Features | 2021 Masters Preview

Features | 2021 Masters Preview

Lucky Bastards

Those who have played Augusta National know they are

By Peter Finch

Trey Coleman’s friends and family thought the whole thing seemed a bit…strange. “You’re going to be a caddie?” They asked. “At Augusta National?”

Coleman already had a full-time job at Bank of America in Augusta, Ga., where he was a vice president in commercial lending. But he couldn’t shake the thought of looping at Augusta National, which at the time was hiring caddies, so he submitted his application, and it was approved. He would continue working at Bank of America during the week, trading his jacket and tie for a caddie’s white jumper on weekends and holidays.

Coleman, then in his 30s, felt a special connection to the club. He had grown up just blocks from Magnolia Lane and had helped operate one of the Masters leader boards as a teenager. “I’ve always felt that service to others is a higher calling,” says the former National Guardsman.

There was one other big draw: He could participate in “caddie day,” a once-a-year chance for loopers to tee it up on the 18-hole tournament course and the beloved Par-3 Course. “That,” Coleman says, “sealed the deal.”

You might be tempted to think of people who get to play Augusta National as lucky bastards, winners of some cosmic sweepstakes that awarded them a golden ticket. But in fact, it’s often the result of hard work—or, at the very least, a heaping mix of determination, diplomacy and patience.

There are only a handful of ways to play the home of the Masters, and none of them is easy. Golf Digest described them online last year in an article called “How to Play Augusta National Without Becoming a Member.” In addition to working at the club or as a caddie, they include snagging an elusive volunteer job during the Masters tournament. Then they become even more challenging. For example, you could land a job covering the Masters and then win a spot in the media-day lottery the day after the tournament, or you could qualify for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur in the spring by being one of the world’s 70 or so best women amateurs. Through a spokeswoman, Augusta National declined to comment for this article.

The club has its caddie day as part of “appreciation week” at the end of May, just as the course is getting ready to close for the summer. Scorers, gallery guards and other volunteers earn invitations on Monday through Thursday, with caddies going out on Friday.

Appreciation week is “a lot of fun,” says one gallery guard who asked not to be mentioned by name. “I spend the whole day on property. There is a huge buffet, with all the desserts and all the beer you can drink. A lot of the merchandise is 50 percent off.”

He describes the atmosphere as “laid back,” adding, “Everything about Augusta National—even appreciation week—they’re always trying to make better.” His first few times out, there were no caddies, and players rode in carts. Rounds were slow. Now they put caddies on each green to help players read their putts. “It speeds up play and makes it more fun,” he says.

Most people who get to play Augusta National follow a more conventional path to the first tee: They accept an invitation from a member, directly or indirectly. Still, it seems the experience is rarely ordinary.

For one, it’s considered bad form to ask a member for an invitation—or even to drop hints. “Absolutely, 100 percent, I would never do that,” says a golf-industry executive who has played the course multiple times. “I have a lot of friends who are members,” says an investment manager, “and the rule is that if you ask for an invite, you have to hire a private jet to fly everyone down there. That ends up being a $25,000 or $35,000 trip, so no, I don’t do it.”

When the invitation comes, it’s common to drop everything. “It’s the kind of thing where you don’t even bother to look at your calendar,” says one golfer who played there a few years back. Says Bruce Black, the retired owner of a California valves and fittings company, “I told the friend who invited me, ‘All I need is about two hours’ notice, and I can get myself together.’ ”

First-time guests often experience moments of extreme anxiety as the big day approaches. One entertainment executive describes a hastily assembled trip that seemed to be coming together beautifully—until a work crisis struck the day before he was to leave. “I remember looking skyward and saying, Really? Today? ” he says. “I did not want to make that phone call to cancel. I was thinking that was bad, and the invitation might not come again.”

On his first trip, Houston trade association executive David Wuthrich recalls driving to Augusta from Atlanta and noticing that the octogenarian member who invited him had dozed off in the passenger seat. “I thought, Oh my goodness, is he dead? Is this going to be like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’?”

Obsessive weather-watching is part of the experience for many. A few years ago Jamie Rehak, a retirement adviser, flew down to Georgia from Buffalo, N.Y., expecting to play. It was December, and the temperature was projected to be in the high 40s and low 50s. “My business associate, who was friends with the member who invited us, said he might cancel if it was too cold—and he did,” he says. “I was heartbroken. We had a nice dinner and flew back home.”

Happily for Rehak, he got another shot a couple of years later, this time in October. “I woke up that morning thinking, Good Lord, please don’t have someone cancel,” he says. “No thunderstorms, please.

He found himself bursting with energy. “I rarely get nervous,” Rehak says. “But I’m there in the hotel, ironing my pants to get ready, and I’ve never ironed anything in my life! We had breakfast at the Waffle House and got to the parking lot across from the Augusta National entrance an hour and half early.”

That parking lot is familiar to many guests. Because visitors can’t enter the club until the member arrives, they often camp out there and wait for notice. Once the member is on site, guests can make their way across Washington Road and down Magnolia Lane, where a guard will ask for identification and the member’s name.

Once guests pass that exam, they drive a short distance to the right, and club employees will come out to greet them and unpack the car. There’s no “bag drop” sign or club stand near the curb. Employees take the clubs toward the golf shop and, if the guests are staying overnight, they will take luggage to the guests’ rooms.

For some, it takes a while to get comfortable. “The first hour, I kept thinking, I just hope I don’t get thrown out,” says one recent visitor. But he admits that’s on him because the staff and even the members were universally warm and welcoming. “At some clubs, the members give off an attitude like, ‘WTF are you doing here?’ ” says another visitor. “At Augusta they know what ‘guest’ means.”

David Bannister, past president of the Middle Atlantic Golf Association, likens entering the club to “going to a private home for a dinner party.” Guests are expected to dress appropriately, of course: normal golf attire—collared shirts, tucked in, no denim. In the evening, it’s jackets and ties for the men.

Everyone seems to have a shared understanding that it’s a big deal to be there and that it’s OK to geek out a bit. “It’s interesting to see the dynamics with the members, who are very excited to have their guests, and the guests who are sharing the same likeminded experience,” says one visitor. “The guests sort of acknowledge each other like, ‘Hi, I know what you’re experiencing and what I’m experiencing, and we’re in a club of our own right now, and that’s the club of lucky.’ There’s a lot of nonverbal communication.”

If you choose to say something out loud, understand there’s a good chance someone will hear you. “One of the little screws in my glasses came out,” says Jack Carney, an Oklahoma banker who has played there a few times. “I just mumbled something about it, and next thing I knew somebody was there with a box of little screws, and, of course, one of them fit.” Tom Case, a Florida life-insurance agent, remembers a woman at his table mentioning that she liked chicken livers. The next day at lunch, there was a small plate of chicken livers at her place setting.

How’s the food? Quite good—steak, fish and the like. “It’s a simple, elegant menu,” says one guest. Another visitor recalls walking into the dining area one morning and saying, “Can I get something for breakfast?” The staffer on duty replied, “You may have anything you want!” There was no menu.

Members and guests often congregate at a small bar near the dining room before eating. Sometimes groups gather there after their meals, but it’s not known as a late-night social hub. Instead, hosts usually take their guests on a tour of the club.

The Champions Locker Room is a popular spot on these tours. It’s smaller than many expect, and some are surprised to see that it does not have enough space for every Masters winner to have his own locker; they share lockers. A lot of visitors are struck by the cramped quarters of the Crow’s Nest atop the clubhouse, where amateur Masters competitors bunk in four small bedrooms during the tournament.

The wine cellar, said to house one of the world’s finest collections, is another highlight. “My first time, we went down into the old wine cellar in the bowels of the place,” says one visitor. “It was cold, and only a few people could come in at a time or it would raise the temperature too much. A few people were waiting to come in while we looked around.” There was a lot to see. “It’s bananas,” the guest continues. “You want a 2005 Screaming Eagle? There might be 10 of them.” That’s a $3,900 bottle of wine, though mostly what’s consumed is just very good wine at reasonable prices.

When he returned in the mid-2010s, the guest got to visit the expansive new cellar. The club brought over some artifacts from the old one, including an old wood shelf marked “D.D.E.” (for Dwight Eisenhower, who was a member) and another labeled “Not for sale. Mr. Roberts,” meaning club co-founder Clifford Roberts.

After their tours, guests generally retire to their cabins, which are dotted around the property. They are clean and comfortable, with decor that looks a lot like what you see in Butler Cabin during Masters telecasts. One guest lucky enough to stay in Butler Cabin says his group “took a bunch of pictures sitting in the actual chairs and pretending we were Jim Nantz and the champion.”

The typical cabin has four bedrooms en suite and a common area where you can watch on television whatever Masters tournament you desire by calling the front desk. Masters memorabilia lines the walls and bookshelves. For many, the cabin becomes a key part of their stay. Though guests may use the club’s locker room, for example, they often come back to their cabins to shower after playing the course.

One group staying in Butler Cabin “Took a bunch of pictures sitting in the actual chairs and pretending we were Jim Nantz and the champion.”

About the course: Big surprise—people love it. “Spectacular” comes up a lot. “Meticulous,” too, along with “surprisingly hilly.”

Guests often play the Par-3 Course in the morning, to shake off the dust and maybe settle their nerves. After lunch, they make their way over to the tournament course, where there are no tee times and the vibe is surprisingly relaxed.

The first time Wuthrich played, he launched a 3-wood on No. 1 into the woods left. His caddie told him, “The pros aim there, but that’s not really right from the member tees. You need to take it over the trap on the right instead.” Wuthrich dropped another ball, and this one went into the bunker. The caddie said, “Hit another.” Really? Wuth-rich couldn’t believe it. “Here, we hit till we’re happy,” the caddie said.

Unless everyone in your group is a low-handicap or better player, you’ll probably play from the member tees, which are only about 6,400 yards compared with 7,500 from the tournament boxes. “Augusta is not a hard course,” says an investment manager who has played it a few times. “Any mid-single-digit-handicapper is going to hit 15 of 18 greens.”

The challenge, as anyone who has ever watched the Masters knows, is on the greens. “It’s the most undulation you’re ever going to putt on,” says the volunteer gallery guard who plays during appreciation week. “The caddie says, ‘Hit it over here,’ and you think, What? But you have to commit to what he says, or you might end up off the green.”

One guest likened the course to playing Pinehurst No. 2, “where you think backward from the green. You need well-struck shots from the right spot in the fairway, and that requires driving it to the right spot. I was surprised at how small the receptive square footage is on each green and how sharp the fall off is. You can putt or chip if you miss the green, but you have to use a lot of imagination.”

With the exception of appreciation days, the course is seldom crowded. Lots of guests describe playing 18 holes with only the slightest awareness that other groups were on the course. Yet dawdling is frowned on, and it’s the rare group that stops in for a meal or a snack after playing the front nine.

Reaching Amen Corner is a thrill for most. Bob Greig, a California CPA, found it “a little overwhelming” when coming down the 11th fairway and spotting the par-3 12th in the distance. “It stops you in your tracks,” he says. “You’ve seen it for decades on television and, Oh my gosh, there it is. I just stood there for a moment and tried to take it all in.”

It’s a popular spot for snapping pictures, though some Augusta National guests feel a little funny about taking photos at Amen Corner and elsewhere, fearing they will upset their hosts. Members and guests are prohibited from posting their pictures online or in publications. Jack Nicklaus’ PR rep once got a call from the club telling him of the rule after a picture of Nicklaus’ guest foursome appeared in this magazine. One recent guest says a caddie in his group very discreetly took some photos and, to his surprise, they arrived by email a few days later.

That’s not the only secret move caddies make. Wuthrich was walking up to the eighth tee when his caddie said, “You need to start playing golf.” He laughed it off. “Well, I come to realize the caddies are betting on us,” Wuthrich says. “How far you’d hit it, closest to the pin, the longest putt. They’re betting on everything!”

Trey Coleman, the banker who worked as a weekend looper for a season and a half, confirms that “certain caddies” liked to place prop bets when he was there. But it wasn’t everyone, and it wasn’t constant. “There was more gambling in the caddie shack,” he says. “I used to join them because I loved pitching quarters and playing cards.”

Most of all, he loved golf. Getting to play on caddie day in 1997, not long before moving west to continue his career in Silicon Valley, was everything he hoped it would be. “I came to the club that day with a mission,” he says. “I wanted to play all day long. I brought my own lunch and literally just went nonstop.”

Coleman finally picked up his ball as security guards came out onto the course to shepherd him in. “Son, you were supposed to be gone 20 minutes ago,” one of them said.

“My final memory was riding the 15th fairway in a cart,” Coleman says. “The sun was setting, and some of the caddies who didn’t play golf were at the pond, fishing for grass carp. It was a magical, magical day.”