It’s a beautiful day at Augusta National, and I’m ready for this. Just me and the golf course. Bring it on.
It’s the Imaginary Masters, and I’m playing only the back nine.
There’s a reason for that. I’ve been watching the pros play Augusta’s legendary 10th through 18th holes since I was a child. Back then, most PGA Tour telecasts featured only the last four holes, but the Masters was different: You got to see the whole back nine. Coverage of the front nine didn’t start until much later.
So I know these holes as if I’ve been playing them every week. I’ve never seen them in person. I’ve never walked up and down the hills. I’ve never stared down at Rae’s Creek and debated what club to hit on the tricky 12th. I’ve never had to clear the water on the two par-5s and the wonderful 16th.
But I have a picture of the massive 13th green on my living room wall, and the television cameras have burned all those other holes in my brain. I’ve got this.
I won’t see the exact same shots as the pros. No thanks. I’m going to play the member tees, which are 500 yards shorter than the Masters tees. But it still will be plenty of golf course for me.
No. 10 is perfect for me. I hit a hook, so a downhill dogleg left feels comfortable. I hit the drive the way I want, leaving myself a mid-iron to the well-bunkered green. It’s a tough shot, but I hit it pure and cozy the birdie putt for a tap-in par. Good start.
The 11th is a different story. I just can’t bring myself to challenge that green, with the water oh so close on the left. I bail out, leaving myself with that ticklish bump-and-run chip. I’m not Larry Mize. I make bogey.
Then comes the first shot I couldn’t wait to hit. The 12th (only 145 yards from the member tees) is the most interesting par-3 in the world. If the pin is on the left, it’s a pretty straightforward shot – you simply need to have the right club. But if it’s on the right, the creek is much more in play. Anything short will roll back into the water unless you’re Fred Couples.
In the Imaginary Masters, the flag is always on the right. Got to be. I’d love to challenge it, but I know better. I hit it left, but a little too strong and leave myself with a tough chip from behind the green, right in front of the azalea bushes. Another bogey.
Did you know that the par-5 13th is only 455 yards from the member tees? I could go for it in two! But what a brutal shot. How do you get it over the creek and make it stick on the green? But this is my only chance to play the hole, so I’ve got to try.
I hit my worst shot of the day, a chunky 3-iron that, fortunately, stays short of the water. But now I have an even more delicate shot – that little wedge that requires a surgeon’s touch. Not wanting to leave it short, I’m a little too strong and leave myself with that impossible 70-footer that breaks about 10 feet. I’m actually happy with a three-putt. Could have been worse.
No. 14 is a bit of a breather amid the excitement of the water holes, but it’s still a 380-yard par-4 up the hill with a crazy green that breaks about 18 different ways. And the pin is all the way back, as it always is on Sunday. I manage a gutsy par. Proud of that one.
It’s time for another one of those memorable shots that I’ve dreamed of hitting: the second shot on No. 15. It’s not much longer than the 13th – only 475 yards. I still reach 475-yard par-5s in two all the time, even at my age, but most of them don’t have a pond right in front of the green.
However, I didn’t come all this way to lay up here, either. I’ve got to give it a go, and I hit it well – too well. It lands on the green and skitters behind, leaving another chip shot that’s above my pay grade. I leave my first effort short, then get it on and manage a bogey. Two over on the par-5s, but I can’t be too displeased with that.
My best moment of the day comes on No. 16. The pin is in its usual Sunday spot, on the front left. I know the play – hit it to the back middle of the green with some hook action and watch it roll slowly toward the pin. It’s another 145-yard shot from the member tees, so it’s a comfortable 8-iron or 9-iron for me, depending on the wind.
I hit it as well as I can hit a golf ball. It is the right trajectory, the right distance, the right everything. It is perfect. I watch excitedly as the ball starts its journey toward the hole, and it stops 3 feet away. I nervously make the birdie putt in the side door. What a moment!
Perhaps too pumped up after such a victory, I hit a poor drive on the 17th, which is only 370 yards, and leave myself a punch-out from the trees. It’s all I can do to make a bogey.
Which brings me to the tee shot on No. 18. Even in the Imaginary Masters, it’s hard to imagine hitting that shot. Do I trust my ability to cut a driver around the trees and keep it in the fairway? But I’ve got to try it.
Unfortunately, I overcook it and hit it dead right. No shot. My third shot up the hill still is a long ways away, and I leave it in the huge bunker in front. Only a good sand shot saves me from no worse than a double bogey.
That’s a 42 in my imaginary round. If I actually went to Augusta and did that, it would be the greatest moment of my golfing life. The reality, of course, is that I’d be lucky to break 50. Courses like that have a way of wearing you down.
But at least I get to play it … in my head. That’s what makes our great game so great. It’s just you and the golf course. Any golf course. Even if you’ll never get to play it for real.