AUGUSTA, Ga. – What remains the heart and soul of a practice round during Masters week is “the walk.” You needn’t chase down players to pepper them with questions. You needn’t pursue a topic of conversation. You needn’t investigate or interrogate or interview.
You need only listen, watch, and observe to get an understanding as to why there sits off Washington Road down here a mystique that has no equal in the massive sports landscape. So magical a place is Augusta National that a 61-year-old whose excellence in the game has earned her perpetual glory as a World Golf Hall of Fame member, but whose life feels completes now that she has walked upon the hallowed ground.
“First time for me. I’m just here to soak it all in,” Pat Bradley said. “And to be here because of my little nephew, well, it’s heaven.”
Gifted enough to have won three majors in a season and six in all, Pat Bradley would much prefer to talk about the PGA Championship that her nephew, Keegan Bradley, won last August. Stunning and improbable, that Sunday at East Lake some 140 miles east, the emotions from which remain so strong they have helped eight months later to sweep the Bradleys into this vaunted cathedral of a golf club.
Yet even as the family pride swells, Bradley has settled into the routine of this Masters preparation, and it was understandably curious as to why the young man was off in the sixth practice group of the day, paired with K.T. Kim and not as the fourth member as previously planned with Phil Mickelson, Kyle Stanley and Brendan Steele.
That was just a sliver of the day’s interest, so when it was discovered that Bradley had made the adjustment, heads nodded. Turns out, Bradley called Mickelson on Monday evening, told him that he had second thoughts about the four-ball match, that he thought instead he needed to play a quiet practice round to study some more.
“Keegan,” Mickelson said, not the least bit ruffled. “It’s the Masters. You do what’s best for you.”
Said Bradley: “He’s been so good to me. I wouldn’t have expected him to do anything less.”
Yet another gold star for “Mickelson The Mentor,” and even as one suspects Bradley benefited and the left-hander certainly managed to still have his money game of a practice round – come on, he’s a savvy veteran – there was so much to yet another stroll around Augusta National. The weather gray and murky, hundreds of starlings frolicked in the trees behind the clubhouse and set off loud eruptions at every takeoff, but on the course balls that were properly skipped across the pond at No. 16 elicited cheers, while those that failed were jeered.
Tiger Woods’ nine-holer with Sean O’Hair and Fred Couples was a popular draw, though not all spent their time that way. Plenty watched a four-ball that went off at 9:10, even if the patrons weren’t sure who they were.
“It’s (Matt) Kuchar and (Stewart) Cink and somebody,” said one gentleman, and standing nearby, two other gentlemen tried to figure it out.
“You mean, Woodard.”
Then they referred to the pairing sheet and realized they had meant to say Woodland, as in Gary Woodland, who played through the pain of a tough defeat by his beloved Kansas Jayhawks in Monday night’s NCAA title game. Actually, we embellish; Woodland wasn’t hurting.
“I’m OK with the game,” he said. “We were overmatched.”
Woodland’s massive power didn’t help at the first hole. After his ball lodged in hedges 35 yards right of the fairway, it was tossed to him by a marshal.
Breakfast ball? Ah, the joys of a practice round, yet what also comes with that is a time-consuming period at every green when even the patrons study the procedures with curiosities and intrigue.
“Look, they even bring their own holes with them,” a gentleman said to his wife, as they watched caddies toss white, circular cards onto the greens to indicate where holes will be cut and thus give a purpose to the practice regimen.
Interested that she may have been in that, the woman focused more on the fourth member of this pairing. “That Wilson,” she said, “is a little guy.”
Funny, yet not at all upsetting. At least not to Mark Wilson’s father, Les, who was told about the woman’s comment. Watching his son, who earlier this season won his fifth PGA Tour tournament, play the second hole, Les Wilson laughed. He stands shorter than his son’s 5 feet, 8 inches and considers Mark a giant in the game of life, though his height was a disadvantage at the second. Standing perhaps 100 yards down the left side of the fairway, Les Wilson discovered that the look back toward the tee offered . . . nothing.
“I didn’t see it,” a woman said.
“I didn’t hear it,” said a man.
OK, so the sights and sounds aren’t there every step of the way, just for most of the day, and down at the fourth tee, Steve Hale was doing what you’d expect of a man called “Pepsi.” While waiting for the green to clear so his man, Bradley, could play his shot, Hale poured himself a cold soft drink. All right, so it was a Coke, not a Pepsi, but you get the point, and besides look what he was drinking out of.
“A Masters tumbler,” Hale said. “Gotta have a Masters tumbler.”
On so many turns of the head, you are offered a reminder why the Masters stands by itself, among them the commitment to the cleanest of appearances within the confines of the ropes. Caddies and players, that’s it. No entourages. No equipment confidants. No psychologists. No fitness aids. And, yes, no swing coaches, which is why one of the more heralded ones was hustling in from the fourth hole, headed back to the range. Two of his players were on the fourth hole, “but it’s impossible to do your job here,” said the man.
Then he shrugged and moved away, resigned to where he was. “You’ve got to just make the best of it,” he said.
Truthfully, that is very easy to do, even if they are serious of their rules here, most golden of which is the fact you are not allowed cell phones. That’s right, no cell phones. Now, we realize that telling people in today’s world that they can’t use a cell phone is akin to telling them they aren’t allowed to breathe, but the truth is, that’s a flavorful piece of the Masters landscape.
It goes for those swing coaches who depend on their cell phone to videotape their players, and it goes for even family members, though such a relation saved one sister from being kicked out when she was caught texting. Pleading guilty and explaining that she was checking on her daughter, the woman was saved.
“But I started to cry,” she conceded.
Anyone who has attended a Masters and patrolled the majestic course on a warm and sultry day would appreciate the young woman’s emotions. Being here is privilege of the highest order, even for those who are visiting for the 20th time.
“My favorite week of the year,” Mickelson said. “I love every minute of it.”
He is not alone, not when you can hear, see, and feel such an indescribable mystique.