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Course hits deep chord in those who treasure it

Monday, April 07, 2008
By Scott Michaux
Columnist

The image has been hard to shake.

It was getting dark, and the 2006 Masters Tournament had been over for maybe 30 minutes.

Tiger Woods was preparing to slip a second green jacket onto Phil Mickelson's shoulders on one side of the stately antebellum plantation clubhouse. The other side was as quiet as the dark side of the moon.

I was on the dark side, staking out a potential quick getaway by a disappointed Fred Couples. There was only one other person in sight.

He was middle-age and clearly a patron. He wore the requisite Bermuda shorts and logoed shirt of a golf fan. In one hand was a merchandise bag. In the other was the familiar green drink cup. He was staring at the Founder's Circle and the famous Magnolia Lane that stretched beyond.

And he was sobbing. Deep, heaving sobs.

Unsure of the etiquette protocol, I slowly sidled up to the man -- close enough to tentatively reach out and touch his shoulder. Only the most obvious question came to mind.

"Are you all right?"

He couldn't speak. He only nodded his head and continued weeping.

I gave him back his space and resumed my stakeout before finding out that Couples had been whisked to the interview room. I left the man alone with his emotions.

I'll never know what it was that moved him so dramatically. The list of possibilities seems endless.

Was this a lifelong pilgrimage he had been dreaming of for years and finally realized?

Did he have a terminal illness and know he'd never be back again?

Was it the first Masters he'd been to without a loved one?

Had he lost the mortgage wagering on Couples?

Who knows?

The point is, there is something about Augusta National and the Masters that moves people in profound ways. It's unique among sporting events in that way.

We've all heard countless stories of appreciative patrons whose lives were made complete with just one visit to the tournament. A few years ago, we listened to crestfallen pilgrims who traveled from all over the world to find the Holy Grail of golf tournaments, only to be stranded outside the gates when foul weather caused the course to be closed and no rain checks could be had.

There was a famous story not long ago about a man who had spent years on the waiting list for a tournament badge and who finally had his number called. With his tickets in hand, he traveled to Augusta and was walking across Washington Road to the entrance when he got hit by a car and killed.

There is no consolation in that tale other than to believe that man was filled with joy and anticipation when the end struck him without warning.

Those of us lucky enough to get inside the gates every year too often take it for granted. Those lucky enough to share the experience with someone who has never had the chance understand the satisfaction of giving a gift with a value that can't be quantified.

The pro from Ian Woosnam's home course in Wales shared the story of his lone visit to the Masters: Andy Griffiths and his wife were invited as Woosnam's guests and spent the week with the former Masters champion. They stood under the famous oak tree behind the clubhouse and soaked in the atmosphere. Couples went over and chatted with Griffiths and his beautiful wife, something that, by her own admission, made her Masters fantasy complete.

"It was perfect," Griffiths said of the whole experience. "I don't even want to go again. I don't think it can get any better than that."

Augusta National moves people like no other arena in sports. Only the Old Course at St. Andrews rivals it for history, but nothing rivals it for beauty and exclusivity.

"Now people just want to go there to breathe the air," said Ed Bailey, the Augusta doctor who has attended every Masters.

Those breaths at the Masters bring out emotion in more than just the players. They bring out pleasure. They bring out regret.

My own involves my mother. I had learned to play the game with her and learned to love the Masters with her. We had both longed to walk the grounds at Augusta National but never expected the chance.

When I first got the opportunity to report on the Masters in 1997, she was thrilled. She vicariously experienced it through me. I waited for the day when I might get the chance to get a ticket for her, but when the chance finally came, my mother couldn't.

It is among the greatest regrets of my life that I couldn't make that happen before she died. And it makes me understand why a grown man might be moved to tears staring down Magnolia Lane.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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