Each year, approximately 1,000 members of the national and international media flock to Augusta, Ga., to cover the Masters.
It is a massive migration, where reporters band together to rent houses at a rate $3,000 to $5,000 for the week, and then hardly spend a minute there with the exception of a little sleep.
Although it’s a 14-hour-a-day grind due to late tee times and weather delays, I’m sure many people would love to trade jobs. Actually, I’ve never heard any member of the media complain, chiefly because it’s the best darn golf show, bar none.
There’s also a potential “perk,’’ which every ink-stained ragamuffin covets. It’s called the Monday Media Lottery, in which a few reporters and TV types are drawn to play Augusta National. And while your chances are about 1-in-20 of being picked, occasionally you get lucky.
That’s right, No. 531 in this year’s lottery — Bill Huffman — hit the jackpot. I was one of 32 media participants who teed off early Monday morning from the members’ tees (thank goodness!) to the final-round pin placements.
Unfortunately, my 7:52 a.m. tee time began on the 10th hole of the dreaded back nine. But, hey, I would have teed off in the parking lot if that eventually got me on Augusta National.
Actually, this was my second time around these hallowed grounds, as I also was drawn in 1997. At that time, I never thought I would play the course again, but a couple of years later they put in a new rule, making us eligible every seven years.
Immediately, I sensed that this second go-round was going to be even better, as I was allowed to drive up Magnolia Lane for the very first time in 18 years. Although this highly private, pristine pathway with the naturalgreen canopy is only about 200 yards long, I savored every foot as I crept along at a steady 5 mph.
I had planned to hire the same caddie as last time, a guy nicknamed “Lincolnton.’’
Unfortunately, many of the older caddies are gone, phased out by a new entity called Caddie Management Enterprises. The good news was a kid named Kyle got my bag, and like Lincolnton, he did an excellent job of reading these slick, surreal greens.
We did have one of the longtime caddies in our group, however, a delightful fellow named “Po’ Baby.’’ Po’ Baby is in the book “Men on the Bag: The Caddies of Augusta National,’’ and had looped for past Masters participants.
Po’ Baby certainly had his lines down pat. After watching our group all make double bogey or worse on our first hole, he said very delicately: “Gentleman, it’s not a crime to pick up your ball and move on.’’
He also had this one-liner when a Swedish writer hit a low liner that ran past the pond and onto the 11th green, “That shot looked like Barbra Streisand — ugly, but still workin’!’’
Along the way we all missed the par-3 12th green, the middle leg of Amen Corner. I was so pumped I knocked my 6 iron into the trees behind the green, as the memory of Rocco Mediate’s 10 (three balls in the water on Sunday) was still fresh in my mind.
When we got to the par-3 16th, everybody had to try the nowfamous Tiger chip that trickled backward into the cup in 2005. Nobody came close, although we did knock some bark off the Eisenhower tree with the ensuing tee shot at the 17th.
The hardest walk of the day was the 18th, where the fairway resembles mountain climbing. What you don’t realize from TV is that the steps go 12 stories high. There were several other grueling hauls on these concrete, bentgrass fairways that left my thighs and calves quivering.
Even though the front nine supposedly is more difficult, I rattled off four straight pars beginning at the third hole.
“Mr. Bill, four in a row, that’s an amazin’ feat for this group,’’ quipped Po’ Boy, which I took as a compliment.
Yeah, it was kind of like that, a constant struggle that was special beyond our wildest dreams. After every hole, I dreaded that such a flight of fantasy would eventually have to end, although it’s still playing over and over in my head.
A 6.8 handicap who probably is playing more like an 8.6, I shot 85 on this day, or four strokes better than the last time. And while I was pretty pleased with my effort, I never will forget these words from one of our foursome: “The best 113 I ever shot.’’