A Thrill of a Lifetime: Covering The Masters Twice
By Jeff Holt
Published April 1, 2021 in The Burg
Back in 2004 and in 2006, I was fortunate enough to cover The Masters in Augusta, Georgia. The slight chance that Oquawka native Todd Hamilton won it - I felt like I had to be there.
But like anything in life that is meaningful, it is the journey that you remember the most. The first time I went in 2004 I drove my car there and back.
However, I'd like to reflect back a bit on the 2006 trip to Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger Woods was in his prime and tons of fans were pulling for Phil Mickelson.
It all started at about 4:30 a.m. one day and I had to be at the Galesburg Airport (my first time). One guy had some beer on ice in a cooler and the other guy had a dozen doughnuts. It almost felt like some big vacation a couple states away. One of the guys said he had a maid who was going to clean his house while he was gone. Clearly, I was a bit out of my league.
Leading the charge, though, was Harrel Timmons who has flown people to The Masters "three to four" times. He's been flying since 1963 and he reminded me of some battle-tested Sergeant in the military.
"But I've only managed to get scalped-tickets (to The Masters) twice," said Timmons, recently. "My company, Jet Air, usually charters three or four groups each year but it's difficult for the pilots to get tickets unless they have them before they go!"
Timmons said he has flown several times across the North Atlantic into Europe or from there to Galesburg. His longest being from Milan, Italy about 5,000 miles. He's also flown to the Daytona 500 and to most NASCAR races, along with some fishing trips in the 1980s and 1990s into Canada and Mexico.
I was just glad he was the one flying us to The Masters. I can still remember flying through the mountains.
"There are so many things about The Masters that is awesome, the sheer beauty of the course and area, the hospitality, the attention to detail for everything that happens," Harrel said. "I love the Par 3 tournament that happens Wednesday, the Player's family joins in the fun and the Players (most of them) involve the crowds and everyone has a good time. It shows that professional golfers are real people with unique personalities and character. I love playing golf but watching the pros play makes me realize that their game is in another universe compared to mine!"
A Small World: Back in 2004, I saw a familiar face following Todd Hamilton at The Masters.
Galesburg native Mike Landon jumped out to me right away. He is the brother-in-law of Hamiliton and was one of many followers of Hamilton. Some of you remember Landon from when he taught locally 33 years total, with 12 years at Churchill Junior High and 21 years at Galesburg High School.
"He (Hamilton) is quite a golfer," Landon said, at the 2004 Masters. "I followed him in high school and in college, and as he has turned professional. It gives us something to do differently than we normally get to do. I know his mom and his dad enjoy it. It's fun."
Getting to meet celebrities at The Masters: I was able to work alongside beat writers from Sports Illustrated and ones from big-city newspapers.
So at the 2004 Masters, I saw sportscaster Jim Nantz in the roped-off area for only the media. I went up to him and introduced myself and asked him one question: What advice would you give a young sports writer?
Nantz replied, "The ones who are willing to sacrifice and work for nothing to try and make an impression are the ones who often get in the door and stay in the door and grow."
Continued Nantz, "In the last 70 days, I hosted a Super Bowl. I called the Final Four and now I'm here at Augusta and I wouldn't trade any of the previous ones for this. I've been here since 1986 and this is my 19th Masters."
Also, do you remember the football movie called Radio? Cuba Gooding Jr. starred in it as a mentally disabled African American student who became the football team's manager. Ed Harris played the role of Coach Jones who took Radio under his wing. The movie was filmed in Georgia in 2003 and was a true story. So at the 2004 Masters, I actually met the real Radio and the real Coach Jones on the course. And luckily, I had already seen the movie and recognized (mainly Radio) right away. I still think it is one of the most underrated football movies ever.
Par 3 Contest: I've got to agree with Harrel Timmons about The Masters Tournament Par 3 Contest. It is almost more fun to watch than the actual Masters. You get to see the pros joke around, hit some trick shots, sign a couple of autographs and show another side of their personality. I can still remember seeing Hamilton hit a couple of unbelievable shots - one was a line shot that just bounced a couple times on the water and onto the green. Getting to see Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer walk up on the fairway to a big round of applause - even in the par 3 tourney - will always a great memory for me.
The fans loved Daly: I can remember one situation at The Masters when Tiger Woods was putting on the green (with his mom right there), Phil Mickelson was teeing off on another green and then Hamilton was in the same area. I was like "wow" - what golf shot do I watch next?
But back then, one of the biggest crowd favorites of all at The Masters was John Daly. He could hit the ball a country mile, was highly inconsistent, had a ton of beer-drinking stories, had an occasional cigarette on the course and he dressed far from a country-club type of golfer.
I can still remember a fan yelling in my ear - right before one of Daly's big drives ... "Let's go Big John!"
Arnold Palmer ... the legend: The most prestigious press conference I've ever been a part of was at the 2004 Masters. It was the 50th and final time that Arnold Palmer would be competing at The Masters. I had seen several of his supporters - from the famous "Arnie's Army" group - that followed him on each hole. Then to cap it all off, I'm at his final press conference with every sports writer with a pulse. I didn't ask any questions. I just soaked it all in.
The real Bobby Jones: I grew up such a "basketball guy" that it really showed at the 2004 Masters. Everyone was talking about a movie that had just come out (in 2004) called Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius. However, at that time, I quickly thought of the former NBA player who won a championship with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1983. So when I got back to Galesburg, I quickly rented the movie about the true story of Bobby Jones from Family Video.
The course of The Masters: It's breathtaking. That's the only way to describe walking the course at the Augusta National Golf Club. It's like a postcard everywhere that you look. And if you had to pick a spot to sit down and watch the whole tournament, a spot at Amen Corner (11, 12 and 13) is the best spot. One could quickly argue, though, the 18th green on Sunday at the Masters is the place to be.
I was told they had 40 groundskeepers who worked on that one course. I've covered a football game at the University of Notre Dame and I've often compared it to that same type of feeling.
A new favorite song emerged: Somehow, after covering this prestigious tournament two years in Augusta, Georgia, a famous song by Ray Charles became one of my favorites ... "Georgia on My Mind." I had the Greatest Hits CD of Ray Charles and played it about 100 times - thinking of the time I got to spend at The Masters.
It can get expensive: For me, the Pro Shop at The Masters was when I started doing my Christmas shopping. I ended up spending $500! I had to buy an umbrella for $100 right when I got there (it was pouring down rain) to preserve my camera and that didn't help. I bought several hats, tees, golf balls and a couple of shirts. They were great gifts for several years and - at the time - I had a niece who was playing golf at Western Illinois University. So, I was in Golf Heaven giving out a bunch of gifts from The Masters.
Ending note: I've never been that good of a golfer. But after covering my second Masters in 2006, I was just flat-out hooked on the sport of golf.
(You can reach Jeff Holt at email@example.com)