Golfers often saying playing in the Masters is the highlight of their careers. Particularly if they only get to do it once
David Feherty likened it to “stepping into a Salvador Dali painting.” Robert Wrenn called it “the proverbial dream come true.”
“It was magical, mystical, everything you thought it would be,” Brian Bateman said.
Using a more modern vernacular, Kyle Stanley simply said, “it was probably one of the most awesome things ever.”
The Masters is art and music and laughter and mystique, a symphony for the senses woven into the most verdant tapestry golf can offer. On first meetings with Augusta National Golf Club, a newcomer can be overcome with awe and even stronger emotions. It is the promised land of golf, and only a lucky few, the so-called masters of the game, as co-founder Clifford Roberts might prefer, ever get there with clubs in hand and immortality in the back of their minds.
But for many players, they never have the chance to return for a second act, a second chance with those crucial terabytes of accumulated knowledge from their first go-round. They never have the opportunity to join players like Jackie Burke or Zach Johnson, who won Masters in their second start. Same for the last two winners, Jordan Spieth in 2015 and Danny Willett last year, who broke through as sophomores.
“I do often think about what might have happened if I had gotten another shot at it,” said Tommy Armour III, who missed the cut in his lone appearance in 1990.
There is something great—and grating—about a single Masters start. The sons of one-and-done cherish their fond memories and feel enduring pride. Of course, they have to shoulder their regrets, too, because once is never enough, one Masters start never could be enough. When April comes around, these players are reminded that once they were worthy of a coveted invitation to the year’s first major championship—but then never received another. Imagine celebrating one Christmas and then being forced to let it pass by every year thereafter.
Still, they did have their moment, their once-in-a-lifetime, and, as you can imagine, it was grand.
“It was a gift,” said Brandel Chamblee, the Golf Channel analyst who won the 1998 Greater Vancouver Open to earn an invitation to the 1999 Masters. “Everything about it was fabulous. You know, when you get to play golf for a living, everything is amazing. People bend over backwards to accommodate your every wish. You get paid lavish sums of money. You play in the best golf courses in the world in the best time of the year to play them when you're there. People will give you the keys to the city. But nothing ever beat the Masters.”
Chamblee and Wrenn, who played in his only Masters in 1988, share a gratifying distinction. Each shot 69 in his first round, which was good enough to lead the tournament. They earned a crystal vase for low round of the day. How’s that for starting your Masters career?
“I also made an eagle that day, at 13,” noted Chamblee, who earned the customary reward of two crystal goblets for the exploit. “It might have been my first Masters, but I was prepared, and I felt like I knew the golf course pretty well. I just followed the plan.”
That would be the plan mapped out by Jack Nicklaus. It seems that one of Chamblee’s friends, Glen Day, had taken a Masters yardage book to the six-time Masters winner and had him go through the entire course, every single shot, every single pin. Day shared this information with Chamblee, who used it to near perfection. “I didn’t play particularly well, but I followed all of the advice I had gotten,” Chamblee said. “It all just seemed so obvious to me what to do.”
“Needless to say,” Wrenn recalled, “it was a great opening round. It doesn’t get much better than that in your first official Masters round. And it was a real surprise, especially to me.”
I felt like I was expecting to see clouds dripping out of the pine trees … you know, something that was surreal. And I never really shook that feeling the whole week. It seemed too real to be true, if that makes any sense.” —David Feherty The opening round of the ’88 Masters was cool and windy, and Wrenn, paired with Jeff Sluman in the penultimate group of the day, was watching from a closed-circuit television in the locker room while eating lunch as high scores poured in. “Established guys are shooting four over, six over, eight over, and we’re thinking, Holy smokes, I just hope I don’t shoot 90 out there. This is my first Masters, and I’m nervous enough.”
Instead, he broke 70 and shared the overnight lead with Larry Nelson.
“It was just kind of one of those days that I kept it together with a little bit of string and glue and barbed wire and everything else, and next thing you know, I made about a 25‑footer from the back fringe on 18 for birdie to tie for the lead,” Wrenn said, laughing. “But nobody was out there. I mean it was weird. It was almost surreal. It felt more like a Monday practice round at a regular tour event because it was late when we finished. It was probably 6 o’clock when we got done. There couldn’t have been more than 15 people around the 18th green.”
Another fast-starter was Bateman, who also shot 69 after converting a 20-footer at 18 in his appearance in 2008. As the clubhouse leader, he was brought into Butler Cabin to speak with ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico. Later in the day, he was passed by Justin Rose. Interestingly, Bateman had never been to Augusta until that year. The thrill of a great performance—he tied defending champion Zach Johnson for 20th place—was superseded by the simple memories.
He remembers playing nine holes with fellow LSU golfer David Toms on the Sunday prior to the tournament. “We were the only ones on the back nine. No one around. It was magical,” Bateman said. “We get to Amen Corner, and it was so quiet and peaceful. It could not have been more perfect.”
Bateman played in the Par-3 Contest with Toms and Steve Flesch, but it was more difficult than he had anticipated. There were so many people crowded around the first green that he feared beaning someone. Which he proceeded to do, blocking his 9-iron into the crowd, “bouncing it off three or four people’s heads.”
But his first tee shot the next morning was something extraordinary. “I was never so nervous in my life,” Bateman said. “I don’t even remember putting on the practice green. I just wanted to hit a good one for my first shot in the Masters. And you know what? I drilled one down the middle. I have never been as proud of a single shot in my career as I was then.”
On the flipside, Feherty, who worked 19 Masters as a broadcaster for CBS Sports until moving to NBC last year, barely remembers a single shot from his appearance in 1992, when he finished T-52 thanks to a final-round 70.
“I honestly don’t recall much about my golf, which is probably not surprising because of the quality I was putting forth back then,” he said with an apologetic tone. “I was a horrible low-ball hitter, and I worked with Bob Torrance trying to hit it higher, and that was a disastrous effort. Somehow, I got it around decently … I think.
Feherty had a feeling 1992 would be his one and only Masters start. “I always felt that way about big events.” David Cannon “But what I remember strongly is the feeling of being there. It felt like I was stepping into a Salvador Dali painting. I felt like I was expecting to see clouds dripping out of the pine trees … you know, something that was surreal. And I never really shook that feeling the whole week. It seemed too real to be true, if that makes any sense. So the sense of awe canceled out everything else going on in my mind.”
“You realize that you’re living a childhood dream, and there are all these pinch-me moments, and the golf almost takes a backseat, even though you are trying so hard to play well,” said Stanley, who in 2012 shot a pair of 75s and went home early. “I was struggling with my game at the time, so I didn’t play well. But whatever happens on the course, you have to take a step back and appreciate what it is and the experience overall. I certainly did that.”
Amateurs, of course, enjoy the perk of staying at the club, in the famed upper level of the clubhouse known as the Crow’s Nest. It affords the amateurs a chance for a more immersed experience at Augusta National. Jerry Haas, younger brother of veteran PGA Tour player Jay, earned a trip to the Masters as a member of the 1985 U.S. Walker Cup team.
“I stayed in the Crow’s Nest with John England and Scott Verplank. We had a great time. It was beyond our imagination,” said Haas, who is in his 20th season as golf coach at his alma mater, Wake Forest. “We would take turns holding each other up, and boost one guy into the skylight, so he could look out over the course. He’d come down and take another guy and boost him up there. We got our exercise with that.”
“A lot of us might have just one trip, but whatever you remember, whatever the experience is, that’s special. It’s yours.” —Robert Wrenn Luke List, who competed in 2005, stayed in the Crow’s Nest too, along with U.S. Amateur and Public Links champion Ryan Moore and Mid-Am champion Austin Eaton, and they were, apparently, not as enterprising. “Yeah, it was pretty low key,” he said.
Perhaps he was too low key. “The one specific memory I have is going out to dinner on Tuesday night and the Champions Dinner was just about to get started,” List explained. “I was in shorts and a T-shirt, and I go running through the clubhouse about as fast as I can before anyone really notices me. If I had been five minutes later it would have been really awkward. There are a couple of funny memories like that.”
Haas’ first memory is from a time before he even arrived on the ground. His brother Jay also was in the field, and their uncle was 1968 Masters winner Bob Goalby.
“I won’t say we were the first, but to have three from the same family who played in the Masters was a distinction we enjoyed,” said Haas, who also played in four U.S. Opens and the 2006 PGA, where he was paired with Jay. “They put us all on the cover of Golf World. It was awesome. A lot of people never had anybody to help them, and I had a brother, Jay, and my Uncle Bob that were fantastic. The funny thing was, after Uncle Bob got done telling me all of the places where I can’t hit it, Jay thought I might shoot 90.”
Jerry wouldn’t have disagreed, especially after going out to the practice putting green on the Sunday before tournament week. “There was one guy out there, Bernard Langer, and I dropped three balls, and I hit my first putt off the green. He just looked over at me and smiled. He came over and introduced himself, and what a gentleman, what a nice man, wished me good luck. And then he ended up winning that week.”
And Haas, who shot rounds of 76-69-73-75, ended up T-31 and won a silver medal for finishing as the second low amateur behind Sam Randolph. But playing with Billy Casper the last day, he chunked his tee shot in the water at the par-3 16th and swallowed a triple bogey. Had he made just a bogey, he would have been among the top 24, which at that time would have qualified him for another invitation. “That’s among the things that I have never forgotten,” Haas said.
They all thought they would return, that another Masters invitation was in their future. Well, everyone but the self-effacing Feherty.
“Did I expect to go back as a player? I actually didn’t,” he readily confessed. “I felt like that might be my one chance. I really did. I always felt that way about big events. I always wanted to treat each of them like it was the last one. Plus, in that time I was living from one 20 minutes to the next. Playing in one was fine. Hey, I had 20 of them. I did go back 19 times for television. Not bad.”
Chamblee and Wrenn, who enjoyed such memorable starts to their Masters careers, saw them end on Sunday with ignominious stumbles.
“Sure, if you’re good enough to play in one, you think there will be more. I had chances before I got in, and I had a couple of good chances after, but it never materialized. But, hell, one is better than none.” —Tommy Armour III Chamblee has the memory of a missed 18-inch putt that still stings. “The wind was blowing 20, 25 miles an hour, and a gust hit me and I fell forward on my downstroke. I was trying to compensate, and I lipped it out,” he said. “I would have been tied for 14th had I made it. That was the first year they changed the invitations from top 24 finishers to top 16. So that is what kept me from getting invited back. I don’t have many regrets in my career, but that one … that one I think about from time to time.”
A 72 left him at one-over 289, T-18 with a group that included Bill Glasson, Justin Leonard, Scott McCarron and 1997 champion Tiger Woods.
Wrenn missed a 12-footer for par on the last that would have given him 73 and a share of 24th place, spot on the magic number. But his bid to earn a return trip took a blow earlier in the round when he put two balls into Rae’s Creek at No. 13 and suffered a triple-bogey 8. At least he had a memorable finale, playing alongside Nicklaus.
“I was right there going to 18, but I pushed a driver into the trees and had to chip out,” he remembered. “Then I pitched it on, and it didn’t seem like a very good pitch, but all of a sudden everybody’s on their feet and they’re cheering and whistling. I think it must have taken a weird bounce and stopped close. Then I realized, ‘You idiot, this is all for Jack.’ So I stop in my tracks and say to Jack, ‘This is for you.’ He very graciously put his arm on my shoulder and said, ‘Nah, let’s walk up here together. This is for both of us.’ He was incredibly gracious.”
List, 32, in his third season on the PGA Tour, and Stanley, still have the opportunity for further appearances, their careers far from complete. List might have the most motivation. His wife, Chloe, is a native of Augusta.
“I haven’t really been back since just because I’m telling myself that I’m not going back until I play in the tournament again,” said the former Vanderbilt standout, who had an up-and-down week with scores of 77-69-78-70—294 to finish T-33 and take home a silver medal for second low amateur. “I’ll always have a special memory of that week. I just want to have a chance for some new memories for myself and my wife.”
As for Stanley, 29, the Clemson product has a score to settle with those famously fast Augusta National greens, which were agonizingly slow the year he showed up. “I know that’s hard to believe, but you go there knowing about the reputation of the greens and how fast they are, but I never adjusted to the reality of what they were that week,” Stanley admitted sheepishly. “It played soft and slow; a 5-iron didn’t even release, so that was a little weird for me. In your head, you think fast greens, fast greens. You see that on TV every year, and I just couldn’t make myself hit putts like I needed to. My head wouldn’t let me do it.”
“Do you know how many times I’ve played Augusta since? Zero,” said Haas, whose nephew, Bill, has carried on the family tradition of playing in the event. “I always said that the only way I go back is if I make it as a player. I guess I'm going to have to change that. I don’t think I’ll be qualifying for it anymore, so I’ll have to find some other way.”
Same for Bateman. “I haven’t been back. Not once, and I won’t go,” he said, not at all regretting it. “I three-putted 16 [on Sunday] and then I missed a 10-footer at 17 and an eight-footer at 18. That would have done it. I’d have earned another invitation. So, I’m pulling out of the parking lot that evening on my way to Hilton Head, and I thought to myself, This was the fastest a tournament has ever gone by. It flew. It was just mystical from start to finish. I have the invitation framed in my office. It’s the most special piece of golf memorabilia I own.”
Everyone has their tale of wonder and woe, the rich memories, and, of course, the regrets of shots not executed here and there that cost them another chance. Still, they got there. And all of them agree on this: at least they received their one introduction on the first tee, their one dream fulfilled. Their one invitation they can hang on the wall, and perhaps, hang their career on, too.
“Sure, if you’re good enough to play in one, you think there will be more,” Armour said. “I had chances before I got in, and I had a couple of good chances after, but it never materialized.
“But, hell, one is better than none.”
“A lot of us might have just one trip,” Wrenn said, “but whatever you remember, whatever the experience is, that’s special. It’s yours. For me, the piece of crystal I have still holds a nice spot in my home, and I always cherish the memory. I took my sons down there a couple of years ago for a practice round. It kind of just gives you a tingly feeling to know you had the opportunity to play in the Masters. It’s just a place that has a lot of spirit to it. Even if you’re there just once, that’s an amazing thing.”
Indeed, one start means your part of history, that you have added your own stitch in the magnificent tapestry that is the Masters. It might not be remembered or noticed, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t indelible.