In April 2007, my dad and I flew to Atlanta, rented a car and drove to Augusta, Georgia, to watch the 71st Masters. I was in college. I'd never been to the Masters. I was enthralled. Ten years later, I drove down Magnolia Lane in a rented car after playing Augusta National the day after the 81st Masters, headed to Atlanta and flew back home to my wife and three kids.
A lot has happened in between.
Many know this story, but the journey that brought me to this job as the golf writer for CBS Sports was as improbable as Sergio Garcia's first major win coming at Augusta National.
Five years ago at this time, I worked for an insurance company. I helped run our marketing department. It was fine work. The people were tremendous. I more or less enjoyed myself, but I wanted to do something more.
I've always enjoyed writing and sports, so I started an Oklahoma State college football and basketball blog on the side. Through that, I met Jonathan Wall and David Ubben, and they helped me get this job at CBS Sports. I took Shane Bacon's old job after he went on to do Shane Bacon things like host TV shows and ad-lib five hours worth of golf coverage at the U.S. Open.
When I first called my dad and told him about my new job covering golf for CBS Sports, he said, "Wait … they're going to pay you for this?"
That was how I felt, too. I get to go to golf tournaments in gorgeous locales and watch the best players in the world, and that's a job?
I still feel that way.
I shot a 95 on Monday at Augusta National. There were 28 of us picked in the media lottery. We played in groups of four. We played from the members tees, which make the course 6,365 yards long. I was picked in my second year of covering the tournament in person. My friend, Kevin Van Valkenburg, who I was supposed to play with on Monday, came up to me on Friday after the selections were made and said, "I guess we need a new fourth for Monday BECAUSE YOU'RE PLAYING AUGUSTA NATIONAL."
I told him that, if he was messing with me, we might never speak again. He wasn't. I think unwritten golf media rule No. 1 is "Thou shalt not deceive thine neighbor about playing Augusta National the day after the Masters."
I hit some good shots and some really awful ones during my round. I hit one of the purest 7-irons of my life on No. 4 and made par. I made a 50-foot downhill putt on No. 9 for par from the fringe. I played from the Rory Cabins on No. 10. I had 95 yards in on No. 11 and made triple. I hit one off the property from the Mickelson Pine Straw on No. 13. I put one two feet from the Saturday pin on No. 16; unfortunately, we were playing the Sunday pins. I parred No. 17. But the best hole of the day was No. 15.
I hit one of my great drives of the day on No. 15. I had 191 yards in with my second shot. I Rory strutted all 300 yards up to my ball even though I was 20 over at the time. All I could think was, "I'm going to make an eagle here." I flipped my camera to my caddie and said, "This is my favorite shot on the course, could you film this?" He said, "It's one of my favorites, too … and of course I will."
Sergio Garcia's Sunday divot was two feet in front of me.
Over the years, I've watched countless players stalk the crest on 15 on Saturday or Sunday with a life-changing shot in front of them. It's one of the most tense spots on the golf course. We've seen Tiger Woods give all-time twirls there. We've seen Lefty say, "Ohhhh, I flushed it!" from there. We have seen career-altering shots from the very place I stood, one of them some 22 hours before I walked that incline.
I stood over my ball for what felt like forever. I thought about everything I just mentioned, and I thought a thought you never want to think (but often can't help thinking) at Augusta National: "I will never again get to hit this very shot in my entire life." I turned to my caddie, who said he was ready, and I took the club back for what I knew was going to be the shot of my life.
I laid the sod over it.
Two caddies had to be brought in to carry my divot back to its resting spot. That's how bad it was. It didn't even get within 40 yards of the water. But I got up and two-putted for par and made par at the next two holes as well.
We finished up on No. 18 and shook hands. We couldn't have asked for a better foursome or a more perfect day. I headed for the champions locker room, which is where we got to dress and shower. There is a Masters robe in there that Phil Mickelson has definitely worn every year since 2004, and the entire experience was beyond surreal. It's hard to not feel like you are outside of your person even as you are walking through it all.
There is not much for me to say about the course that you haven't already perceived for yourself. It is beyond beautiful, but we all know it so well that there is no string of words I can put together to enhance that beauty.
The sweetest place on the entire course is on the No. 13 tee box. You can look back down No. 11 and watch shots into No. 12. Then you can look up No. 13, which looks totally different than you have ever seen it before. I wanted to stay back there for an hour and just tee balls up for folks who came through.
Jason Day said it probably better than I could have a few weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
"It's a spiritual place for us to be able to go and just feel it," said Day. "It's kind of surreal in a way. If you're there by yourself or with your caddie on a quiet day, when no one's around, it just so peaceful."
My favorite part of Monday, though, was not the golf or the course. We stayed at a place called Champions Retreat on Sunday evening. Bacon, Van Valkenburg, Brendan Porath and I recorded a podcast on Monday morning before I played. Sean Martin was there as well. They have all become good friends and terrific colleagues. I admire all of their work.
We spewed takes deep into the night after Sergio's historic win before they forced me to go to bed so I'd be plenty rested. As I drove to the course on Monday morning -- a 30-minute drive -- I thought about those friendships and how they have enhanced this entire experience. Watching and writing about golf is a great thrill for me, but it would not be the same without great friends.
I talked to my wife and kids on the phone on the way there. "Daddy, where you playing golf today?" Someday, they won't believe the answer to that question. My 4-year-old lamented a Sergio win (she wanted Jordan Spieth). My 3-year-old, too (he had Tiger … and then DJ after I, ironically, told him Tiger's back was too bad to tee it up).
My wife, who seven years ago went with me for the first time as my fiancee to watch Phil Mickelson win No. 3, told me she loved me and that she couldn't wait to hear about every shot.
On my way there, I got a direct message and a text from two top 75 golfers telling me to enjoy every step, the whole thing.
This is a lot better than pushing marketing for an insurance company.
I flipped my blinker as I rolled down Washington Road and my heart skipped a beat as I passed Gate 5 and then Gate 4. Then I saw the "members only" sign at Gate 3 with that uber-famous ANGC logo hanging outstretched from the most iconic street in golf. That sign is so inviting and so unreachable. Today, though, I would touch it.
I turned and showed my ID to the security guard. As I rolled up my window to roll down Magnolia Lane, I knew I would be emotional.
A lot has happened.
So much time has passed since I first set foot on this property 10 years ago, and yet I can still remember going with my dad, parking nearer to the course than you can now and conversing with the folks who lived a sand wedge or so from the National. I remember every trip with every friend I have taken there. My grandfather has had two badges for 30 years, and he graciously let me and my wife and my friends use them for six of those.
He used to come to this place, too, before I knew what the Masters even was or what it meant. He used to travel there with my grandmother, who died last fall.
Time barrels on.
Because the memories are so stark at Augusta, they feel closer than they are in actuality. Ten years is a long time, and when you juxtapose that reality with how much time it feels like has passed (not much), an onslaught of emotion is the only reasonable response.
So as I drove Magnolia Lane toward the Augusta National clubhouse, I entered another world. This was not the world you hear golfers and caddies describe, though. ANGC is a world unto itself, this is true, but my world was mine alone. I was aware of my surroundings, but they stood still as I moved and drank in so many memories.
I'll never forget that methodical drive. I cried as each magnolia tree slowly slid behind me. They are older than any of us and will outlive all of us. So much life hit me so quickly even though I was traveling as slowly as my car would allow me to travel. Our journey on this planet is so short.
Augusta is a place for fathers and sons. Wright Thompson taught us that a while back. But I thought of my daughter, who died nearly 500 days ago. I thought about how we will never spend any time together in this place, and even as I type this, I weep about the reality that I'll never get to bring her a shirt or a hat or one of those miniature putters that fits perfectly into the hands of a two-year-old.
I think about her a lot. I've written about it some. I miss her. She died at 36 weeks, and then she was delivered. I've thought about her on every one of those nearly 500 days.
I thought of my other kids, who are starting to get into golf. I thought about how, when I first came to Augusta with my dad, my now wife and I were not even dating. I thought about how we fell in love and came to Augusta together and about how we got to take friends and share the experience with them. I thought about my own parents and how sweet it was to put weeks away with them in this place. And I thought about how they're getting older now and how we probably won't put any more weeks away there together.
The golf is the golf in our profession. It is a job, and I love it. I hope it will always be a thrill for me to watch Sergio Garcia hit cutting 5-irons from 210 yards out and Rory McIlroy to bludgeon the horizon with his driver. I hope it will always be a thrill for me to watch Henrik Stenson pummel 3-woods on the range and Louis Oosthuizen swing a club right- or left-handed.
I am a sportswriter, yes, but I am a sports fan first and foremost. Not of anyone in particular but of the game itself. I love it. I love everything about it, and I love Augusta National -- a lot. I love going there, and I love writing about golf. I refuse to apologize for that.
Augusta has been a time stamp for me over the last decade. It has marked my relationship with my wife and our photos from there have revealed the way our friendships have developed over the years.
I love the way so many different people with such varied backstories play the game so wonderfully. I love the orchestration of golf at the highest level. I love that Justin Rose lost and how he lost and that he said he hoped everyone enjoyed the show. I loved that as much as I loved Sergio's machine gun fist pumps.
So the golf is great, but the real fulcrum of it all is how the golf leads to something more -- something less vapid than jackets and money. Something that outlasts the magnolias.
I thought about all of these things as I drove. I thought about how short life is and about how odds are that I will never drive that road again and how that's OK.
So much time has passed since I first visited Augusta National, and that place has meant so much to me over the years.
Even if I never go again, I couldn't have asked for a better ride.