Walking With The Masters
At the beginning of this year, my wife asked me about getting a Masters Tournament badge for one of her bosses. A promotion, he told her, could be in store if she came through. Was she kidding? When it comes to Masters badges, it’s hard to tell when people are serious or telling the truth.
For 18 years, I possessed a valuable Masters badge. I worked as a sports writer for The Augusta Chronicle, the flagship paper of one of the most prestigious sporting events in the world. Other than the Kentucky Derby and Wimbledon, no other major sporting event is held in the same location year after year. That’s one of the reasons working for the Augusta paper was so special. Sure, there were times when I had to cover stories about 12-year-old gymnasts qualifying for some “important” tournament. Or I had to cover basketball the day after Thanksgiving when family was in town for the holidays. Or I had to cover a high school senior signing to attend a junior college. For 51 weeks, it wasn’t always glamorous. In that first full week in April, though, when the azaleas and dogwoods transform the Garden City into a pastel smorgasbord of pink and yellow and blue among other colors, my sports writing career took an important turn. I covered the greatest golf tournament in the world, and it was in my backyard.
In my Masters career, I interviewed most all of the game’s top golfers. In my first year in 1999, I walked and talked with Arnold Palmer from one side of the practice range to the putting green on the course, Arnie lifting up ropes along the way. He was as friendly as you can imagine.
The same for the rest of the Big Three. I stalked Jack Nicklaus in 2005, trying to get the scoop about him retiring from the Masters. A few years later, I interviewed Gary Player for a story mere hours after he got off a plane from South Africa. Still trying to shake his jet lag, Player would interrupt our 10-minute conversation every few minutes to ask his assistant, Debbie, how long until his interview with CNN. I think he made it on time.
My favorite interview through the years came in 2004 when I tried to help a new reporter who was working on a story about Padraig Harrington. That year, two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer was the European captain and knew Harrington well. I told my co-worker I would get a Langer quote for her story. The German golfer finished his morning practice round and then chatted and chatted and chatted more with a friend just outside the famous clubhouse. As he broke free from the conversation, Langer bolted toward the door. As he grabbed the handle and began to enter, I asked, “Mr. Langer, one question?”
He replied in a whiny voice: “I’m tired. My feet hurt. I’m hungry. I’ve been playing golf all day. But if it’s just one question.”
I asked my one question about Harrington. Langer gave a good answer. He looked to see if I was going to sneak in another question - an old reporter’s trick - but, I politely said “thank you” and left. I didn’t want to deprive him of food and rest.
With my Masters media badge, I had access inside the ropes and around the clubhouse. I also had access to certain viewing areas in the general stands around the course. The most important thing about owning a media badge? The opportunity to receive the Willy Wonka-like golden ticket a month later.
Each May, the Thursday before Memorial Day, “Media Day” is held at the Augusta National Golf Club. The day used to be called “Augusta Chronicle” day. Because of the paper’s importance helping the Masters get off the ground in its early days, The Augusta Chronicle received its own day celebrating its Masters Week coverage. The day included free food and golf, thanks to the folks at the Augusta National. When I started, it was fairly easy getting access to one of the Media Day tickets, which was a three-fold ticket that included access to the grounds, lunch and a tee time on the big course. You could arrive early and play the Par-3 Course as many times as you preferred. You could also purchase some leftover items (like Masters shirts, ties, watches, towels and more) for half price.
I was fortunate to play the Augusta National and enjoy Media Day about 10 times. I’m usually a low-to-mid-90s golfer, and I had some rounds in triple digits and I had some good rounds. I’m most proud of my round in 2010. I mapped out everything the night before the National outing. I went to bed at a decent time, planned to drop the children off at kindergarten and then make my way to the course about 8:30. It would be a casual morning. Then, I awoke. I couldn’t move. My stomach started cramping. When I started to shed the covers, nausea set in. Why, of all days, did I have to get a stomach bug? I remained in bed until about 10:30. I took some medicine - and proceeded to throw up. Afterward, I took a shower and headed to the course. Weak and still a little nauseous, I showed up about an hour before my tee time. I got off to a slow start before running in a 55-foot par putt (a double-breaker I read beautifully). Later, I parred No. 11. I then got up and down for par at the par-3 12th. Then, I chipped in from the grassy part of the Raes Creek tributary fronting the 13th green. I achieved something many professional golfers would salivate over - parring all three Amen Corner holes. I finished with my career best at Augusta National, a satisfying 92, when I could’ve remained in bed all day.
That day was one of many I spent walking the grounds at the Augusta National. I left The Augusta Chronicle on Feb. 7, 2018, to become the communications director at Augusta Preparatory Day School. Of the two decades I spent at the newspaper, I feel privileged to have covered 18 Masters and enjoyed many Media Day outings. I still have most of my media badges through the years, but now I have to find another badge if I ever want to return to the Masters. And if I get another badge this year, maybe my wife will receive that promotion.
-- Article by Chris Gay