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Backpacking the Masters

How 3 flights, a train, a Greyhound bus and a 7kg backpack paved the way to golfing nirvana

It was the music, that damn music that saunters into the living room each April, coercing me into four days of couch-surfing. Golfers around the world know the tune and I can vividly recall the first time I heard it, thinking it was the most ridiculous and pretentious piece of music, perfectly suited to a golf tournament I couldn’t care less about. Four years on and it had become the anthem to my favourite week of the year, when my world stopped and no plans or events could drag me more than a chip shot from the TV. But 2019 was different.

New Zealanders have a unique rite of passage: the great O.E (Overseas Experience), whereby we pack up our lives into a carry-on backpack and travel the world for a year. No jobs, no responsibilities, no problems. This is often a foreign concept for people outside of New Zealand, baffled by the length of time we are willing to be away from home, but they quickly understand as you explain it took you three planes and 34 hours of travel to get there – 2019 was my calling card.

I had scraped through my final year of university and immediately crafted an air-tight excel spreadsheet itinerary which would see me backpack across Europe for the year. As a meticulous planner, I had spent months piecing it together – every day of the trip was accounted for and ensured I wouldn’t miss a tick on my bucket-list. I was ready to go and there was absolutely nothing that could get in the way of me and this list of churches, old towns and national parks. Until one night changed everything. 

I have no idea why I woke up and checked my phone, I never do, but there was something that made me do it in the middle of that night. Through one half-open eye, a blurry email was plastered across the home screen ‘Masters Tickets’.

 

My mind immediately processed it as yet another travel agency teasing me with an exclusive, luxury Masters tickets package (you know the ones), but I opened it anyway. My first instinct told me the email was fake, I Googled every possible combination of ‘Masters ballot success email’ or ‘Masters tickets message’ you can imagine, but everything I found pointed to one answer: this was real.

My hands trembled as I processed that the golden ticket to Nirvana, the white rhino of golfing experiences was sitting in the palm of my hand. I had Masters tickets and I was going to Augusta National. Truth be told, I hadn’t even remember applying but one thing was for sure, my Excel spreadsheet was now in need of some tinkering.

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The months passed and the day grew ever closer. Finally it was time: after a restless sleep, waking every hour in fear of oversleeping, I was awoken by my screeching 3am alarm. Today was the day!

I fumbled through my 6kg pack for shorts and a polo, the rain pounding onto the roof of the apartment, ready to test out the only jacket I packed. I slammed back a coffee and hurried downstairs to catch a cab across town to the Greyhound station.

I should have known the station would be interesting experience when the driver insisted she escort me all the way to the door, “we don’t be walking up round these parts” she said in a slow Southern drawl. There were people sleeping, clearly not waiting on a bus, then an argument rapidly escalated into punches before a woman hysterically screamed about the size of her appendage. It all felt a million miles from Augusta National Golf Club.

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The scent of stale urine wafting down the aisle and the lack of legroom pushing my knees to my chest removed any remaining tiredness and at this point I found myself questioning whether any golf course could be good enough to go through all of this for. Masters Schmasters, turn this bus around, I thought.

As we weaved through the state of Georgia I felt absolutely nothing: no anticipation or excitement as the rain crash into the bus windows. It’s the strangest sensation, clinging to the excitement of a day for so long and then feeling empty when I was there in the moment, like waking up on Christmas Day to find out Santa didn’t come. I had Masters tickets, I was on my way and yet I couldn’t have felt further from Augusta National

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Far from the crowds and the pimento cheese sandwiches, I sat on a bench in the pouring rain waiting for a miracle to save my Masters experience. And then it happened.

My miracle arrived in shape of a 1995 Toyota Camry. I shuffled across the carpark, bounding over puddles, clutching my Masters tickets. “$20 to Augusta National?” I asked the driver, “$50 and it’s a deal” he sharply responded. In all honesty he could have said $200 and I would have paid it, so I quickly handed him the cash, and suddenly my heart was racing again. It was going to happen!

You can watch The Masters as many times as you like on TV, read as many books and articles as you please, but there is absolutely nothing that truly prepares you for the feeling of walking through those hallowed gates. My heart was pounding, head-to-toe goosebumps and there was nothing that could wipe the grin off my face. As I strolled toward the crisp white clubhouse I felt a small lump growing in my throat, and just as Hale Irwin warned all those years ago, I choked up: 3 planes, a train, a bus and a cab later and I had made it to heaven.

In Latin, Augusta means magnificent, and oh how magnificent she was. The Masters truly is the only event on the golfing calendar where the tournament plays second fiddle to the golf course, and starring out across the course I quickly understood why.

The whole place glowed a perfect shade of green that I had seen so many times on TV, and can only be described as Augusta green – there was not a blade of grass out of place. In true Kiwi style, I would have loved nothing more than to slip my shoes off and feel the grass under my feet. The shapes and lines of the golf course are so perfectly clean, the sand a shade of white I didn’t know existed, and the water so crisp. Towering Pines and Dogwoods frame each of the holes, with blooming Azaleas adding vibrant pops of white, pink and purple around the greens. 

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The thing that struck me first was that Augusta National may well be the happiest community in the world, where every single person there is living out their dream day. Everyone is polite, there’s no shoving for position, everyone eager to strike a conversation and share their story of how they came to be standing here. It’s like travelling back in time and without the option of being attached to their phones, people resort to connecting with others and taking in the experience around them. It feels as though there is a responsibility that comes with having Masters tickets. You  want to make sure that the people around you are also having their best Augusta experience. It truly does make you wonder if the world would be a better place if we all resorted to the values of the Augusta National patrons. The culture is headlined by the course attendants, who seem to have a special way of making you feel seen, it’s easy to forget that they see hundreds of thousands of patrons every year because they are so intent on making your experience the best. They smile and ask how you are and are more than happy to help you with anything you need. They are the soul of the Augusta experience, and that should never be lost in the magnificence that surrounds you.

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Like any golf nut, I was a kid in a candy store at Augusta. The list of things to see and do was endless, and over the course of the day I made sure I savoured the pimento cheese and Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches, took in the sights of Amen Corner, cheered players skipping balls across the water on 16, perused the merchandise tents, posed in front of the iconic scoreboard, stood on Bubba’s spot and sat 10 feet from Tiger as he shaped balls all over the range. 

I loved every second of ticking these experiences off, but the thing that will stick with me until the day I die is the overwhelming happiness of just standing and watching, taking everything in. I could have happily sat in the same spot all day long and absorbed the scenes around me. I realised the essence of Augusta National isn’t ticking things off lists, it’s following your feet and knowing that where they take you is where you should be. Wherever you land, taking everything in and relish the feeling and remember you may only get one shot at this in your lifetime.

The smiles of the patrons, the ‘Augusta roar’ and the feeling of being at peace, knowing there is nowhere in the world I would have rather been at that point in time, that was the experience. My feet were exactly where they needed to be.

Augusta National is a spiritual experience, a pilgrimage for the golf-obsessed, who assemble every April to pay homage and experience golfing nirvana. I have experienced a lot that the world has to offer, but I have never stood in a spot that has given me the complete and utter feeling of contentment that Augusta gave me on that day, and for that I am eternally grateful. No golfer’s journey can be complete without stepping through the gates and onto the hallowed grounds.

I certainly took the road less travelled to Augusta National. Was I the first person to backpack their way to the hallowed grounds aboard a Greyhound? I can’t answer that question, however the result and the journey was one I wouldn’t trade for the world. I started the day at a bus station in Atlanta wanting it to be over, and ended it standing beside the 18th green of Augusta National wishing it would never end. I would love another opportunity for my feet to find their spot at Augusta National again, but if I don’t, I can sleep well at night knowing what heaven looks like.

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