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No time like the first time at Augusta National
Mike Anthony

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“Perfect. And to think this ground has just been lying here all these years, waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it.”

That was the first thought that came to Bobby Jones as he looked over the Fruitlands Nursery in Augusta, Ga. back in 1931. Those 365 acres of land were transformed into the Augusta National Golf Club and the site of a golf course that - true to Jones’ initial assessment - can hardly be done justice by paintings or photos.

Such as it is the dream of most serious golfers to tee it up at The Masters, it is just as much a bucket list item for casual players and fans of the game to simply roam the course.

Every April, chores go neglected and easy chairs are put to the test as millions tune in to watch artful play on a picturesque landscape at Augusta. As the only major played at the same venue each season, the beauty of Augusta National is accentuated by the fact that annual viewers are as familiar with the intricacies of the course as they are with their own favorite stomping grounds.

So what is the reaction when lifelong admirers of one of the world’s greatest golf courses finally gets the chance to view it in person?

Over the three days preceding the main event, I have trekked across every hole on the course –g many of them multiple times. The views and the magnitude of the moment never gets old, but I also kept an ear out for the impressions of those who were getting their first look.

“Lush. Just so lush,” one woman said as she walked past me while staring down at the grass on the first fairway.

“I knew it was a slope, but how do they even hit it like that,” said a gentleman remarking on a ball severely above the feet of a player in the 13th fairway as he went for the par-5 green in two.

For many, their only shot at making it onto the grounds comes in the form of a one-day badge - be it to a practice or tournament round. That may have had some of Wednesday’s patrons on edge Tuesday night as storms rolled through the area, but practice rounds and the annual par-3 contest went off without a hitch.

“Honestly, I didn’t care if I saw players or not. I just wanted to see the course,” said Daryl Evans, a high school golf coach from Fairbury, Ill. “It’s been a lifelong dream to get here. I’m sure everyone talks about the hills. It’s so much more drastic than what you see on television. You look at the course and just think that players who are good on their local course might not even keep it on these greens.”

Evans also joked that his badge for the day – given to him by a player of his who had won the random lottery – would definitely get to pick his spot in the team lineup from now on.

Another patron getting his first look at Augusta was Paul Hurley, of Waterford, Ireland. He has attended several other professional tournaments in the United States, but puts Augusta National in a class of its own.

“This really is a special place,” Hurley said. “For the longest time, my son said that this is the course he wanted to go to. It took some years of trying and planning, but we’re here for the week and really enjoying it.

“This is the cream of the cream. Not only do you have the color and the flowers that make the course beautiful, but there are the mounds in the fairways and greens that make it such a mystery for even the best players in the world.”

Hats and ribbons all throughout the crowd make it apparent that the patrons are as much of an international mix as the tournament field. But first-time visitors to Augusta – be it from down the road or around the world – all spoke with the same awe and pride of having made a dent in their bucket list.

And all of the different languages and accents somehow result in the same sense of wonderment when talking about the course.

“This was a place I just had to get to,” said Matthew Wood of Knutsford in Cheshire, England. “What you see on TV doesn’t do it justice. Everything is just massive, from the hills, to the bunkers, to the greens. And it’s all just so crisp and clean. I went down to see (Amen Corner) first, but it really doesn’t matter where you are on the course, it’s just a great place to be.”

The awe isn’t reserved for the patrons.

Players making their way through some of the most famous holes in golf could also be seen drinking it all in. During the leisurely practice rounds, more than a couple of amateurs and first-timers wandered off to locations of the tournament’s most legendary shots.

For the players, the shock and awe will have to be suppressed as competition gets underway today. But for the thousands of patrons who will be making their first trip to the course in the coming days, a true paradise of golf awaits them and it will never get old to see the faces of people realizing a dream that has been a lifetime in the making.

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