Every serious golfer can recite the feats he longs to accomplish before he hangs up his spikes—not the litany that names all of the courses he would like to play, but a checklist of what he considers the game’s essential, if not ultimate, experiences.
This list might include walking into the champion’s locker room at Augusta National, kicking off your shoes, and telling the attendant, “I’ll have a gin and tonic. Boodles, if you please.” Or dialing a particular number in central Florida, waiting for the homeowner to pick up the phone, and asking, “Tiger? We still on for 7:30 tomorrow? Good. Say, OK if I bring my friend Harvey? I figure you and me against Harv and O’Meara. We’ll give ’em two a side.” Perhaps there is a desire to fly to Martha’s Vineyard on a pleasant summer’s day and join a certain former president for a round, during which there would be a reference to the U.S. Golf Association’s Rules of Golf followed by the declaration, “Sorry, Bubba, but you ain’t the commander in chief anymore, and that combined foot-wedge and rollover is contraindicated by Rule 12-4 (d), subparagraph XIX. Add two.”
While the likelihood that any of these events will transpire is admittedly remote, other golfing experiences can be considered equally essential and decidedly more attainable. The following four items, once they have been checked off of the to-do list, are guaranteed to enhance anyone’s appreciation of this Royal and Ancient Game.
Walk into History
Some golf courses were made for walking, and Pebble Beach is one of them. Carts are available, but they must remain on the cart paths at all times (a rule probably instated after a visitor blithely drove his cart off the 90-foot-high cliff on the eighth hole). Because the paths are located at the far fringes of the course, a golfer spends much of his day running back and forth across fairways, which is a soulless way to play the game.
On our last visit, I asked for a caddie for my wife and me, and out came Rocket. His real name is Bob Lytle, and he has been looping at Pebble Beach for 26 years. He threw both of our bags over one shoulder as if they were matchsticks, and off we went.
With no one in front of us and, after the first hole, no one pressing from the back, we were able to enjoy the beautiful weather and the stunning vistas of sea, beach, and mansion. For golfers afoot, Pebble is a gentle stroll. You can gauge the slopes, feel the wind, and fall into the rhythm of the game. Rocket carried the clubs, provided the yardages, suggested the direction to aim (“See that ugly mustard house over there? That’s your line.”), and read the greens. Who knew there is so much grain in Poa annua?
“Now you know why I’ve been doing this for 26 years,” said Rocket. “Not a bad place to work, eh?” Not bad at all.
Carts are not allowed on the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, hallowed ground where golf has been continuously played for 600 years. But with the presence of caddies such as Higgins, they are not missed. Short and stocky, with wild frizzy hair and a handshake like a vise grip, Higgins took over my bag and my game and, like all good caddies, spoke in the first person plural to establish an alliance. “OK, Jim, me lad,” he would say as he handed me my driver on the tee. “We want to keep this one down the left side a bit, as we don’t want anyt’ing to do with the troubles on the right. Let’s give it a smooth go, eh?”
Such direction is welcome at the Old Course, a barren and rumpled expanse with shared fairways and greens, invisible bunkers scattered everywhere, and weather that can—and often does—change from warm sunshine to a sideways hailstorm within the course of a single round. “That’s a’right, then, Jim,” he would say after a bad miss. “We can get it on from there and sink the putt!”
After the round, the experienced Old Course caddies will often arrange to meet their clients at one of the local pubs. The caddie will sometimes buy the first round, knowing that his new American friend will happily spring for the next three or four.
Walk this Way
Like many resorts, the Pebble Beach Co. (800.654.9300, www.pebblebeach.com) has outsourced its caddie program to Caddie Master Enterprises, a Pinehurst, N.C., company that hires and trains the caddie corps. Some 50 caddies are available at Pebble Beach Golf Links, while another 50 share time between Spyglass Hill and the Links at Spanish Bay.
You can either request a caddie when making golf reservations or hire one at the pro shop on the day of play. To reserve the services of a specific caddie, such as Bob “Rocket” Lytle or former California state amateur champion Casey Boyns, it is best to make arrangements with the caddie shack in advance. The cost of hiring a caddie is $65 per bag plus gratuity.
At St. Andrews (+44.1334.466.666, www.standrews.org.uk), arrangements for caddies are made at the Victorian pavilion near the first tee. Golfers can hire an experienced caddie ($56), a caddie trainee ($40), or a bag carrier ($32). Caddies are almost always available in the summer months, May through September, but difficult to find during the winter months.
Play with the Pros
"There is a difference,” the legendary Bobby Jones once wrote, “between golf and tournament golf.” It was the latter, after all, with its attendant pressures and stress, that drove Jones to retire from competitive play by the age of 28.
Playing for fame, glory, and millions of dollars while surrounded by thousands of spectators on courses of inordinate length, deep rough, and fast greens is not a situation most hackers will ever have to face. But play in a pro-am tournament, and you will come close.
As the promo claims, these guys are good. But the pros are not always the best of company. There is the apocryphal pro-am story in which a foursome draws a player who is grumpy and noncommunicative throughout the entire round. On the last green, however, the pro glances at the scoreboard and notices that his team is in position to win, which would mean a few extra thousand dollars in his pocket. Suddenly he transforms into Mr. Congeniality, becoming especially helpful to the teammate who faces a 15-foot putt for a decisive birdie. The pro reads the green for the fellow, coaches him on the speed, and wishes him the best of luck. The amateur stands over the putt, then, looking directly at the pro, whacks his ball into a lake and stalks away.
A few years ago I was paired in a pro-am with J.C. Snead, the nephew of the late, great Sam Snead. After we played two holes without him speaking to any of us, I wondered if what I had heard was true—that he was indeed the villain of this story. (Versions of the tale have been told with Lanny Wadkins, George Burns, and Hale Irwin in the lead role.) It turned out that Snead had flown in on a red-eye from Phoenix the night before, and once he woke up, he warmed up, regaling us with a seemingly endless patter of jokes and stories, any of which the audience might have found more entertaining than most of the golf we played that day.
The typical pro-am audience is not a huge one, which is just as well. Golf is humbling enough when people are not watching. However, it can be especially rewarding when they are, if you are playing well.
On one hole, I faced a 50-foot putt up a ridge, across the green, and then downhill to the cup. Snead strolled over to help me line it up. I crouched down, and he bent over behind me. “Y’all see that purty young thing yonder with the pink halter?” he asked, referring to a winsome lass standing behind the ropes on the far side of the green. I nodded. “I’d aim it at her.” I did and made a pretty good putt, with the ball coming to a stop less than a foot from the hole. My effort was greeted with a round of applause from the fans, just like the ones the pros would receive later that week. Bobby Jones was right: There is a difference between golf and tournament golf.
Pro-ams are a major source of income for professional golf tournaments, and playing spots are usually reserved for corporate sponsors who also receive preferred seating, additional tournament tickets, invitations to evening parties, and more. Many PGA tournaments offer two pro-ams, typically on the Monday and Wednesday of a tournament week. Following are some sample programs and 2004 price ranges:
B.C. Open (607.763.0000, www.bcopen.com) Sponsor Package ($3,500) includes one Wednesday playing spot, four VIP packets, parking passes, and advertisement space in the program.
Phoenix Open (602.870.4431, www.phoenixopen.com) Xerox Silver Pro-Am package ($6,500) includes one playing spot in the Wednesday pro-am, extra tickets, two invitations to the draw party and the celebrity dinner, valet parking pass, and a program ad.
Details about other pro-ams and sponsorship programs for PGA Tour, Champions Tour, and LPGA Tour events are available at www.pgatour.com.
Make It into the Masters
It was a situation that, at times, resembled a Keystone Kops comedy and, at others, a James Bond flick. I was in Augusta, Ga., during the second week of April, trying to score a pass for the first round of the Masters. My source was one of those shadowy tour operators who sells packaged trips to the tournament, complete with a week’s worth of hotel accommodations (always difficult to obtain), tee times at some area courses (not as rare but still highly coveted), and an official patron’s badge to the Masters itself (Mission Impossible).
I knew that there are hundreds of Augusta residents who obtained their hallowed badges decades ago, when the Chamber of Commerce passed them out like candy in an attempt to draw a crowd to the nascent tournament. These residents now make a sizeable annual contribution to their retirement funds from selling those badges and sometimes from renting their houses to Masters-bound visitors.
I spent Tuesday and Wednesday playing golf and waiting for good news from my elusive source. Wednesday night, we met in the parking lot of the local Holiday Inn, where he was whispering into his cell phone. “I think I can get you in,” he said after hanging up and leading me away from a horde of happy hour–fueled golf fans. “I’ve got a group of 20 businessmen from Japan flying in, but as of now, they’re not scheduled to get here until Friday afternoon. So you’re good for Thursday, but I need the badge back that night.”
Such are the shenanigans that occur every year up and down Washington Road in Augusta, even among members of the golf writers’ fraternity. The Masters is notoriously stingy with media credentials, no doubt to discourage those like myself who would probably go every year just to watch, not to work. Lincoln Werden, who covered golf for The New York Times for decades, wrote to Augusta National the year after he retired, asking if he could come back and see his old friends once again. No, the club answered politely but firmly.
By whatever means you gain entrance to the event, you will find it was worth the effort. Augusta National is the best-known and least-visited golf course in the world. Because the Masters is the only major golf tournament played at the same venue year after year, and because it is televised around the world, we all feel as though we know virtually every square inch of the place, even if Augusta National annually tweaks the course a little, adding a new tee here, a deeper bunker there, or an entirely new stand of trees over yonder.
But Augusta on television is not comparable to Augusta in person. The camera tends to flatten the perspective, and Augusta National is built on a vertical plane. The course sweeps dramatically and majestically down the hill from the clubhouse all the way to Rae’s Creek at Amen Corner. Add snow and a chairlift, and the course could serve as a ski run.
Next you will notice the grass. The so-called rough where the fans walk is as beautifully manicured as most country club fairways, and Augusta’s fairway grass would serve as a putting green anywhere else. The greens, which are now equipped with their own underground heating and cooling systems, can be considered the eighth wonder of the world, after the Colossus of Rhodes or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Finally, you will sense an electricity in the air at Augusta that crackles like nowhere else—not at the U.S. Open or the British Open. Whether it is the raucous good time of the Wednesday afternoon par-3 tournament, or the intense pressure of the back nine on Sunday, the Masters is unique.
Enjoyment of the tournament can be tempered by the fear of the long arm of the Pinkerton-enforced law landing on your shoulder for entering with a borrowed or purloined badge. I managed to avoid detection and arrest that day, but even if I had been caught, a little jail time would not have discouraged me from returning.
Badge of Courage
A ticket (or badge, as it is called in Augusta) to the Masters (www.masters.org) is one of the most coveted ducats in sports, though that was not always the case. In the tournament’s early years, when members of Augusta National were all but begging people to show up, badges were distributed liberally to members’ friends in Augusta and throughout the South.
As the tournament evolved into the history-laden rite of spring that it is today, the demand for tickets skyrocketed. The carefully controlled “Patrons’ List” was limited to perhaps 60,000.
Nevertheless, Masters badges can be had. The safest route is through personal connections: a business associate or relative who knows somebody who knows one of those Augusta residents who accepted a badge decades ago and now “leases” it.
Some of this leasing takes place through ticket brokers and tour operators, scores of which can be found on the Internet or in classified ads buried in the sports pages. Attempting to secure a badge through a broker can be risky, and the emptor must indeed caveat. Augusta National frowns on the practice and has rescinded badges that were leased and expelled members for participating in badge-selling transactions.
Anyone willing to risk the investment can expect to pay a ticket broker from $2,500 to as much as $5,000 for a full-week badge. Scalpers sell badges for Thursday and Friday rounds for $500 or more for each day, while Saturday and Sunday passes double or triple those prices. And if Tiger Woods is in contention, as he usually is, expect to pay even more.