Kicking off Masters Week: A Trip to the kingdom of the greenest grass and ever-blooming flowers

Kicking off Masters Week, I thought I’d start with a piece that ran in [photopress:masters_logo_208.jpg,full,alignright]the Post a few years back about my first trip to the tournament — in 2004. I was invited by a local travel agent to fly down on a charter jet the Sunday morning of the Masters, watch the tournament, stay over at the Ritz Carlton, play golf and fly home. And yes, it was really a tough trip to free up time for.

As it turns out, I watched the Ernie Els/KJ Choi group play, and thought I’d seen Ernie finally win. Phil Mickelson, as it turns out, had a different idea, and being caught in the throng of people on the 18th as his putt went it is one of the more memorable experiences of my lifetime.

Here’s a feature I wrote on the trip. Tomorrow I’ll have some comments from Hank Haney, who is in Toronto at the end of April for a teaching event. Haney was pretty clear — anyone who has a good putting week could win. And unlike David Leadbetter, he won’t take Tiger over the field.

Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself. As it first appeared a couple of years back, here’s a piece on getting yourself into The Masters if money is no object:

What do you give to the golfer who has everything and has seemingly played everywhere? What do you give when a dozen Titleist Pro-V 1 golf balls won’t cut it?

Give the toughest ticket in sports — a decadent one-day trip to the Masters, golf’s highest-profile event.

For years, the only way to get your hands on a ticket was to take your chances with scalpers. After all, tickets for the Masters can be handed down among family members and are limited by Augusta National Golf, the club that controls the tournament. Though badges that allow entry to each day of the tournament have an official price of only US$175, tickets are known to trade for thousands of dollars on eBay and through ticket brokers.

If you’re not keen on going through an online auction, Canada’s JTB Enterprises offers an assortment of one- and two-day packages to Augusta to see the likes of Tiger Woods, Mike Weir and Phil Mickelson battle it out. JTB and its owner, John Barr, are well known in the golf travel business, running the Canadian branch of the high-end European travel service Perry Golf.

Everything about the trip, including the golf, is first class. JTB offers a charter directly to Augusta, where fans are bused to a tent directly outside the golf club’s gates. There fans can get drinks, food and the opportunity to escape the crowds and weather for a short period.

But most Masters fans won’t spend long hanging out in a tent — they’ll head straight for the course.

The excitement of watching the game’s greatest players is eclipsed only by the thrill of seeing Augusta National, the fabled golf course itself.

Surely one of the best-known golf courses in the world, the experience of seeing Augusta regularly exceeds the excitement many garner from watching the golf. After all, wandering up and down the hills at Augusta is close to a religious experience for many recreational golfers.

True to form, Augusta is what many expect: impressive, impeccably groomed, dastardly difficult in spots and one of the most exciting venues in sports. It is also different from what many expect, with dramatic elevation changes throughout the course, especially on the opening holes, which rarely receive much TV coverage.

Second, during this year’s dramatic shootout between Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, Augusta National turned into a dramatic amphitheatre, with the crowd’s cheers ringing through the golf course. The only issue with watching live golf is that most times, a spectator can see only a solitary hole.

That is true, for the most part, even at Augusta. However, on the three-hole stretch from the 11th hole to the 13th, known as “Amen Corner,” several thousand fans camp out to be able to catch a glimpse of golfers as they play the most exciting triumvirate in the game.

On my trip to Augusta, I got lucky in choosing a strong group to follow, watching former U.S. Open champion Els and Korean star K.J. Choi for all 18 holes during the final round. The players would make three eagles between them, offering the opportunity to see two of the world’s best players in top form.

While Augusta is crowded on every day of the tournament, the course allows spectators — or “patrons,” as the club calls them — to see much of the action. In fact, it is quite easy to get near many of the fairways and greens, close enough to see Tiger Woods grimace at a missed putt, or John Daly swig from a Diet Coke.

All of this comes with a lofty price. John Barr, the proprietor of JTB Enterprises, charges $4,000 for the one-day package and $5,000 for the two-day ticket, which includes golf and accommodation at the world-class Ritz-Carlton at Reynolds Plantation.

Expensive? Certainly. But the real question is how much are you willing to pay for a once-in-a-lifetime sports experience?

In the case of the Masters, you won’t be disappointed.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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