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Worth Waiting For

Worth Waiting For

Cindi Branch didn’t know how to get tickets to The Masters, but she knew she wanted them. And she was determined to figure out a way, no matter how long it took. As it turned out, that was 28 years.

The Masters golf tournament, held each year at Augusta National, is one of the most difficult sporting events in the world to acquire tickets to attend. For starters, tickets for the four-day tournament aren’t for sale anywhere, so you can’t buy them... well, at least not from a ticket broker. There is a lengthy waiting list, but people who have managed to get tickets tend to be very dedicated, thus it takes a very long time to move up the list.

That’s something to which local resident Cindi Branch, Ph.D. can certainly attest – her journey to get tickets for The Masters took nearly three decades. Luckily for her, a fascination with the tournament started at a very young age.

“I grew up in a small South Carolina town outside of Augusta,” says Cindi, whose father worked as an engineer at the nearby Savannah River Site. “When I was a kid growing up, The Masters was already a big thing. Lots of my friends, their dads worked there as gallery guards or scoreboard operators. That was how they got to attend each year and, after it was over, they would have a special day where they allowed the workers to come in there and play the course.”

Back then, Cindi says, you could walk up to Augusta National and get practice round tickets with relative ease. “They were 15 bucks, if I remember right,” she says. “I’ve still got a bunch of those at my mother’s house. They’re just little round tickets on a string that you hook to your button. The practice rounds were when you had a lot of exposure to the players. Security wasn’t anything like it is now, and the players were much more accessible. My friends and I would get dropped off there for the day, and I just loved it.”

Cindi never had her own tickets to the actual tournament and didn’t know many people who did. “We’d go out there, especially on Sunday, the final day of the tournament, and people would be leaving to catch flights home and stuff like that,” Cindi remembers. “And they’d say, ‘Hey kid, you want a ticket?’ and give us theirs. But what I really wanted was my own set of tickets. So, I decided to write in.” It’s worth mentioning that Cindi was in seventh grade at the time.

“I just told them my name is Cindi Branch and I’d like to get tickets someday,” she says. “They replied back and informed me that they didn’t have a waiting list at that time, but that they would hold on to my information because I’d taken the time to write in, and if the decision was ever made to open up a waiting list, they’d put me on it.”

But Cindi didn’t stop there.

“Every year or two, I’d write them again, you know, and say, ‘My name is Cindi Branch, do you still have my information to put on the waiting list?’ and they’d write me back,” she recalls. “I don’t remember what year it was, but finally their reply was ‘Your name has been placed on the waiting list. We don’t know how long it will take because the attrition rate is very low.’ And every few years, I’d write in again, just to make sure I was still in line. The last time I wrote them about that was in 1991. The next year, I got my first tickets, in 1992.”

Cindi was stunned that the long 28-year writing campaign had worked. “I didn’t know if it would ever happen,” says Cindi. “But, I think it just shows that if you persevere long enough, you can do just about anything. I really believe that.”

Perseverance is a quality that Cindi has in spades. Many years before achieving her goal to get tickets, Cindi found herself facing a much more serious challenge – one that would last for the rest of her life. At age 29, she contracted a virus that caused her to develop a condition called transverse myelitis. In a matter of about a week, Cindi went from being a former college athlete who regularly ran, water-skied and played racquetball, to being paralyzed from the waist down.

“When I arrived at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, I was only the thirteenth case of transverse myelitis they had seen. I lived there for six months,” Cindi declares. “They told me I’d never walk again, that I needed to sell my car because it had a manual transmission, and my condo because it was on the third level. And I told them ‘I’m not doing that.’ I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I’m gonna walk out of here.’ And I did. It took me forever, and I was using two canes, but I did it.”

However, the adjustment is one she still struggles with to this day. “I played college basketball, I was a big runner, and my legs were always my strength,” she says. “And it was taken away just like that. At that time, the odds of getting this condition were one in 1.63 million people. Those are lottery odds. But rather than win the lottery, I got transverse myelitis.”

Decades later, Cindi still gets around with her canes, defying what her physicians said was possible, although it hasn’t been easy. “It’s been tough,” she admits. “I have done what I could to make the most of it. You try to replace those things like running and skiing but there’s no substitute and it will never be the same. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve lived like this for so much of my life. But I do persevere, and that’s a trait that I have. It’s how I got into the Ph.D. program at UGA, and how I got Masters tickets – by never giving up.” 

For a long time, she went to The Masters tournament every year. “I never went all four days, that would have been tough with my condition. And it was different then – the crowds weren’t nearly as big and you still had some access to the players. But it’s hallowed ground to me, it really is. I love all the history there, and how every hole has a name. And all the beautiful flowers, it’s like they took so much beauty from way far away and put it all right there. Did you know it used to be a nursery before it was a golf club?”

The first time she attended with her very own tickets, in 1992, she made sure to bring along her mother. “I’m so glad I did that because she’s been a strong influence in my life, and I’m blessed to still have her with me. We had the greatest time,” Cindi remembers fondly. “Payne Stewart was always one of my favorite players, and that year on hole 6, he smashed the tee and it flipped right over next to where we were standing. I knew the caddy would come over to pick it up, so when he did, I said, ‘Hey can we have that?” and he said ‘Sure!’ and handed it to me. I still have it. Things like that mean something, not to anyone else maybe, but it did to me because Payne Stewart held that in his hand. He was just a classy, great guy.”

Asked about her favorite golfers, along with Payne Stewart, she mentions Jack Nicklaus, Freddy Couples, Jordan Spieth, Gary Player and, of course, Arnold Palmer. Holding up a visor that she had signed by Palmer, she says, “Arnold Palmer made sure that he had an interaction with you. It was very important to him. One of the things he always told the young guys on the tour was, ‘when you give someone an autograph, when you have an interaction with them, make sure they remember it. Write your name where they can read it.’ As I look back and see the influence, Arnold Palmer was just an incredible guy. What he tried to do for the game and the players coming up, you just can’t say enough about that.”

These days, Cindi doesn’t go to Augusta National as often as she once did, but she does still try to make it for at least one day each year. And she’s found a new joy in using her tickets to take along family and friends who have never been able to experience The Masters in person. “I’ve got lots of friends who have since passed on that were able to go with me, and I cherish those memories like nothing else,” she says. “That’s what does it for me today, sharing it with others.”

“I’m so glad I had the foresight to start trying to get tickets so young,” she continues, “because now it’s not about me going out there and getting a Jack Nicklaus autograph – it’s about these people who are holding on to life and they’ve been dealt a bad hand. They go out there for the day and that kind of goes away for a little while.” Cindi herself knows how much that means, and for that, she says, a little piece of her heart will always be out there in Augusta National on Magnolia Lane.

-- Article by Daniel Harwell