Zachary Neel Media

The Masters

The Masters

Takeaways from my week at The Masters

It's not often that you get to check off the #1 item on your Bucket List at age 24, but in early April, that's exactly what I got to do. I traveled to Augusta, Ga., and attended The Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Course for three days. It was spectacular, unforgettable, and [insert any synonym for perfection]. Realizing that this is an experience that I may never get to have again, and many people will never have in their lives, I decided to write down my thoughts on some things that stuck out to me about the trip, and some experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. Spoiler Alert: It's long....I guess you could say I had a lot of things to say about the trip of a lifetime. Enjoy. 

*It should be noted that on Wednesday, spectators were allowed to have cameras on the course, so all of the images you see below are my own.*

Amen Corner
 

The Beauty of Augusta National

I remember reading a quote a while back that regarded Augusta National as the closest thing on earth that we have to heaven. I've searched everywhere for the exact quote with no luck, but I can say with complete confidence that the premise is a real thing; I've never seen a more pristine piece of land. 

I wrote this on Facebook over the weekend, but for those who might have missed it, here is my experience that best represents that feeling. On Friday afternoon, with clear skies and a warm sunshine in my face, I sat on the famous Amen Corner and watched Phil Mickelson and Ricky Fowler play through onto the 12th hole while I enjoyed an ice cold Arnold Palmer and ate a BBQ Chicken sandwich. If you can imagine a more perfect moment, I wouldn't believe you. 

When walking from hole to hole, it never ceased to amaze me at how perfect and precise everything was. Other than the area where patrons traversed, there was not a blade of grass that was out of place. The azaleas were in full bloom, and the bunkers were perfectly raked. Even amongst the Flowering Dogwoods and giant Magnolia trees, not a single root peaked through, with perfect beds of pine needles masking every inadequacy. 

It would be the easiest to talk about the beauty of Augusta National Golf Club for pages on end, but I will try to sum it up with this: The land is perfect, and it's unlike anything in this world that I've ever seen before. You don't have to be a golf fan to appreciate the beauty that ANGC holds. I was lucky enough to experience it, and I will remember that feeling of soaking up the sun while enjoying an Arnold Palmer for the rest of my life. 

No Phones Allowed

I'm 24 years old. I have owned almost every generation of iPhone. Social Media plays a large part in my life. 

When I first read that there is a STRICT no phones policy once you get through the gates at Augusta, I'm not going to lie, I was nervous. 

How would I get through the day without texting, or taking pictures, or live tweeting everything I saw? Or, more seriously, what if something happened to me, or to one of my loved ones across the country, and I desperately needed to get ahold of them? It's safe to say that this rule weighed heavy on my mind going in. 

Coming out, I have to say...this is the best rule they have in place at Augusta. 

There are a number of experiences at The Masters that you truly can not experience anywhere else in your life, but being around thousands of people, completely disconnected from the world around you is absolutely surreal. 

Not only could you not communicate with anyone out of shouting distance, but neither could you even check the score of a golfer if he wasn't on the leader board!

Obviously, I was excited beyond all belief to watch Tiger Woods coming into the tournament, but I knew that following him around (along with what seemed like 10,000 other people) would not be my best course of action. So there I was, Friday afternoon, waiting at the tee box on the sixth hole, sitting with a prime view of the golfers coming through. I waited, and I waited, knowing Tiger had teed off, but having no clue as to how he was playing so far through his round. Had he birdied 3 of the first 4 holes? Had he started to fall apart at the seams and bogeyed the first 5? It ATE at me, not knowing how he was doing, and having literally no way of finding out other than word of mouth (which I learned could not always be trusted at The Masters*). When Tiger finally came to the 6th tee, I saw that he was +3 over for the day, and had been struggling to get going. It was disappointing, but watching him tee off not 10 yards away from me more than made up for it. 

There are obviously going to be downsides like this to a rule that many of us find foreign, but I found throughout the weekend that being without a phone made the experience very much serene. There was no snapchatting, there was no tweeting, and there was no secondary viewing of the event through a tiny rectangle held 5 inches from your face. There was no way to capture the memories through anything but your own two eyes, forcing you to make them memories that will last a lifetime. 

*I remember on Friday afternoon, I had watched Tiger play holes No. 6 and 7 before jumping ahead to the back 9 in order to get a good view of him again. When I had last seen him, he was +3 over for the day, +4 over for the tournament. It was disappointing. However, about an hour later, while in line for the bathroom (*see Efficiency*), an older man had told me he just saw Tiger on No. 12, and that he was +1 for the tournament, meaning he had birdied 3 of the last 5 holes! Hot Damn! Tiger is back!!! I was so excited to see him come through No. 15 and 16, I couldn't bare it. However, much to my chagrin, when Tiger came marching down the 15th fairway, his name flashed on the leader board at +4 over, right where I had left him. I don't know if the man I had talked to either confused Tiger with someone else (is that even possible?) or if he just really had to pee, but I did learn then that you can't trust everything you hear at The Masters. 

 
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"Go Ducks!"

On all three days that I actually attended The Masters, I made a point to wear Oregon Ducks gear. Be it a hat, a shirt, or both, I wanted to make sure I was always repping my school in one way or another. 

I didn't officially keep count, but throughout the week I received at least 10-15 "Go Ducks!" from other patrons as they passed by. 

Obviously Oregon has a "National Brand" which is propelled by Nike and Uncle Phil, but it was really cool to hear the adoration from so many random strangers who saw the 'O' on my shirt and wanted to let me know of their approval. 

Oregon: Your Favorite Team's Favorite Team, even in SEC Country. 

The Leaderboard

In much of sports, I feel like the scoreboard goes unappreciated. It is quite often the sole source of information, giving you important stats like time remaining, score, quarter, number of timeouts, etc. 

After spending a week at The Masters, I promise to never take a scoreboard (or leaderboard) for granted ever again. 

As I mentioned in the 'No Phones' segment, there are (obviously) no phones allowed at Augusta National. Because of this, every single shroud of information is derived from the numerous man-powered leaderboards conspicuously placed around the golf course. Without them, you quite literally have no idea what is going on. 

One of my absolute favorite activities from the past week was 'Leaderboard Watching.' After my first day at the course, once I had (sorta) gotten the hang of how to properly view the tournament, I realized that it was paramount to always keep a leaderboard within sight. Once accomplished, it allows you to keep any eye out for minor changes, be it a score that was added, or a name that was replaced by another golfer who was deemed as "playing better."

This activity gave me an experience that I can confidently say is the absolute coolest, most chilling sports feeling I have ever had. This feeling comes from the moment when you, along with the thousands of people around you, all learn a largely important piece of information at the exact same time, and celebrate (or groan) accordingly. Allow me to pontificate. 

It sounds simple, I'll admit. Learning information at the same time, big deal? We do that all the time. We all largely get the same notifications, or we watch sports together and see something happen at the same moment, right? This is different, I promise. There is just something special about seeing the numbers next to a player's name disappear for a moment, while the new score is being added. Everyone waits with bated breath, ready to either explode or crumble with the information. Let me give you an example:

On Saturday afternoon, Patrick Reed was a few strokes clear of the rest of the pack, and it looked like he might run away with the tournament. No matter your feelings about Reed, it was frustrating to watch him take the competition out of the Masters, something that feels like it should be required by law to come down to the final putt on the 72nd hole as the sun goes down on Sunday evening (unless, of course, Tiger Woods is winning by 12 strokes. I'm all for that). 

Anyway, Reed was running away, and morale was running thin. Enter Rory McIlroy. 

Rory birdied No. 3, he birdied No. 4, and he birdied No. 6. All of sudden, he was two shots off the lead, and showed no signs of slowing down. After watching him on the 6th hole, I made my way to No. 15 to set up shop for the afternoon. That's when I heard it; the legendary Augusta Roar, coming from near the 8th or 9th hole, where we all knew Rory to be. Almost instinctively, everyone near me stopped what they were doing, made eye contact with each other, and turned to the leaderboard. 

We waited, and we waited, and the silence grew deafening. Finally, the numbers next to McIlroy's name disappeared as we took a collective deep breath. At long last, his score was updated. Eagle. Tied for the lead. 

The place erupted. Everyone around me cheered and clapped, creating a roar that rivaled the original. I high-fived strangers, and I smiled in disbelief while staring in awe at the leaderboard. 

Find me another sporting event, or event in life, for that matter, where this same occurrence can take place. We were all out of the loop, together. It made for the most chilling sports moment of my life. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. 

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Tiger Woods

In all of his glory....

Tiger

This one is honestly difficult to write about. 

In June of 2017, when I found out I was going to The Masters the next year, there was one hope that stuck in the back of my mind. 

"I hope Tiger is there."

At the moment, Woods had just been arrested after being found asleep at the wheel of his car in Jupiter, Fla. He was suspected to have been on a mix of pain killers, and police video later showed his inability to walk straight or balance on one foot during the sobriety tests. 

It was safe to say that it would be a far shot for him to be playing golf any time soon, and hoping for him to make an appearance at The Masters 10 months later was borderline reckless. 

But still, I hoped. Since I got into the game of golf at age 13, Tiger has always been my guy. Behind only LeBron James, he is my favorite athlete. He is the singular reason I started watching on Sundays, and he's who encouraged me to start swinging a club. I've always regretted how late I got into the game, as I had missed the 'Tiger Slam' and was forced to experience his peak of performance through YouTube videos rather than on a live broadcast.

I desperately wanted to watch Tiger play at the peak of his powers again, and this was my chance.

Eventually, in December, Tiger made his return to competitive golf. He was still a shell of himself, and nowhere close to being able to compete on a major stage like The Masters, but still, he was competing, and that was the first step.

My soon-to-be Father-in-Law and golf buddy Scott would constantly give me crap about my delusions, but I stayed persistent. "He's going to be there, just wait. I'm going to watch Tiger at The Masters."

As weeks turned into months, Tiger started to turn a few heads. He played in more tournaments, and beyond that, he competed in tournaments, finishing among the best in the world. At that point, I changed my statement from "I'm going to watch Tiger at The Masters," to "I'm going to watch Tiger WIN The Masters."

As I traveled to Augusta, I felt like my life as a golf fan had culminated to this moment. I was checking off the #1 item on every golfer's Bucket List, and beyond that, Tiger just happened to be coming back from 4 back surgeries to compete in The Masters for the first time since 2015. And he was coming into the week as one of the favorites to win, at that. 

The stage was set. I was sure I would see the Tiger I had always dreamed of. The man who was not human, the athlete that changed the sport of golf. 

Tiger finished in a tie for 32nd place, and only shot one round below par. 

He was sloppy off the tee, he routinely missed his iron shots, and a number of putts were left sitting above the hole. It was not peak Tiger. 

I am in no way saying that this performance ruined my week at The Masters, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't take away from it. I was disappointed. Not in Tiger, not in his efforts, and not in anyone in particular, but disappointed that this moment didn't culminate in a Tiger victory. 

Maybe I was getting my hopes up thinking that Tiger could actually win this thing; maybe I was just being greedy. Now, I'm just being honest. 

It was awesome to watch Tiger play in the flesh, I just wish I had been able to watch him play in his prime. 

Driving Range

I'm an avid golfer, and I like to consider myself a decent one at that. I can hold my own on the course, and lately the 'good days' have been outnumbering the 'bad days.'

That said, I have never felt more inferior than watching some of these golfers on the Driving Range. Man, what a humbling experience that was. 

On Friday morning, I got to Augusta National early, and I sat down behind the Practice Range for about an hour while drinking a coffee and waiting for the first major tee times. In front of me was Dustin Johnson and Adam Scott. If you don't know much about golf, allow me to offer a brief synopsis on these two: 

Dustin Johnson is widely known as one of the biggest hitters in the game. He stands at 6'4", 190 lbs, and he drives the ball on average 311 yards (for the record, the PGA average driving distance is about 294 yards).

Adam Scott is widely known as having the most beautiful swing in the game. Now, I know that may sound a little 'inside golf,' but trust me, if you saw Scott swing the golf club next to 10 other players, you'd know why I say this. It is literally perfect. 

So there I sat, drinking my coffee, and continually feeling my golf self-esteem plummet further into the ground with every ball they hit. When you watch these guys play on TV, you know they're good. When you watch them play in real life, you know they're great. 

When you watch them practice in real life, you understand why you'll never be a professional golfer. 

Concessions at The Masters

If you're familiar with any sporting event any more, be it an Oregon football game or a trip to Portland to watch the Blazers play, you know that there's the price of the ticket, then there's the price of concessions. You might plan ahead and try to load up on food while tailgating in the parking lot, but God knows that nothing sounds better than an ice cold beer once you get into the venue, which on average sets you back about....$8? More?

At Augusta, I had entire meals for that much. It was so cheap to eat on the course that I found myself stocking up with sandwiches before I went home for the day because it was far cheaper than any alternative I would find. Let me give you a list of some of the prices you'll find at a concession stand at the Masters:

Beer - $4
Bottled Water - $2
BBQ Sandwich - $3
Turkey Sandwich - $2.50
Ice Cream Sandwich - $2
Coffee - $1.50

There is much more on the list, but it is telling that the most expensive item sold there is an American Craft Beer, which would set you back $5....

The most amazing part of the whole thing was that the food was good! It was simple, yet very satisfying. I don't know how they get away with charging so little for food, or better yet, I don't know how virtually EVERY OTHER SPORTS VENUE IN THE NATION gets away with charging so much for food, but I know that if food was priced like it is at the Masters in the rest of the sports, the world would be a better place.*

*Maybe not, but still..you get my point. 

Rewatching The Masters Broadcast

Since I was 13 years old and just starting to get into the game of golf, I can remember sitting down at the beginning of April every year and watching The Masters religiously. I would stream it on my phone during school like it was March Madness, or I would be glued to the couch over the weekend, eyeing the leader board throughout Saturday and Sunday. 

For me, The Masters is one of my top three favorite sporting events every year, rivaling only the NBA Finals and the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Depending on what event is currently taking place, my answer on which one is my favorite it subject to change. Watching The Masters for me is complete and utter bliss.

This year, I got a double-dose of bliss. 

It may seem stupid to say that watching The Masters on TV after coming home from actually, you know, being at The Masters, was one of my favorite parts of the week, but I can't help it; IT WAS SO FREAKING COOL. 

After walking/standing/sitting in the sun (and rain on Saturday) for upwards of 10 hours each day, there was nothing more relaxing than sitting in my room, eating a several-hour-old BBQ sandwich and watching the ESPN broadcast of the tournament that day. Not only did I get to see all of the shots and scores that I had missed, but I got to relive some of the things I was up close and personal for. Whether it was seeing Phil Mickelson hit it into the water at No. 12 on Friday (proximity: roughly 300 yards away), or Patrick Reed chipping in for eagle on the 15th hole Saturday (:less than 100 yards away), seeing the event how millions of other people saw it, but knowing how it felt to be there, was one of the many things I will never forget about the weekend. 

That's me, circled, in the white shirt. I promise you. 

Efficiency at The Masters

If there's one thing I learned about "fan experience" at The Masters this past week, it's that Augusta National has it down to a science. I have never seen a more calculated and efficient venue, created perfectly in order to shepherd thousands of patrons in and out of lines in as quickly of a manor as possible. 

Whether it was moving through the concessions to get your morning coffee and a sausage biscuit, or stepping away from the action in order to take a leak, there was never a line I stood in that wasn't constantly moving. Even at the Golf Shop, where the line consistently stretched out the door, upwards of half a mile down the path, patrons were always moving, never standing in the same spot for more than 5 seconds. 

I think what it all boils down to is what I've decided to call "controlled chaos." In both the Golf Shop and the concessions, it's a mad house trying to get what you want to buy, but when it comes time to pay, there are upwards of 20 or 30 different registers, almost rushing the patrons back outside and onto the course as quickly as possible. In the bathroom, there was even a man waiting inside at the door asking each person "urinal or stall?" and then pointing them in the direction of the next opening (go ahead and put this at the top of the list of 'Jobs I Don't Want'.)

I've been to a number of sporting events in my life, and the two worst parts are always waiting in line to get food, or waiting in line to pee. Not at The Masters, they have everything running like a well-oiled machine. 

The Undulation

Yes, I am going to use the word "undulation" a lot in this section, because for some reason, "hills" just doesn't seem to do it justice. 

Whenever somebody describes Augusta National, one of the first things they mention is the "undulation of the course." I was told that it twisted and turned over mountainous land masses, causing every lie on the course to be a difficult one. 

That's something you won't understand until you see it, I promise. 

The TV does it no justice. Outside of the tee boxes, there is seriously not a flat spot on the course. Several times I would find myself standing near the middle of the fairway, and it would be impossible to see the flagstick because it was over a hill that rose at a 45-degree angle, protruding into the sky. 

It's safe to say that after my first day walking the course, I was exhausted. You always respect the golfers, but the true heroes at Augusta are the caddies. 

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Southern Hospitality/The Patrons

I can't remember a single unpleasant interaction I had at The Masters.

Now, I'm sure if I thought hard enough, I could probably come up with one moment that wasn't perfect, but this is something like the 11th 'takeaway' I've written and I'm still jet-lagged from the flight home, so I'm going to stick with my point. 

I seriously can't remember a bad interaction while at Augusta National. I don't know if everybody was just so damn happy to actually be there, or if 'Southern Hospitality' is really the most underrated thing in the world, but this trip was one of the most positive and pleasant experiences of my life. Every interaction was bookended with a smile, and I've never seen so many people willing to hold a door open or help give someone directions around the course. 

As for the spectators, I can honestly say that I have never seen a larger group of Caucasian males, age 35-65 in my life. As far as the eye could see, it was tucked in polo shirts, khaki shorts and cigars hanging out of the mouth. I read somewhere coming in that The Masters is basically Coachella for the affluent White male, and after spending some time there, I can confirm. 

Maybe that's why they were all in such a good mood...

A Thank You from the Bottom of my Heart

I want to extend a very heartfelt and sincere thank you to a few people that made this trip possible for me. 

First off, thank you to my grandparents, Bill and Lyn Neel. You gave me this trip as a present for graduating from the University of Oregon, and I will forever be indebted to you for that. The Masters is widely regarded as the most exclusive event in all of sports, and many believe that the tickets are some of the hardest to get in the world. You knew how desperately I wanted to go, and you made it happen; for that I thank you. 

Second, thank you to my own parents, Stephen and Lisa. You helped fund this trip for me, be it covering my Uber rides or loaning a broke 24-year-old some money to buy a few nice things at the Augusta Pro Shop. This trip would not have been as comfortable as it was had you not been so willing to help me along the way. I appreciate it, and I love  you both. 

To all of you who have actually cared enough to read this far, I just wanted to thank you for sharing this experience with me. I may never experience a trip of this magnitude for the rest of my life, and I wanted to thank you for caring enough to listen to my stories from a week that I will never forget. 

All the best,

Zachary Neel