by Jeff Skinner
The rolling hills of Augusta are filled with excitement. Thousands are here to witness the first mistake ever committed by the green jacketed bureaucrats of Augusta. It wasn’t moving the tees back, or planting new trees, or growing rough where there was none before. All these were indeed errors that have made Augusta almost unrecognizable to the legends of yesteryear but a far more grievous error was made. One that will cause at least one green coat to need a good cleaning to remove the blood that spills when heads must roll. Somewhere there is a member hiding among the magnolias and azaleas. He is as good as gone. He’ll be forced to surrender his green jacket and be banished to a lesser club, maybe Winged Foot or forced to slum it at Shinnecock. He has committed an unforgivable act, an act so vile and evil that it may have changed Augusta forever. There is one committee member that will be marked forever. He will be known as the man that paired Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together for a practice round. No one knows how it happened but it did.
Here on the first tee, seconds before sunrise, stand Tiger and Phil staring at each other. Tiger is shooting daggers at Phil with that Sunday afternoon stare of his, and it’s only Wednesday. Phil stands on the tee fumbling through his bag, counting his six drivers. Both are wondering what the hell is happening and whose neck are they going to wring. Phil thinks,” Do I back off and let Tiger take the tee and wait until later?” Woods wonders,” Is this guy for real? He thinks he is going to play with me, my ass he is.”
Time has come for a tee ball to be hit and neither has made a move to back off the teeing ground. Tiger looks at Phil and Phil at Tiger. Bones is ready to pull an iron to defend his man from Stevie who looks ready to break a camera or a jaw or something.
Just then a voice calls out from behind the tee, sounding like the Golfing Gods themselves. “Well, good morning lads, so good to be out here on the greenest ground on God’s good earth. Ready to play, mind if I join you boys?” It is Gary Player. He is looking for a game and Woods and Mickelson are dumbfounded. Before either of them can say a word Player says,” Age before beauty then, here we go.” He tees his ball and whips one down the left side of “Tea Olive” and waits for the boys to follow him.
Knowing they are both in the game now they nod to each other and Phil can’t help but smile. Woods tees it up and lets it fly. Phil picks his latest driver and fades it onto the fairway.
As they walk down the fairway the lads say nothing. They don’t have to; Player is giving them the Gospel according to Gary. “I love it out here so early. This place is as close to heaven as a man can get,” he preaches. Woods and Phil wonder how did this happen. How did the two of them wind up here together? They have played together before, but only when the standings or the draw or Hal Sutton dictated it. They never played with each other by choice. This was going to be something.
They approached their shots and Player calls out,” What are the stakes today boys? Ten a hole do it for you?” Still in shock, the boys nod and Stevie and Bones try to muffle their giggles.
Their balls are on the green now, they walk around to check their lines. The chill isn’t only in the air. Player birdies and the boys, still tense and out of rhythm both three putt. Player smiles and waves his putter like a sword, a’la Chi Chi Rodriquez. “Not bad for an old boy,” he says. “I miss playing with Chi Chi, he is a character.”
Stevie and Bones sense that they are in the middle of something, something strange, something special. As the three of them play on, the sun filters through the trees and the morning mist giving the land a dreamlike feeling. The caddies feel it but the players do not.
Stevie walks along side Phil and gives him a nudge,” You know I never did mean to call you a prick mate. I had a few too many Foster’s and the press was killing me. I don’t even remember what the heck I really said.” Phil smiles, he always smiles. “Not a problem Steve. If I had a buck for each time I called you and your boss a prick I’d have a few more million in the bank.” “We good?” Steve asks. “No worries mate, we’re cool,” Phil replies.
After a few more holes Player is getting the better of the world’s best pair of golfers. The two youngsters can’t seem to get over the fact that they are stuck with each other.
By now word had spread through Augusta and the threesome has quite a gallery following them. Tiger and Phil are even in score and dirty looks.
Player is unrelenting in his stories and anecdotes. He can’t help but carry on about this course, this game, this life. “I love this course so much,” he says. “I have so many wonderful memories of Augusta. The best thing about this place is when you come back in the spring you know you are going to see all your old friends that you miss all year.”
Phil plays out of a bunker on nine and Woods chips to a few feet. Phil steps on Tigers line and Woods does all he can to hold his temper. He then drops his putter to the ground as Phil putts. Both putts would be gimmies normally, but not here. They are both playing the gamesmanship card. Neither will give an inch, it is not in their nature. They are here to win even if it is a practice round. They are arch enemies forced to behave by the powers of the game.
Player watches the two of them and springs into another sermon. “You know this is my 52nd Masters boys. May be my last, you never know. I remember all the times I’ve walked this course with my rivals. Arnold and I would try to get into each others pockets all the time. But when the Masters started we played to the death, but still remained friends always.”
The three played on and Woods picked up a stroke on Phil on nine only to give it back when Phil jarred one with a flop on ten. The crowd now surrounds each green and cheers for them as they approach. Player, ever the showman, played to the fans at each hole. “Have you ever seen such a talented pair of golfers as these two?” he would ask. The fans would cheer and Player would laugh. Phil would blush and there was even a bit of a smile on Tiger’s face.
By now Bones and Stevie were swapping secrets about the twelfth green and where to miss it on sixteen. They are two guys sharing stories about their bosses and their job.
They tee off all even on eleven and Player goes on. “Oh boys, all the time I’ve come down this fairway with the likes of Jack, Arnie, Raymond and Tom. This place has been a treasure to me. The course, the club, the fans, the friends… the friends I’ve made are worth everything. They’re the reason I still play. They’re the reason I come back.”
Woods and Mickelson have started to find their games. Tiger chips in from Larry Mize area to go one up on Phil. Tiger couldn’t hide the smile on that one and Phil told him he felt like Norman. On the twelfth tee Player tells the two how unique this place is. “Amen Corner is a special place,” he says. “More golfers have felt the touch of the Gods here then anywhere else in golf. I know I have felt it.” Player and Tiger hit onto the green and Phil tees it up. Mickelson launches his ball towards the green and feels a bit of a warm breeze on his face. His ball hits the green and rolls to the cup. It rolls closer and closer and looks like a sure ace. It stops a roll short of the hole and sits on the edge of the cup. “A special place indeed!” cheers Player. “Great shot,” says Tiger.
The three of them drive onto the thirteenth and Player can’t help himself. “Isn’t this great lads?” By now the sun is bright and the colors of Augusta are as vivid as can be. These colors Player has seen and shared with his friends for over fifty years. “You know Jack and I have had so much fun here. We became good friends early in our careers. Jack and Arnold and I travelled together very often. We acted like a bunch of school boys all the time. Kidding and joking and laughing at each other.” Woods and Mickelson are now side by side walking close to Player, not wanting to miss a word. They smile and nod to each other as if to say,” This guy knows what it is all about.”
“You both know Nicklaus was a great winner but I also called him the greatest loser of all time. Not because of all the second place finishes he had in the majors. It was really because of the way he handled himself in defeat. No matter how difficult the loss, Jack was always the most gracious sportsman a man could be.”
The quality of the golf is amazing. The players are all even as they walk down the fourteenth. A brief moment of silence from Player has the other members of the group waiting anxiously for his next tale. He starts again. “Nicklaus and I spent so much time trying to beat each other; we could not help but respect each other. It was always fun to try and beat the best but it was even more rewarding walking off the last hole knowing that as hard as we’d try to beat each other, our friendship was always strong. Our families were very close. We would stay at each other homes and vacation together. Oh my…Has this game been good to me.”
Woods glances over to Phil and the two shake their heads and smile. The crowd is now as large as a Sunday at the Masters. The fans surround the entire hole as they hit on the sixteenth. Woods sticks it to five feet, Mickelson to three and Player rims the cup as they all take birdie. “What a game we have today boys!” Player shouts.
Standing on the tee at seventeen, the caddies and players are laughing, the crowd is cheering as Player has dropped to the ground to pump out ten quick push ups. Woods and Phil can’t resist and soon join him along with Bones and Steve. “I still hit the gym five times a week to stay in shape. I have to be able to walk this course every year,” he shouts. Tiger and Phil exchange high fives and the crowd can’t stop cheering for this crazy display.
The three are all even after seventeen. Player must have made a deal with the devil or the gods to keep up with these two. All three are in the eighteenth fairway and as they approach their balls something catches Phil’s eye. It is something that a man knows, a husband knows. It is the figure of his wife standing in the gallery on the eighteenth. She waves and he returns it with a smile and notices she isn’t alone. Standing next to her is Tiger’s wife. About this time Tiger’s radar has alerted him that his wife his there and he and Phil just laugh. “They must really love this place too,” he says to Phil.
All their approaches hit the green on eighteen and as they approach the crowd applauds and cheers as if it was the leader on the final afternoon. The wives move up to the green together, the caddies are shaking their heads in disbelief as they walk up together. Player has grabbed Woods and Mickelson and has his arms around their waists as he guides them up the hill together, arm in arm, champions past and champions present. Player putts first from fifteen feet and leaves in on the edge of the cup, a round of par for a grand old man. Woods has a twelve foot birdie putt from above the hole. Phil has a putt of the same length from the left. Player stands on the fringe with their wives accepting hugs and kisses. Woods looks over to them then to Phil. Phil takes a look at his wife, his putt then Woods. Tiger walks toward Phil and says, “Good, good?” Without hesitation Phil says,”Good, good, you bet.”
The crowd cheers knowing they have seen something extra special. The players exchange handshakes and congratulate each other on a special day at a special place.
Woods and Mickelson walk with their wives towards the clubhouse and a fan yells,” Hey guys, how was it out there?” Tiger says,” It was fun.” Phil says,” It’s fun playing with your friends.”
Player has made his way to the grill room where dozens of green jackets are toasting the day’s activities. The room erupts with cheers as he walks in. The members realize that what may have started as a possible disaster for the club has turned in to another historic day at Augusta. Player walks over to a member standing alone who looks more relived then excited. He was the member responsible for arranging the practice round pairings.
He asks,” How did it go out there Gary?” Player shakes his hand and pulls him in for a hug and whispers,” Just like we planned it my friend, just like we planned it.”
There’s nothing wrong with a little fiction every now and then.