It’s amazing how quickly 25 years can pass.
That was how long ago it was for my one and only time to step on the grounds at Augusta National and compete in the Masters. It was one of the unimaginable perks I received as the runner-up in the 1996 US Amateur.
Prior to the numerous technological advancements in equipment, the golf course was still under 7,000 yards long in 1997. It measured 6,925 yards to be exact, but now it has ballooned to a massive 7,510 yards for this year’s edition. My appearance was prior to the new and beautiful practice area. It preceded the first cut of rough. It was before they Tiger-proofed the course. Or Tiger-enabled it.
At 44 years of age now, this time span is more than half a lifetime ago for me, but at the same time it feels just like yesterday. I can still smell the freshly blooming azaleas around Amen Corner just as vividly as I recall my heart beating out of my oversized Tommy Hilfiger shirt as the first tee starter bellowed in his southern twang, “Fore please. Steve Scott now driving.” Still gives me chills to this day.
There are numerous recollections that have been written in permanent Sharpie in my book of memories, but these are the ones that jump out in big, bold capital letters:
The amateur dinner
The dinner is traditionally held Wednesday night and it’s akin to a pep rally for all the amateurs in the field. I had the opportunity to chat with esteemed guests such as current chairman and fellow Florida Gator Fred Ridley and past US Amateur champion John Harris. I met and chatted with Chairman Jack Stephens and took a picture with the three other amateurs in the field that year (Mid-Am champ Spider Miller, British Amateur champ Warren Bladon and Publinks champ Tim Hogarth). Lifelong amateurs Charlie Coe and Charlie Yates were also on hand to share the legend of Bobby Jones and dish on their own great records that served as the foundation of the amateur lore at Augusta National. Through their stories you could feel Mr. Jones’s presence in that room that night. Surreal.
The courtesy car
It was a brand-new white Cadillac with less than 100 miles on it and I got the keys when I registered Monday morning. The leather interior smelled showroom fresh and it was a far cry from the beat-up, gold Honda Civic that I drove through the gates the night before (the guard gave me the evil eye because he thought I was there for something other than staying on the grounds). Even though I wasn’t old enough to rent a car (I was only 19), somehow, I was able to drive that beauty down Magnolia Lane every day. I felt like royalty for the week.
My lovely shopping cart
My girlfriend Kristi Hommel, who was on the bag during the US Amateur run that got me into the Masters, was my rock throughout the week. She did an amazing job and looked really cute in a white jumpsuit with her blonde hair flowing out all sides of the emerald green caddie hat. Some would say that I should’ve used a local caddy, but I was having none of that.
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Funny story. Kristi still gives me grief after she went slipping and sliding in the morning dew down the tee box on number 5 where she landed hard on the bag and on her backside. I foolishly asked if the clubs were intact before worrying about her well-being. Stupid me. Good thing she was ok and my clubs didn’t snap. Thankfully she didn’t hold it against me and a couple years later she became Kristi Scott. I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend marrying your caddie, but in my case it’s worked out pretty well since our wedding in the summer of 1999.
Former caddie, co-author of my book and good friend Tripp Bowden always told me that you don’t read the greens at Augusta, you remember them. I will say that Kristi and I didn’t have a lot of experience on those greens, and it showed. It was downhill when it looked uphill and broke right when it should have fallen to the left. They were faster than anything that I had ever putted on before and there was no way to properly prepare elsewhere for what we faced. And they get so much faster from Monday to Thursday of tournament week. They were so fast it was like putting a ball from the end of your bathtub and trying to stop it before it hit the drain. Impossible.
Steve Scott grimaces after missing a birdie putt on the 15th hole during the final in the 1996 US Amateur against Tiger Woods at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.
I’ll never forget my 60-footer for birdie on the second hole of the tournament that got within 5 feet of the hole and then did an about face, ending up 40 feet away for my par putt. As I was walking sideways to hit said putt, my playing partner Fuzzy Zoeller jokedly said, “Welcome to Augusta!”
The practice rounds
Maybe the most special, carefree time that you can ever have playing Augusta National is during the practice days on Monday through Wednesday. My college coach at the University of Florida, Buddy Alexander, suggested I write letters to those I would like to play a practice round with. I took his sage advice and wrote to none other than Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Justin Leonard. Why not? To my amazement, each one of them obliged me with a practice round. I was in heaven.
To play with the legends of the game only enhanced an experience that will be indelibly etched in my mind. Playing with Mr. Nicklaus was an out-of-body experience. I’ll never forget having a 30-footer on the ninth hole and thinking it was going to break 6 inches left to right and he told me it was going to break the same amount but in the opposite direction. I gave a befuddled look, but smartly listened to the six-time Masters champion and watched my lengthy putt fall to the bottom of the cup. The crowd went crazy as did I.
The Crow’s Nest
It’s a place that every player who has ever dreamed about golf would love to sleep. It’s like a small dormitory with a common area and a shared bathroom. Strangely enough, the other amateurs who qualified that year did not stay there so I had the entire place to myself. And yeah, I snuck into the Champions locker room late at night to see what the hoopla was all about. I couldn’t help myself. I think I could feel Ben Hogan looking over my shoulder as I peered into Nicklaus’ locker and realized that he only had one green jacket hanging, not the six that he has won.
Playing partners for the tournament
My playing partners for the actual event couldn’t have been nicer, or more different. I was paired with Fuzzy Zoeller on Thursday and Bob Tway on Friday. This was back when only twosomes were played. Fuzzy was as outgoing and gregarious as you would imagine and made me laugh a lot. Tway was very kind and quiet, not in the same league as far as personality goes to Fuzzy but I learned from him nonetheless.
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Fuzzy Zoeller during a practice round for the 1997 Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Robert Sullivan/AFP via Getty Images)
The greens were so firm that year that it made them almost unholdable, but Fuzzy’s humor shined through. On the par-3, fourth hole he hit a lasered 4-iron right at the pin only to I have it bounce near the flagstick and well over the green. He chipped past, missed his par putt and in the same breath as he was tapping in for bogey, I could hear him mutter, “That’s a net par!”
The final score
You might want to know what I shot but there’s part of me that would like to leave out that small detail. I barely broke 80 both days (I shot 78 and 79) and I took no solace in the fact that the cut was one of the highest in history at 5 over par. I didn’t even stick around on the weekend as a spectator to watch Tiger make history by shooting 18-under and set or tie 27 records in the process. Speaking of Tiger, my claim to fame that year was that Tiger and I shot the same underwhelming score on the front nine. 40. History will show that our scores diverged from there.
The overall experience
Augusta National is the most flawlessly manicured golf course you can ever imagine playing on and the par-3 course is similarly idyllic in setting. Nothing is out of place. It’s like Disney World for golf as the perfection is so memorable. For example, there are thousands of pinecones up in the trees, but magically not one the ground. There is not a hint of a weed anywhere on the property. All the turf is in better condition than your living room carpet.
Mowers make their way up the No. 9 fairway during a practice round ahead of the 2022 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports)
And the grass is not the only thing that is green around those parts. The wrappers for the pimento cheese sandwiches are green. Even the concrete curbs to the street are painted green and the patron ropes are, too. To top it off, when you stay in the clubhouse like I did, the staff is so hospitable you can order whatever food you want as there is no menu. It’s an experience that you never want to end. But, like any dreamlike experience, it does come to a climax. Too quickly.
On Friday night, I was ready to leave town and try to forget the disappointment of my score. I chose to leave with my head held high and realized that the course was treacherous even for the most experienced players. Defending champion Nick Faldo, the previous year’s runner-up Greg Norman, and world-class players like Phil Mickelson and David Duval all missed the cut, too. I had experienced my time inside the gates and I wanted to head back to Gainesville to focus on the smorgasbord of unforgettable moments instead of dwelling on the sour aftertaste of missed greens or three-putt bogeys.
But even 25 years later, it’s easy to see that the memories still taste much sweeter than the final tally on the board.
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