At The Masters with Pal

As a kid, I loved watching sports with my dad. It’s how I was introduced to my passions and the characters that stoked their fires. From watching Mario Lemieux, to the Jays teams of the early 1990s, to the Chicago Bulls as they began their dynasty. I would sit with my dad in our family room in Barrie and I was enthralled with everything about it. Like many kids I liked pretending I was a part of the action. I’d cut out curling rings, tracing around dinner plates on Bristol board and colouring them red and blue. I’d watch the shots in the Brier and Scotties and then slide pucks from my tabletop hockey game from one end of our hallway to the other, shouting “HURRY HARD” at no one in particular. I’d practice my goaltending skills with a bouncy ball, a mini stick and a baseball glove. I even rocked my tightest white t-shirt and did my best to emulate Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko as they tried to nail quadruple axels (I bailed on the carpet a couple times).

One tradition that never quite went away was sitting down every year on the second weekend in April to watch the Masters…for about 20 minutes before I dug out the putting machine and lined up a few golf balls on the carpet, gripping the cut down putter my dad gave me. I probably won about 50 green jackets on the carpet of our family room, emoting along with my dad as he yelled at the balls of Norman, Couples, Crenshaw and many more to ‘get up!’, ‘whoa!’, ‘bite!’, ‘get going!’ and so on.

That’s a unique aspect of golf. Even if you’re cheering for someone, you’re never rooting against anyone. Maybe it’s the common understanding of how difficult and maddening the game is to everyone. Maybe it’s the values of sportsmanship and etiquette that are so intrinsic to the fabric of the game. Maybe it’s the absence of a mob mentality in an individual competition. There’s no us vs. them, only you vs. me, with no boisterous, bullshitting boosters to get in the way of mutual respect.

I quickly became a fan of Greg Norman. What wasn’t to like? People called him “The Shark, he wore his distinctive wide-brim hat, and he was always in contention. Every April, I’d sit with my dad in the family room and cheer for Greg Norman (I even had a shark headcover on my driver). Every April, he’d come up short, often close, and one time, in devastating fashion. But every April, I’d be putting on the carpet, pretending to be Norman, and the field, playing through the hallowed grounds of Augusta National.

My dad doesn’t get excited for sports as much anymore. Sure he enjoys them, but he’s more reserved now. Maybe it’s a getting older thing, but I always appreciate it when he gets fired up. Lately, it’s been Olympic Gold Medal hockey games, and golf, specifically The Masters. Now, there’s no more family room, and no more carpet, and no more putting machine, so we do it a little differently. My dad and I are rarely together for the Masters since I moved to Toronto, but I make sure to FaceTime him or give him a call after Sunday’s round.

In 2000, there was an event in North Bay called “The Millennium Ball” – a chance for business people in town to network and raise funds for something or other through a variety of events. In the silent auction, my dad won us floor seats for a Raptors game. I sat behind George Foreman. It was a great time and we watched Vince and the Raps beat the Knicks in a low-scoring affair, 70-67. The coolest part was that it sparked a tradition of an annual trip, just me and my dad, who I call Pal (because he’s my pal), to a new place to explore with some sort of sports connection. We’ve done lots, from NHL, Spring Training, NFL Preseason, NBA, lacrosse, played golf in Tremblant and PEI, and on and on. It’s a special thing to have and I’m beyond grateful for the opportunity to visit these events and bond with my dad through them. It’s surreal to think there have been 15 of these adventures. I really hope there are 15 more.

We always kind of talked about it, sometimes jokingly. Where are we going this year? Augusta? (pause…) It’s too light-hearted a pursuit to have an elephant in the room but The Masters has always been about as close as we could get to that. I feel like it’s the event that most tightly bonds us and has been the most consistent in terms of our mutual passion.

This year it finally happened. My dad kicked off retirement and sometime in the middle of another snowy North Bay winter, pulled the trigger on the dream of seeing Augusta National in the flesh, logging onto StubHub and buying two tickets to the first round. These trips tend to sneak up on me more with work and other commitments keeping me from daydreaming (most of the time). Every so often, and especially as my work turned to the season’s first major, I’d stop myself and allow a brief reminder that I was going to be there, that this was happening. It was still almost impossible to believe.

As the date approached, our plans came together, scheduling rounds of golf on the drive south, looking up different restaurants and golf courses in the area. In the final minutes of my last day at work, my boss was able to give me two tickets to Tuesday’s practice round. I’m forever grateful for that because It didn’t just give us more time in Augusta, but made the trip more enjoyable and allowed us to immortalize our memories in photos on the course, which are forbidden during tournament play. That Tuesday is something I’ll never forget.

People describe the air as being electric far too often, but there’s a palpable current in the dewy Georgia breeze when you groggily open your car door at 6:30am after a 90-minute drive from Columbia, SC. A kid waves a badge protector – a plastic sleeve strung with a green shoelace at me and says “You guys need one?” I ask him the same thing back. “You need to show your badge.” I ask him how much “Six bucks, sir” he says, politely. I shrug and hand over a 10 and two singles. There’s a pilgrimage all Masters patrons make through the grass and gravel of the parking area, which is pretty much a big, hilly park space that Augusta National owns for possible future course changes. As you enter the grounds and walk the path to the majestic white ticket gates, there are security personnel every 20 feet or so making sure your badge is displayed, wishing you good morning sir or ma’am, and requesting that you “Enjoy the Masters” with what I could swear is genuine pleasure.

Everyone was so helpful and sincerely wanted us to enjoy our experience. Understandably as, for many, this is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. The cohesion and kindness of every staff member at Augusta (thousands of volunteers) was what most impressed me with the event. The condition of the grounds was second by the thinnest of margins. As soon as you’re through the gates, you are treated to an environment that is definitively pristine. Even in areas where players and TV cameras would never be seen, there is not a blade of grass or a needle of pine straw out of place. Every path edge is straight. Every branch is trimmed and every other detail is exactly where it should be. I’d lean down in my seat next to the green to just brush my hand over the apron of fairway-length grass. It’s short and lush, like a luxurious carpet. The washrooms are staffed more than a Best Buy on Boxing Day, with attendants directing traffic, ensuring patrons have paper towels and every piece of hardware is spotless for the next person in line. It is truly another level of service.

As my dad and I navigated the grounds, we didn’t say a whole lot, each of us taking it in for ourselves, offering short, wandering observations of something we at once knew everything and nothing about. “The greens look a lot smaller than they do on TV.” “Look at the grass, we’re not even on a hole right now.” “I didn’t realize those two greens are so close together.” “I never knew the hill here was so big.” (This was said a lot as the course is MUCH hillier than it appears on TV. It’s a workout.)

As we walked we looked to plan our day on the fly. We quickly headed for a snack bar for a sausage on a biscuit and a coffee, and a breakfast pint, simply because I could. Our wonder grew into a more defined appreciation, taking in every aspect, which is easier with no cell phones being allowed on the grounds. We toasted both of my grandfathers and my uncle, all departed who would have loved every moment as much as we did. We watched Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson tee off on 8, then walked down through Amen Corner before posting up on the top of a hill down the left side of 16. No one is upset at Augusta. It’s just tens of thousands of the happiest people for being there early in the morning, enjoying a warm day. Everyone will happily take your picture during the practice rounds, and you’ll happily return the favour. Some turn out better than others, but it doesn’t matter, because even the ones that don’t turn out are a picture of you at The Masters.

I could write forever about every detail about Augusta, from the hill on 16 to 7 green where we sat for the beginning of Thursday’s first round, to the unbelievably cheap food and the best pulled pork sandwich I’ve ever had ($3!!). The greatest thing was being able to enjoy this with the one person who’s shared this dream with me since I was lining up putts on an 18th green of beige carpet, negotiating the subtle break away from the fireplace, and needing a birdie to win… or maybe a par to win if I didn’t make that one.

I think what I’m most grateful for now is that even though I must have been super annoying and really cut into the atmosphere of my dad’s favourite events, he never told me to keep it down or stop being silly or anything like that. I think that’s really special, to let a kid imagine and get caught up in the magic of something. If my dad told me to keep it down because he was trying to hear the commentary or enjoy it, who knows how that would have affected me and my pursuit of keeping sports as a big part of my life. I’m really glad he didn’t.

The last few groups came through the 18th on Thursday and we were there, looking over the right bunker and still in awe of that place. As we made the drive home, we stopped early each day to watch the action and finally came back to Toronto on Saturday night. We watched Sunday’s final round in my living room, snacking and sipping pints from the cups they serve in Augusta. It was just me, and Pal, and The Masters. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

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