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If I had an ounce of the talent Wright Thompson does—when it takes the author and ESPN senior writer less than 50 words in one of those Masters-branded SportsCenter voice-over essays to make superb and syrupy analogies between life and golf’s greatest tournament—maybe I could wrap up in 250 words or less what it meant to freely roam the most revered golf course in the world and knock a top 5 sports experience off my bucket list.
Since I clearly don’t, pardon me for taking too many words to summarize how absolutely amazing, awesome, and ethereal it was attending the 2021 Masters.
Officials at Augusta National Golf Club—where old-school is forever the vibe—would probably prefer I memorialize my time in nirvana nestled on roughly 270 of the most precisely manicured acres in the world differently. But right now, the elementary description above feels like the best I can do. After experiencing four days of access, unprecedented intimacy, and the kind of southern hospitality the crustiest of curmudgeons would melt for and trying to process it the day after it ended, the struggle is real. But that’s kind of what’s supposed to happen when everything exceeds the hype, right?
I mean, I had to fight off intense imposter syndrome feelings as I walked up and down the hilly, unusually empty, and impossibly green holes of Augusta National, getting closer to the pros on just about every hole than spectators at previous Masters ever had. Or probably ever will.
What was I doing standing a few feet away from Bryson DeChambeau, barely any kind of crowd around him, as he swung out of his shoes? How crazy was it listening to Bubba Watson and Brooks Koepka shoot the shit while I walked parallel to them down the 10th fairway on Friday? Was this reality? Because it honestly felt like I was dreaming since I practically had the place to myself. I made several (expensive) trips to the golf shop—normally a zoo featuring a queue outside that belongs at an amusement park—to cop highly coveted merch only available at the tournament.
Exclusivity has, for better and worse, always been one of Augusta National’s hallmarks. But this year the pandemic made officials take things to a new level. The number of patrons—Augusta National doesn’t call them fans—was severely limited in order to promote health and safety protocols. The extremely thinned out crowd, with smaller galleries around greens, tees, and no grandstands, gave everyone in attendance the freedom to not only see the action differently than ever before, but feel it in a new way.
I ain’t the religious type, but standing at Amen Corner, the famed stretch of the 11th, 12th, and 13th holes, during the final round played on a ridiculously beautiful southern spring afternoon, was Heaven on Earth. A massive grandstand that I sat in during my first visit to the Masters back in 2017 should’ve been there. Instead, it was a wide-open slope where a few thousand golf fanatics were blessed to be taking it all in while millions watched at home, their HD TVs not doing nearly enough justice to the rich colors of the course.
Streaks of sunlight from the blue sky blasted through puffy clouds and branches of massive pine trees, creating pockets of shadows that some took shelter on from the most intense sun of the entire tournament. Buzzed off a few of those notorious $5 beers, I watched the world’s best golfers navigate the famously treacherous trio of holes and the massive analog scoreboard behind the 11th green reflect their triumphs and failures. Except to grab another beer, I barely moved. I had no desire to be anywhere else Sunday. I didn’t want this dream to end.
I posted up at Amen Corner five days after leaving New York, lucky enough to drive a 2021 Mercedes-Maybach GLS600 down to Augusta after Mercedes-Benz invited Complex Sports to attend the Masters. One of the tournament’s five global partners, aided by their ambassadors and Masters participants Ian Poulter and Jon Rahm, Mercedes-Benz surprised essential workers with tournament badges last week. A dream come true for a lucky few. Then they went above and beyond, wowing us with access—like trips in and out of the club via Magnolia Lane—few ever experience.
Rocking a fresh white Masters dad hat, there were a few times I wish I could’ve snapped a photo—ANGC has a strict no phones policy—to stunt on IG. Or just capture a quick video to help stoke my memory of those hours at Amen Corner years later. But, honestly, I’m glad I couldn’t. It was blissful being off the grid. Life’s better when it’s lived, and appreciated, in the moment rather than trying to capture it with tiny cameras on a phone. Without a screen to distract me, I consciously made sure my brain soaked up the scene, kind of like the $3 bar-b-que sandwiches I scarfed down between the cheap draft beers.
Even with a smaller crowd, the Masters wasn’t without its typical celebrity sightings. While it took a sharper set of eyes to spot famous faces since patrons were encouraged to remain masked up, if you looked hard enough you saw some. There was a Dwyane Wade sighting at Wednesday’s practice round. New Spider-Man Tom Holland was there during the weekend. So was Macklemore, a relatively new devotee to the game of golf.
Since it’s the middle of the offseason, a ton of past and present NFL players flocked to the Masters. Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Larry Fitzgerald, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trevor Lawrence, Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, and the original GOAT Joe Montana were all spotted. Surprisingly, the 64-year-old admitted during a dinner we were lucky enough to attend Thursday that it was his first Masters and it came a few weeks after undergoing his 25th surgery. ANGC officials, displaying their famous hospitality, lent the 49ers legend a motorized cart to navigate the terrain. The cumbersome pair of crutches Montana had with him would’ve been worthless, or even dangerous, out there.
Montana was extra lucky since he got to bring along his wife and two of his sons. The Masters tends to be a family affair, the experience enhanced when you have your people right there with you. It’s easy to spot generations of patrons and it didn’t take long before I was envying all the groups together on Sunday. I started to think about the ones I wished I could share Augusta National with.
If he was still alive, god damn it would’ve been incredible to have my father with me after playing so many Sunday rounds and watching plenty of Masters together. My grandfather, who passed away eight years ago, was a massive golf fan and definitely deserved one trip to Augusta. Like too many, he never made it. My cousin, another golf fan, would’ve appreciated being there. So would my pal back in Brooklyn—even though he’s not a golfer, he reveres the tournament. I can’t tell you how many times I thought about what it would be like to have my golf buddies there, the same small crew I’ve played with for almost two decades now. They put in significant requests for merch. I happily obliged.
Then my mind switched back to appreciating the final few moments I would have at the course after Hideki Matsuyama, the leader following Saturday’s weather delay and the first Japanese man to win one of golf’s four major tournaments, rolled through Amen Corner, never knowing if I’d return. Even if golf ain’t your game, if you’re a sports fan you know about the Masters. You know it’s a big deal. You know a green jacket is given to each year’s winner. You recognize a lot of the holes. You probably know it’s a tough ticket. You probably even know a few of its unique traditions. What you never know until you walk those 18 perfectly sloped holes is how the course and tournament tax your emotions and lower extremities.
And now I probably sound like I’m trying way too hard to write like Wright. If you were reading a piece by Thompson about the Masters, it would probably end with something profound or low-key poetic. Since it’s me here, know that my time at Augusta National last week was the experience of a lifetime. I got lucky. I’m incredibly grateful I was there. I sincerely hope one day you get to walk around that hallowed ground if you haven’t. And after you do, I can’t wait to hear your impression of everything. I just won’t be afraid to flex on you and say the four days I spent at the 85th Masters was a vibe unlike any other.