What if you knew you could do something special for someone else that would impact them forever? Would you do it?
For the next few moments, you are going to read a true story of what happened when two men answered that question with a resounding “yes!” The best part may very well be that neither of them will be named in this story. That’s the very best kind of generosity – when no one else even knows you did something you didn’t have to do.
Enjoy…and then go and do likewise for someone else.
For 17 straight years, I – the host of a syndicated golf radio show carried on 9 radio stations, and a TV program seen in more than 3.5 million homes – have applied for media credentials to The Masters. My motivation has always been the same: to apply my professional talents to the coverage of golf’s most prestigious event.
For 17 straight years, my application has been rejected. I have the letters framed in my office. The quest has both haunted and taunted me…until now.
What changed? Hopefully, I did. Instead of desperately seeking a positive reply to my annual credential request, this year brought about a change in focus.
The 2016 Masters became a quest not centered on me, but one centered on my son. This one was for him. And oh, what a story that followed.
SETTING THE SCENE
Like the rest of the golf world, we sat at home watching in complete shock as Jordan Spieth went through the incredibly awkward Butler Cabin tradition of presenting the Green Jacket to Danny Willett.
There was something distinctly amiss about the moment, and it had nothing to do with the events that transpired throughout Sunday afternoon at Augusta National. The disharmony of the moment wasn’t tied to Spieth rinsing a pair of Titleists on the 12th hole. That wasn’t it at all. The problem with this moment in time was more personal.
Those men were sitting in our chairs.
Welcome to our Masters story. What you are about to read is 100% true, and we still can’t believe it.
FATHER/SON ON THE ROAD
The last couple of years have presented an abundance of very special Father/Son experiences for yours truly and son Bo. We’ve visited quite an impressive menu of great golf destinations, sharing those moments with an audience that has grown with each trip. From Arcadia Bluffs in northern Michigan to TPC Sawgrass, we’ve been blessed to tee it up at some of America’s finest courses and resorts.
But this dad had one wish that wouldn’t require (or allow) clubs. I desperately wanted to find a way to surprise him with a trip to the Masters for his 18th birthday. I’m certainly not alone or unique in having that wish. Perhaps that’s part of what populates the rest of this story with so many goosebumps, tears, and gratitude for the kindness of others.
For the remainder of this true story, we’re going to borrow a theme from the world of jazz and trade solos. I’ll share a few bars of the journey and then Bo will take over and provide a few licks of what it was that had our hearts racing throughout the entirety of Thursday, April 7, 2016.
DAD: THE SURPRISE
We begin a few weeks prior to the Masters. I was at a lunch meeting for a charity golf outing, surrounded by generous men who have volunteered their time to help run the event. As I have done on numerous occasions, I mentioned to the group that if any of them ever came across a couple Masters tickets, I would love to take my son. It’s a refrain I’ve repeated for years. Most often, someone will blurt out an insincere commitment to “see what I can do,” but I knew better than to invest any hope in that.
This time was different. One of the men at the table had been swiping through some pictures on his iPad and slowly turned it around to reveal a photo of him standing on the Hogan Bridge at Augusta National. Through the kindness of a close friend, he has been blessed to play the course 17 times. Yes. 17 times.
He offered to do some searching for tickets and for obvious reasons I thought the chances for success were considerably higher than my past frustrating efforts. Still, I’d been conditioned to withhold complete emotional investment no matter how promising the initial enthusiasm.
Fast forward a couple weeks. I was sitting at my desk in tears. This old softie had just finished reading the schedule for my daughter’s upcoming wedding and it wiped me out. My little girl, walking down the aisle, me giving her away…all those things I thought only impacted Steve Martin in “Father of the Bride” had hit me solidly in the tear ducts.
And then the phone rang. It was the aforementioned gentleman.
“What are you doing on Thursday, April 7th?” he asked.
Through tears I replied, “probably watching the Masters on my couch.”
Wait for it.
“Wouldn’t you and your son rather watch it in person?”
Silence. Tears. Goosebumps.
I don’t know how best to define the full range of human emotions, but it felt like I was pinging off both ends of the scale. We were going to the Masters!
Now, it was time to devise the ideal way to spring the surprise.
BO: THE BIRTHDAY BOY
The taste of Famous Dave’s still fresh in my mouth (bless you, Famous Dave’s. You do good work.) my mom, dad, and I headed home in the car. It was my birthday eve, and we had celebrated by going out to dinner with my girlfriend and both her parents. I had intended to go back to her house right after dinner and work on some of the homework I had for school the following day (it was Sunday night). Instead, my dad suggested I come home and open at least one present before I left. In my brisket-burger induced sense of calm and agreement, I had no problem with the idea. Plus, who would turn down presents?
Upon arriving home, no time was wasted. I was anxious, because, like any sane person, I love presents, and the one that I was to open was rather large. Even better.
Picking it up, I realized it was not only large, but also surprisingly light. The oldest trick in the book, I thought. Put something very light in a large box as a joke. I actually assumed I was about to open something like a gift card for a restaurant.
I eagerly tore it open, wondering what could be inside, but kind of preparing for something not extraordinarily exciting. Nothing that is super light is ever THAT great, right?
As soon as the paper came off and the box finally opened, I was greeted with a lot of bubble wrap. Sifting through this, my eyes alighted upon a piece of paper with the Masters logo on it. That was all I could see. Perplexed, I hurriedly tore the bubble wrap out until the sheet of paper was in my hands.
Soon after this, the tears began. I was going to Augusta, to the Masters.
The next three days were the slowest days of my existence. In my eyes, they didn’t need to exist, as they were the only thing that stood between me and the Masters. We would leave Wednesday night, go to the first round on Thursday, and be on the plane that night, arriving home very early Friday morning. Monday and Tuesday were inconveniences, and those nights were filled with dreams of what could possibly be in store. The dreams didn’t even come close to what was going to happen, but more on that later.
Time progressed, as it tends to, albeit seemingly slower than usual, and the day finally arrived. A drive to the airport, a wait for the plane, a short flight, and we were in Atlanta. Another brief interlude as we walked to the rental car, and then we were on our way to our place for the night: an Airbnb. I didn’t have any experience with Airbnb, though the concept certainly intrigued me. For those who aren’t familiar: it’s essentially Uber, but with houses. Peoples’ homes become your hotel for the night. My dad had booked a basement apartment in one house near the airport, and that is where we headed. This would be the first of many surprises on our trip.
We soon pulled into a neighborhood with a lot of large houses. When I say large houses, I mean mansions. It was one of the most beautiful housing developments I had ever seen. We soon realized that our Airbnb was not going to be an uncomfortable, cramped place as it very well could have been. We were about to become very fortunate.
Sure enough, the GPS pulled us in to one of those mansions which would be our home for the night. We got out of the car and went into the basement apartment, which was nicer than anything I would have believed possible. Fully furnished, massive HD flat screen, large couch, and incredibly spacious. Kitchen, dining room, bathroom, bedroom, it even had a workout facility. We ate a late dinner, watched some Golf Channel, and tried to take it all in. My mind was still stuck on opening that present. I couldn’t believe it was all actually happening.
It was time to get some sleep. We had an early wake up the next day, 4:45 a.m. to be exact. The unpleasantness of that didn’t cross my mind even once. Only one thing had been crossing my mind since I got off the plane: we were going to the Masters.
DAD: THE BIG DAY
Neither of us got much sleep Wednesday night. The combination of excitement and a late-night thunderstorm had us rather bleary-eyed when we began our journey to Augusta at 5am. Bo reclined his seat and snuck in a bit of rest while I passed the time with some favorite podcasts and a mind that was still staggered by the awesomeness of the day.
The saint that was providing our badges was staying in a home near the course, so our first stop was to connect with him. Two hours after leaving our Wednesday night lodging, we pulled into the driveway and soon thereafter had two Clubhouse badges in hand.
Oh, did I neglect to mention that we were not being treated to standard grounds passes? That we had access to the Augusta National clubhouse? That our table for lunch would be out on the lawn under the iconic green and white umbrellas, seated next to former Masters champions? We would be able to shop in the exclusive Augusta National Pro Shop, away from the “Walmart on Black Friday” running of the patrons in the general merchandise center. We could stand under the famed oak tree where every star in the universe of golf collided on an hourly basis.
In other words, Frodo’s dedication to protecting the ring was mere child’s play compared to the manner in which we would be guarding these badges. Willy Wonka may have handed out some Golden Tickets, but none of those bratty kids got to have lunch with Tom Watson. We did.
But I’m getting ahead of the story.
One of the primary reasons we started the day so early was so that we would be in place near the 1st tee for the ceremonial opening tee shots of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. It takes a massive incentive for me to sacrifice sleep, but being on hand for that unmatched ceremony definitely meets the standard.
As Bo and I made our way from the (free) parking area to the course, my lifelong struggle with navigation reared its ugly head at exactly the wrong time. It’s impossible to not find the 1st tee at Augusta National. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder could lead a busload of tourists to it without missing a beat. You find the clubhouse and go to the opposite side of it. Generally speaking, that’s where golf clubs place the opening tee.
Yet somehow, I managed to turn us in the wrong direction. We were inadvertently following some other patrons who were more concerned with placing their chairs in a favorite spot. Suddenly, I realized that my guidance had led us literally down the wrong path and that it was highly unlikely we were going to make it back to the 1st tee in time for the ceremony.
I was irritated with myself. I wanted every single aspect of this trip to be perfect, and in less than 15 minutes on the property of heaven’s golf course, I had already screwed it up.
But then, suddenly, a vision appeared before our eyes that neither of us will ever forget. We had stumbled onto the greatest single photo in golf. My bumbling leadership had led us to the edge of Azalea, Augusta’s 13th hole.
BO: FIRST GLIMPSE OF GLORY
That truly was a vision neither of us will ever forget. I have heard it said that Heaven will contain colors we have never seen before. The main thing that crossed my mind when we first stumbled upon this incredible, uninhibited view of the 13th was that this was the closest we would get on earth to those unknowable colors. They exploded from the foliage, and I was left completely breathless. This was my first view of the course itself, and I couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular introduction.
At this point in time, missing the tee shot was not a foregone conclusion. There was still a possibility we could make it. The shot took place at 8:05; it was only about 7:40 at this time. Unfortunately, pulling ourselves away from that scene was extremely difficult, and that, coupled with the fact that we were now probably a mile and a half away – uphill – from the first tee, was going to make it very difficult to get back in time.
We did attempt to make it back on time, but we were a tad late. We began walking up 1 fairway right after the shots had already been taken, and patrons were still gathered around, enjoying the afterglow of the moment.
Disappointed that we missed the shot, but at the same time not at all regretting the view we had been treated to, we decided to wait at the first tee for the first competitive shot of the day, from the most recent winner on Tour: Jim Herman.
I can’t imagine what was going through this man’s head, but he did let us inside a little bit. As he stepped behind his ball to pick a line and get ready mentally, he looked around him and let out a definitive smile, even perhaps a small chuckle. He couldn’t believe he was here, just as we ourselves couldn’t believe we were there. He was quite clearly in complete awe, just like me.
I realized that the only difference from his demeanor I would have if I was teeing off was that I would either miss the ball entirely or hit a grounder 20 yards in front of the teebox.
We were supposed to meet up with my dad’s friend and CBS employee, “J” (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will soon become clear) at around 9 am by the practice putting green. He had told us he could give us a tour of the CBS television production compound, and hopefully let us see a couple cool things. At this point, it was about 8:30, so we decided to go over to the range to watch some players warm up. This was a very good decision.
I don’t know if anyone is aware of this, but these guys have really good swings. I realized as we were watching the likes of Zach Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Tongchai Jaidee, Tom Watson, and Jordan Spieth warm up that I could sit here for hours and simply watch them get loose. I could also study their swings during those hours and still not have a grasp on just how perfect each one is. They all swing differently, yet they are all able to repeat that swing EVERY time, and it blew me away.
The time came to leave the range, and I felt a twinge of disappointment. That was one of my favorite stops of the day thus far, though, to be fair, every new stop was my favorite stop of the day. We left to go meet J at the putting green, and if I would have known what was coming next, that twinge of disappointment I felt upon leaving the range would never have existed.
DAD: WE’RE GOING WHERE?
What came next? Just a surreal walk down the back steps into Butler Freaking Cabin! I’ll need to dig through the official Augusta National archives to see if that’s the official name of golf’s ultimate inner sanctum, but on this Thursday, it was. We entered into the very room where year after year the game’s legends had awkwardly endured the choreography of the presentation of the Green Jacket.
The room is small, quite full of broadcast equipment, and yet was so rich in history and gravitas that it rendered this professional communicator totally speechless. Both Bo and I were afraid to take a step, for fear of disturbing or toppling a camera, teleprompter, light, or some other expensive device that would’ve been a budget buster under the “you break it, you buy it” rule.
J was getting a kick out of seeing us slack-jawed and wide-eyed as we soaked in the moment. He and a camera operator had just suggested that Bo and I pose for a photo in THE chairs when a bit of a commotion arose in the confined space.
Apparently, our photo moment wasn’t the top priority of the day in Butler Cabin. We were about to be upstaged by Arnold Palmer.
BO: THE KING’S MOMENT
As we took a step towards THE chairs for our picture, we were hurriedly stopped and almost yelled at. “No!” One of the CBS employees practically shouted. “No, no. Sorry guys. We can’t have you do that. We get him, he’s coming.”
Confused, we stepped away, and waited for a better explanation of what was going on. We got one, and that was that Arnold Palmer had agreed to do an exclusive interview with Jim Nantz, as a form of favor to the long time voice of the Masters.
We were, of course, more than happy to allow The King to sit in the chairs. We were also more than happy to fade into the background, behind the camera equipment and monitors, and watch this incredible interview unfold mere feet in front of our face.
This, however, was not to be. A CBS employee approached us and kindly asked us to vacate the cabin, as this was a very low key event, and a special favor to Jim Nantz from Arnold Palmer. Their conversation had the feel of a farewell interview. It may never air, or perhaps be part of a memorial for the King. This was clearly a personal moment between two legendary figures and we certainly understood why the room needed to be cleared.
So, while that interview was taking place, we walked over to tour the CBS compound with dad’s friend, J.
This part of the day was very cool for me, even with the absolutely unbelievable things that had already unfolded. I am going to major in computer science, so seeing all the tech behind the scenes was incredible. The sheer amount of chords, wires, monitors, and computers was nearly overwhelming, and I can’t imagine the setup it requires. An insane amount of work goes into making the television and internet viewing worthwhile.
After touring most of the trucks, RV’s, and trailers that made up the compound, we entered a final truck, which J described as the mothership, where everything is overseen and final decisions are made. Inside this trailer, the interview with Arnold and Jim was on nearly every monitor, and everyone in the trailer was watching it silently, reverently. This was a very cool moment of the day. We weren’t able to be in the same room as the interview, but we instead watched it from the main CBS production trailer. If that conversation never sees the light of day, we were there to take it all in. Surreal.
We waited until the interview was over, then walked back to Butler Cabin for our picture in THE chairs. Mr. Palmer hadn’t yet departed the scene, so we waited in a rather strategic spot on the walkway we knew Arnold Palmer would use when he exited. He did exit, and was very busy, but he walked right past us. We were able to wave to him and nod, and then he was in his cart and off. No autograph, but the subtlety of that moment was almost… better, somehow.
After this brief interaction with the King, we were in the Butler Cabin, and taking pictures in THE chairs, forever now in my mind, OUR chairs.
The clock hadn’t even reach 11 yet and we had already assembled a checklist of “remember this forever” moments that had very little to do with the actual competition taking place at the hallowed Augusta Nation Golf Club.
You’ve read Bo’s account of our brush with Mr. Palmer and our visit to the CBS compound. Of additional interest to a guy who has been denied media credential for 17 years, was a trip to the Media Center. J advised us to “walk with purpose and don’t stop unless someone asks you to.”
They never stopped us, so in we went. While the physical structure of the Media Center wasn’t necessarily remarkable, crossing the threshold into the place I have long wanted to work was really quite special. We grabbed a quick picture and then demolished the very impressive buffet. It was nearly 1:00 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten a thing since our day started eight hours earlier. If you read a report citing a huge shortfall in the Augusta National Media catering budget, you now know the cause of the problem.
It was time to walk the course and watch some golf. This is where the day settled into a rhythm of walking 11.5 miles, picking the best possible viewing angles, admiring the skill and focus of the world’s best golfers, soaking in the majesty of “heaven’s golf course,” and quietly talking with each other about all we were witnessing. It would be a dramatic understatement and injustice to summarize any of our time on the course as anything less than breathtaking. In every possible way, Augusta National is the most perfect course ever created.
My only lament is that no cameras are allowed (thank goodness!) during competition. While PGA Tour events have given up fighting this battle with technology, I’m glad The Masters has held firm when a major championship is being contested. (Were it not for the kindness of my friend, J and his mostly permitted camera, we would have come home filled with incredible memories…but no photos.)
We walked, watched, admired, and worked up an appetite. J was needed back at his CBS post, so Bo and I slowly worked our way around the back nine, taking in more action while closing the gap between us and the clubhouse.
While J had literally opened doors for us that no official Masters badge would allow, our Clubhouse badges gained us entry to enjoy lunch out on the lawn at one of the umbrella tables. For the first time in hours, we sat down and began to feel the exhaustion set in. It was at that moment that I looked to the table on my left and saw a green-jacketed Craig Stadler and family enjoying lunch. At the table next to that was Ben Crenshaw and family. To my right sat Tom Watson and his group of friends and family.
If “Field of Dreams” had been a golf movie, this would’ve been the scene where the legends all appear on the screen. It was entirely crazy that we were seated among a trio of Masters champions, but there we were, trying to act as if we always dined in such esteemed company. As I told Bo, the next time we get to enjoy that level of access will likely be when he is wearing one of those green jackets.
From lunch, it was time to shop in the Augusta National Pro Shop – another perk of the badges we had. While the masses collided and jostled in the massive merchandise centers, members and clubhouse badge holders were invited into the cozy-yet-crowded shop that serves club members throughout the season. Some of the items in the shop were exclusive to members, and we found it quite fascinating to be shopping “on the inside.”
A quick side note here for those still hoping to attend the Masters – while the parking is free and the on-course food carries prices more commonly associated with the 1950s (sandwiches are $1.50), that same philosophy does not extend to the souvenir shopping experience. Be prepared to exercise the swiping motion of your favorite credit card as you load up on memorabilia that is not available online or anywhere other than at the tournament.
While I’m blessed to have a family that has never been focused on “stuff,” I wanted to be sure Bo brought home some items that would be meaningful to him for a very long time. We went from the private Pro Shop over to the gigantic Merchandise Center and its larger selection. A few hundred dollars later, we were nearing the end of our time at the Masters.
Bo is a Senior in high school and needed to be in class Friday morning. We still had a 2-hour drive back to the airport in Atlanta, a 2-hour flight back to Detroit, and a 2-hour drive home from there. Keep in mind that our day had started at 4:45 a.m.
But there was a problem. Neither of us wanted to leave. I asked him if he was ready or if he wanted to take one last look at the course. I was so glad he did.
We made a brief walk across the first fairway to the edge of the 9th hole. It was late afternoon and the crowds were thinning a bit as we watched Rory hit his approach to the green. As I turned to look at Bo, there were tears in my eyes as I watched my little-boy-turned-man making a slow motion 360 degree turn for the sole purpose of locking in the visual of our day at the Masters.
My writing ability doesn’t match the impact of that moment on this dad. Even now as I write these words, there are tears in my eyes as I look back on his 18 years and realize that in the blink of an eye, it all happened. I’m sitting at the keyboard trying to figure out how to express the vivid movie reel of memories and images that came flooding over me at that very moment…and are returning right now.
What is it about the Masters, about finally fulfilling a dream that has someone else at the center of it, about standing next to a young man instead of a little boy, and never wanting to leave?
We arrived home at 3 a.m. but much of us – both of us – remains in Augusta, thankful for the friends that made it possible and stunned by the sheer excellence of every single aspect of the Masters.
The saying goes, “all good things must come to an end”. I have yet to find a counterexample, and this trip was no exception. Despite knowing this adage was nearly always correct, I found a very real desire in myself to stay there for a much longer time than we had. In fact, at one point, I uttered aloud: “I’m not sure I want to leave.” And it was true. I didn’t want to leave.
The amount of memories made during that short period of time was nothing short of impressive, if not unexpected. Beyond the “not in my wildest dreams stuff” (the Cabin, OUR chairs, the CBS compound tour, the media center tour, the eating-lunch-next-to-Tom Watson, the clubhouse, the lawn, walking under The Tree), I think it was the little things that made me fall so in love.
The way the air smells, so fresh and pure. The way everyone treats you, be it attendants (“good morning, sir! Enjoy your day at Augusta National!”) or patrons. The sheer beauty of the scenery. The tradition that seems to permeate the very ground. The knowledge that you’re walking where legends have walked, and that you truly are living one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences. All of those things combine to make an experience unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of, and truly, a tradition unlike any other.