AUGUSTA, Ga.—It’s 6:10 a.m. outside Augusta National, and two men, of the old and crusty variety, are arguing. One believes Ernie Els has the best swing in golf, the other likes Louis Oosthuizen. It appears this debate has been had before, as have countless other disputes. When an onlooker chimes in that the honor belongs to Adam Scott, the duo brush him off with profanities, albeit in a playful cadence.
There is a kinship among the small company outside the gates before dawn, the type of camaraderie teams and offices aspire to. Yes, the Masters and Augusta National resonate in a unique fashion to many, within the sport and out. But there’s a contingent, a much smaller one, whose zeal for this tournament borders on fanatical.
“Why wouldn’t we be here?” a younger man replies when asked why he’s out before sunrise, using the word “heaven” multiple times in his explanation. Which makes sense. These are the believers, waiting outside their version of the Pearly Gates. They are the ones who know more about the course than the members, who can rattle off Masters moments like they were their own children, and name their dogs Redbud and Firethorn. The type of spirit that drives many to wait outside Augusta National hours before they can set foot on the property, and do so eagerly.
While the group shares the same passion, most of the parallels end there. Golf’s lack of diversity has been well noted, but you wouldn’t know it from this crowd.
Four New York women were among the first in the parking lot’s floodlights. They fell in love with the tournament when Arnold Palmer was doing Arnold Palmer things, and have been addicted since. It is their first time in Augusta, and their excitement was too much to bear. “We weren’t going to sleep, so we decided, ‘Let’s get there now!’ ” exclaimed the quartet’s eldest stateswoman. They are worried there’s not enough time to see and experience everything they want. Trying to assuage their worries is futile; after all, when you’ve been waiting for something for 40 years, 12 hours won’t cut it.
There’s a couple from London who made their inaugural trip last year, only to get rained out on Monday. But, in just two hours on the course, they got infected with the bug. “It’s been eating at us since that Monday night,” replied the man, in his late 20s. “We decided then we’d do whatever it takes to return.” They arrived on Saturday, and have been up since 4 a.m. “We just couldn’t wait any longer,” he says.
There’s another pair, engaged. A friend set the two up, knowing both were golf fans. “We discovered our mutual feeling for the Masters before we even met,” the woman said, and by the third date they had booked a practice-round trip. When facetiously replying that she should walk down the aisle to the Augusta theme song, they turn, looking for the other’s approval.
They talk amongst themselves but the conversation is one. “Where should we go first? What are you going to get at the merchandise tent? Who should we try and follow?” Like dogs let loose at the park, so overstimulated they don’t know what to do with themselves.
Or in some cases, overserved. A van full of college kids are vigorously pounding Gatorade when it dawns on you that it’s probably not Gatorade they’re drinking. When three men standing off to the side are asked what brings them out so early, their reply is honest. “The night’s demons are still reeling,” one says. “We’re hungover, we’re hungry and we just want to see the course!”
There are a lot of buddies, fathers and sons, solos. A few are logging their first visit, but most are veterans. A man proclaims with pride he’s been to every tournament since 1971. Despite all the years, he treats every Masters week like it’s his first, his cheeks rosy with anticipation and elation. He’s a bit of a talker; what was hoped to be a short interaction turns into a protracted stay. But his love is so evident you don’t mind his, ahem, verbose ways.
“It’s changed so much and remained to stay the same,” he says, looking over the lot. It’s clearly a line he’s said before—in fact, you overhear him say it in the background during another interview—but damned if it doesn’t sound poetic. Like many here, he feels like he has an ownership, a stake, in this tournament. He views his experience as a responsibility, helping multiple newbies construct an itinerary for the day.
RELATED: Bring your game to a new level with Golf Digest All Access
You’ll forgive the saccharine tones. Augusta is known to produce its share of syrupy tributes. That doesn’t make the sentiments any less true. It’s a contagious compassion, and invigorating.
Which brings us back to our two cantankerous fellows from above. For the most part, one can’t get through a sentence without the other busting his chops. But near the end, when asked what spurred their early arrival, one gets silent, and you notice he has a surgical scar behind his ear.
“This,” he says, gesturing his hands towards the gates, “makes everything else tolerable.”
There’s no need to inquire further what he’s hurdled, or what lies ahead. Fifty-one weeks of the year are fleeting; this course, and this tournament, are eternal.
(Thanks to Alan Pittman for additional reporting.)