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The grass is greener A round inside the ropes at Augusta National is unlike any other

My caddie explained at the outset how this was going to work. If he reached the green first he'd mark my ball. He'd wipe it clean. Then he'd give me the read. He'd do just about everything but hit my putts which, in hindsight, wouldn't have been a bad idea.

But there was a pronounced eagerness in my stride after I hit my 100-yard wedge shot to the No. 2 green precisely where I'd been instructed. The ball took the contour and began its methodical journey toward the hole, stopping within 6 feet. Twas a thing of beauty.

Being first on the scene, I placed the mark, inspected the ball, licked my thumb and rubbed at a grass stain, just as I might do during a round at Holland Hills. Suddenly my caddie arrived and thrust an open towel in front of me, insistently, as if I'd committed a breach of etiquette, which, of course, I had. Licking your ball clean constitutes less than desirable conduct on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. I laughed and asked my caddie and friend, fellow Western New Yorker Al Arnold, "When's the last time someone did that around here?"

Every year on the final day of the Masters a list is posted revealing the media members who have won "The Lottery" and an invitation to play Augusta National the very next morning. Well, my fifth Masters was the charm. About 12:45 p.m. Sunday -- on about my 10th check of the front desk -- I found the list had been posted, with mine among the names. About 12:46 I was on the phone to my father, Bob Sr., back home.

"Looks like it'll be an exciting finish," he said. "How's it going?"

"Better than you can imagine."

"Why? What's up?"

The words caught in my throat.

"I tee off on No. 10 at 8:30 tomorrow morning."

"Hey, Marie," he shouted to Mom. "He's playing!"

Last year I stopped bringing my clubs with me to Augusta. Part of me rationalized that your chances of playing increased if you presumed that you weren't. Also, my buddy Al said he could hook me up with sticks if I won The Lottery, which he did, although it had been some 15 years since I'd hit steel-shafted blades.

Truth is, if given the choice between having my own clubs or having Al as my caddie I'd have taken Al. We met a couple of years ago through e-mail correspondence. A Rhode Island native, he lived in Western New York for 34 years before retiring to North Augusta. He was playing golf every day until monotony set in, which prompted him to answer a newspaper ad seeking caddies. Little did he know he'd end up working at Augusta National.

I interviewed Al for a column in August 2005 and wrote about his experiences. I had dinner with him and his family during last year's Masters. He said that caddying at Augusta never grew old, that every time he set foot on the course was as thrilling as the first time. He offered to be my tote if I ever got the chance to play and I told him he was a lock. Roaming Augusta with a friend on your bag would certainly double the pleasure.

And roam we did (poor Al) as my game tried to awaken from its five-month slumber. Oh, I hit some shots I'll never forget: a drive 285 down the middle on No. 7, a 6-iron to 25 feet on the par-3 sixth, a 6-iron to the right fringe on No. 16, which presented a serpentine 50-foot putt that took a tantalizing track and left me with a 3-foot comebacker straight uphill. (Yeah, I missed it.)

I blistered another drive on the par-5 15th, putting me 191 yards from duplicating Gene Sarazen's wondrous double-eagle in 1935. And we'll end that story right there for I also hit a good number of shots I'd rather forget. Not much earlier, Al had reminded me of Ben Hogan's wisdom in playing No. 11. Hogan said that if he hit the green in two he considered it a mistake. Yeah, I thought. But did he play his shot to the 12th tee?

To me, the day was about soaking up Augusta's aura, reveling in the opportunity to get "inside the ropes," although the ropes were no longer there. I dawdled over the Hogan Bridge, paused at its apex and took in the deepest of breaths. Amen.

I marveled at the narrow width of the green on No. 12 and the ability of the world's best players to find it under immense pressure. I stopped in the 13th fairway on the spot I remembered Arnie standing when I covered what he declared would be his final Masters, although he'd come back to play one more.

You don't need your "A" game (or even your B or C game) to appreciate Augusta any more than you need a musket to identify with the profound significance of Gettysburg. I looked about as I walked up the seventh fairway that runs through the heart of the course and saw the vast, undulating expanse as I'd never seen it before, virtually unpopulated. And I remembered that Bobby Jones had said: "It seemed that this land had been lying here for years just waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it."

What did I shoot, you're wondering? I honestly don't know. I doubt I broke par on putts alone. The greens are tough there, fast, deceptive, in case you haven't heard. Al kept my card and someday I'll look at it, but not now, not yet, not while it's so utterly irrelevant.

My wife, Jackie, doesn't golf but she understood what this was about. We had a getaway weekend back in April 1995 during which I couldn't drag myself away from the room TV and Ben Crenshaw's emotional Masters victory. She realizes how long I've been mesmerized by Augusta National and the Masters, how I yearned to walk where the legends have walked, that I would have gladly played the course with a croquet mallet.

"So what was it like?" she inquired, greeting me with an opening line very well struck.


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