My musical interests are wide-ranging, with songs and genres moving in and out of my Spotify playlists like flavors of the month. Recently, I’ve been enjoying 2000s rock, particularly the song “17” by Youth Lagoon. Its main chorus goes, “Don’t stop imagining, the day that you do is the day that you die,” which seems fitting given my good fortune this week at the Masters.
I grew up playing golf at a municipal course, where my friends and I spent our summers from sunrise to sunset playing rounds and practicing on the putting green. Throughout those years, we hit many imaginary putts to win the Masters. Augusta National and the tournament itself played formative roles in what became my unhealthy obsession with golf. I watched the Masters every April for 27 years, and I dreamed of playing the course that had seen so many legendary moments. When I was young, I innocently believed I would play there one day, but as I got older, that dream seemed less and less likely. This didn’t stop me from continuing to envision shots I might hit at Augusta National—like a long approach into the second green that whips around the slope and filters toward the hole.
Dreams sometimes come true, though. This past week, I won the media lottery at the Masters and finally got the chance to play Augusta National—a course I had imagined playing thousands of times.
Instead of giving a play-by-play of my round, I’d like to share some thoughts, moments, and anecdotes from a wonderful day at the National.
For about a year, I’ve been playing with a retro set of clubs, including a persimmon driver, a Titleist PT 3-wood, and Wilson FG-17 irons. I find it to be a lot of fun for two reasons: first, it does away with the mindlessness of wailing away at a modern 460cc driver; and second, as a form of rehabilitation for a former competitive amateur player. Since starting The Fried Egg (and a family), I’ve devoted less time and energy to my personal golf game, and it’s difficult to watch my skills and consistency fade away. The vintage clubs help me remove expectations and allow me to leave the course more often pleasantly surprised than disappointed, accepting that I’m not the player I used to be. One of the virtues of these clubs is that they let me enjoy 6,300-6,700 yard courses without hitting wedges into every par 4. At Augusta National during the media outing, we played the members’ tees, which measure 6,365 yards. While some people argue that long drives make golf fun, I can assure you I found more enjoyment in navigating hazards and features I’ve watched the world’s best struggle with over the years using my scaled-back equipment setup.
People are asking for a what’s in the bag tomorrow at ANGC. Here ya go pic.twitter.com/9S8rHBxXr4
— Andy Johnson 🍳 (@AndyTFE) April 10, 2023
Despite trying to downplay the round in my mind, I was very nervous when I arrived at the course. It’s been a few years since I played competitive golf, but this experience reminded me of teeing up in a tournament. One of my issues is that I haven’t played tournament golf in over four years and have lost some of my ability to embrace those nerves. Typically, when feeling pressure (cue Zinger), you become cautious and timid. The first lesson I learned at Augusta National was that this course feasts on your nerves: uncommitted swings and strokes invite punishment. The slopes are too big, the bunkers too deep, and the margins too small for you to do anything without commitment. This is difficult when you’re not feeling comfortable. Nerves got the better of me early in the round, resulting in a series of bogeys with a double bogey mixed in. By the sixth tee, I was wondering where I had gone wrong.
A significant factor in Augusta National’s ability to eject anxious golfers is its greens. The line between success and mediocrity on these greens is razor-thin. Great shots are rewarded, while merely good shots often result in extremely challenging recoveries. Hit a poor shot? Buckle up because you’re in for a painful ride.
One instance that stands out during my round was on the ninth hole. I hit a beautiful tee shot up the left side of the fairway, leaving a wedge into the elevated green. After watching Masters competitors spin their balls off the front of the green on Sunday, I decided to get clever. I pulled a 9-iron and attempted a chippy shot to reduce spin. Predictably, as a less skilled player, I came over the top, delofted the club, and sent the ball to the back edge of the green. This put me in the same position as Tiger Woods in the 2019 Masters.
However, whereas he executed a brilliant lag putt to within a foot, I putted off the front of the green. I realized why so many pros prefer spinning their balls off the front to going long; that chip shot is much easier than the putt from above the pin. I chipped to a few feet, missed the putt, and walked away with a double bogey. Unlike most courses on the PGA Tour, Augusta National makes fine distinctions between different levels of golf shots, dispensing real rewards and penalties.
Everyone talks about the hills at Augusta National, so let me talk about them a little more. Over the past two years, I’ve observed 14 days of golf at the course and understand how hilly it is. What I didn’t get is how relentlessly physical it is; the terrain is exhausting. It forces players to hit 14 approach shots from a wide variety of lies, with par 3s providing some relief from the awkwardness of other holes. Hitting from sidehill, uphill, and downhill lies into greens that swiftly dole out penalties requires your full attention and effort, mentally and physically. You have to read what the lie is going to do to your ball flight, assess how uphill or downhill the target is, and make sure your body moves in a sequence that matches your lie. If your motion isn’t spot-on, your club will dig into the ground or you’ll hit it thin—and good luck from there.
On the 10th hole, I found myself in the fairway, 190 yards from the flag, with the ball about eight inches above my feet and on a downslope. Here’s how my stream of consciousness went: “My FG-17 5-iron goes about 185 yards… this shot plays a little downhill, so maybe the number is 180… with this sidehill lie I should choke up a bit… I need to remember to stay with the downslope because if I don’t I will fan it out to the right and it looks awful over there….” And so on. When I stood over the shot, I focused on my body movement, turned my shoulders, used the ground, and struck the ball flush. It soared straight toward the flag… but I had forgotten to account for the helping wind. The ball landed pin-high, about five feet left of the Sunday pin position. One hop, over the green. I had thought of everything but the wind, and it cost me another bogey.
The 10th hole at Augusta National (courtesy of Augusta National)
Every movement, decision, and action on Augusta National’s par 4s and 5s is dictated by the course’s terrain and conditions. Forget any aspect during the lead-up and execution of a shot and you will pay the price.
I have to call myself out here. I used to think that Augusta National posed a relatively benign driving test, with more space than most major championship courses. However, I discovered on Monday that precise driving is essential for good scoring. My Tad Moore persimmon driver and I didn’t quite jive, leading to trouble on a few holes. When you’re out of position at Augusta National, your focus shifts to finding a reasonable spot for a par attempt. As Paul McGinley would say, finding fairways allows you to play from your front foot, while missing them relegates you to your back foot.
I now see how Augusta National can become a house of horrors for even the world’s best players. Naivety during a first-time round can be beneficial, as it allows you to approach shots without full awareness of potential dangers. The more you play the course, the more you see the ball finding bad places, and your mind starts to conjure horror movies when you think of certain holes and situations.
For example, I am extraordinarily happy I never walked on the third green until after I hit a wedge into it. I found the perfect place off the tee—perhaps the only flat lie for a wedge on the course—on top of the ridge in the third fairway. This is why some players still lay back on this hole, despite what the data says; it’s like hitting a wedge on a driving range and offers a good view and angle into the green. I hit a flawless wedge shot, the kind you dream about, with a shallow divot, low trajectory, and loads of spin. It landed stiff, and without seeing it come to rest, I assumed it was within a few feet. Then I arrived at the green and found my ball about 18 feet away from the pin. Standing there, I saw why: it’s insane how much that green runs away from the player. The best golfers in the world make that shot look far easier than it is.
Behind the third green at Augusta National (courtesy of Augusta National)
Having watched 27 Masters, I will always cherish the memory of getting hot on Augusta National’s second nine. Following a bogey on the 10th, I rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 11th from below the hole. On the 12th, the wind changed directions four times as we waited on the tee. It was nuts. I flushed a 160-yard shot over the center of the bunker, ending up just a bit long, between the two back bunkers. It was a scary shot with little green to work with and Rae’s Creek lurking behind. I committed to opening up the lob wedge, and it popped up beautifully, landing soft and rolling right for the hole. With about three feet to go, I raised the wedge—buckets. Two legs of Amen Corner down, one to go.
I didn’t have to think about the possibility of going 3-2-3 for long. My tee shot on the 13th started right of the fairway and faded, so I never had a realistic chance of birdie, much less eagle. I made par there, parred the 14th as well, and arrived at the 15th determined to find the fairway and have a chance to give the green a go. I hit my best drive of the day, ending up with 200 yards to the hole on a slight downslope.
Standing on that hill, looking at the tiny target, was unsettling. If you hit a good tee shot there, you feel like you can’t lay up, but it’s also a shot you don’t want to follow through on. I pulled a 4-iron and took dead aim. Pured it. The ball started slightly left of the flag and faded to the middle of the green, 15 feet left of the pin. I couldn’t cash in the eagle, but I was satisfied with another birdie. I played the stretch of 11-15 three under par, a series of shots I will remember forever.
With 16 through 18 remaining and on the verge of an under-par second nine at Augusta National, I quickly got back over par. I pulled the wrong club on 16—one less than I wanted—and landed in the middle front of the green instead of the back. Three putts later, I had given away a shot. I hit a bad tee shot on the 17th (don’t you always after a three-putt?) and found myself near the seventh green, not the ideal spot. My caddie told me that a good target was in front of the empty grandstand left of the green. Maybe consuming too much PGA Tour golf has broken my brain, but I took immense joy in aiming a 3-iron directly at the grandstand and watching ball scream into row five, making a startlingly loud clank. It was a banner moment for me.
After taking my free TIO drop, I hit what I thought was a perfect pitch, but the ball ran past the hole and trickled over the edge on the other side. I was befuddled. My caddie reminded me that everything is fast going toward Rae’s Creek. You may think that much-repeated nugget is B.S., but I’m here to tell you it’s not. I hit a recovery chip that almost went in but missed a short putt. Another double and back in my comfort zone, over par on the second nine.
I finished with two stellar shots on the 18th and a great birdie look, which I missed.
Seemingly in a flash, my time at Augusta National was over. I no longer have to dream about how I might play the ninth hole, or what I might score around Amen Corner, or whether I’d go for the 15th in two. Now I know. And now I get to contemplate what I might do if there ever is a next time.