Three thousand years ago it was said that the alluring young Queen Nefertiti only had to sway her hips to persuade the sun god Aten to rise each morning. Gazing at the elegant bust of her in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum recently, I could see why. This wondrous vision was the beginning of events that blotted out all memories of a purgatorial recent spell investigating Spain’s worst golf courses.
The recovery began in earnest at Sunningdale, where the starched white napkins that accompany a toasted bacon and egg sandwich in the members’ bar enhance the pleasure of breakfast. The lavish praise that my guests that day, who included the captain of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers and a past captain of Ganton, bestowed on the new course was gratifying, if not quite sufficient consolation for the way I threw away an early lead.
It got even better last week when the day job took me to Washington. Normally a combination of Bach cantatas on the iPod and a large bucks fizz in the executive lounge are the only way to survive Heathrow’s Terminal 3. This time I was buoyed by the prospect of golf at Augusta to follow my meetings on Capitol Hill. There’s just one downside to going to the home of the Masters. It’s the black look your less fortunate friends give you when they hear where you’re heading.
For three days, I sat in the room where the Watergate hearings took place and discussed climate change with a parade of senators and presidential candidates. About once every hour I surreptitiously checked the coming weekend’s weather forecast on my BlackBerry. It was like being back at prep school sitting in a history lesson on a hot summer morning and gazing out at the cricket square. I was interested in what was being said but at the same time impatient for what was to follow.
One consolation of middle age is that time passes faster than it used to so it didn’t seem long before I was picking up a rental car at Atlanta airport. I wasn’t sure that a bright orange Mustang was what I wanted to drive into the car park at Augusta but by now I thought what the heck. With a glorious sunset behind me I drove east on the tree lined interstate listening to Vivaldi at full blast and thinking of my drive at the first hole next morning.
The day dawned sunny and cool, perfect conditions to savour the magical walk from the white painted clubhouse to the first tee. In front, the whole course opens out below you, full of beauty and challenge. The first fairway is wide by comparison with, say, Royal St George’s so the tee shot shouldn’t be daunting. However, the rarity of playing Augusta creates a pressure for visitors, made greater by the highly visible location of the tee and the cluster of white-uniformed caddies observing every move.
As luck would have it I nailed a long one down the middle, the best of my group. Exhilarated, I set off down the hill on the journey which the best golfers of the past 70-odd years have made. A nervous iron left me on the opposite edge of the green to the flag and my putt ran fully 8ft past the pin. My return was struck too hard but right on the line my caddy instructed and dutifully dropped into the cup.
This good fortune set the tone for the round. Only three silly putts from 8ft on the seventh green and a little longer on the ninth stopped me breaking 40 on the front nine. Amen Corner took its toll when a slightly pulled approach to the 11th trickled into the water. At the 12th my tee shot sailed into the adjacent Augusta Country Club but a second attempt with the same seven iron ended 2ft from the pin to secure a bogey. A four on the last under the steely gaze of my host provided a satisfying finish. Relaxing afterwards over clam chowder and crab salad, I was reminded of how the clubhouse feels more like a family home than a golf club. One comfortable room leads into another encouraging guests to linger and study the memorabilia that honour the club, the great Masters champions and above all its founders and driving forces, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
If, 3,000 years from now, a museum portrays the game of golf it is a good bet that a model of Augusta National will be to the fore.
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