, but I got the point across.

They let out a roar and I felt like I had added something to the Masters in my own small way.

I wrote about Bubba’s win: “Bubba Watson lives by one mantra on the golf course. If he has a swing, he has a shot … and now he’s the Masters champion.”

Joe Avento is Sports Director for the Johnson City Press and Kingsport Times News. Contact him at javento@johnsoncitypress.com.

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