Until you play Augusta, you don’t know

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My caddie’s name was Jimmy. He never told me his last name. Jimmy was as skinny as a 1-iron, as wrinkled as a dollar bill that’s been in your jeans pocket all day. He smoked Salems, one after another, until they had to burn his fingers. He didn’t talk, unless you asked him a question, and then he never answered in two words when one would do.

“Name’s Jimmy,” he said, shaking my hand. “Used to caddie for Sammy Snead. Helluva player.”

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

That was just about the longest conversation we had that day back in April 1987, the day after Larry Mize chipped in to win the Masters. Every year, the Masters holds a lottery for the visiting news media. The winners get to play Augusta National on Monday morning.

I won. Jimmy lost. The man who once caddied for Slammin’ Sammy was reduced to carrying clubs for Ricochet Rick. I hit more of Augusta’s trees in one round than Snead hit in his career.

In his heyday, Snead possessed perhaps the most fluid swing in golf. Snead always said that when he was swinging really well, he felt “oiled.”

My short, choppy swing always has needed oil. Jimmy, who was as polite as he was reticent, tried not to wince at my more creaky swings. Often, he failed.

••••

Another Masters has begun. We marvel at Jason Day’s booming drives and at Jordan Spieth’s magical touch. As I age, I marvel more and more at Fred Couples’ bionic back and seemingly well-oiled swing. Mostly, we marvel at Augusta National’s majestic beauty and marble-fast greens. You will watch somebody – it could be anybody – lip out a six-foot putt and have a 20-footer coming back. You will think to yourself, “Boy, those greens are really slick.”

But you won’t have a clue. That’s the thing about Augusta National’s greens. No matter how fast and tricky they appear when you watch somebody else putt, you can’t really comprehend the difficulty. Ben Crenshaw talked about it that year. “A club golfer doesn’t have a clue,” Crenshaw said. “Golf is a totally different game on these greens.”

It is. Two of my best shots that day left me a two-and-a-half-footer for birdie on the ninth hole. My ball was about 30 decidedly downhill inches above the cup.

“Try to just breathe on it,” Jimmy said.

I did.

“Uh oh,” Jimmy said, immediately.

My putt lipped out on the high side and then almost stopped, but then rolled ever so slowly, and then a little faster, and then faster still, and then it rolled, and rolled some more. When it finally stopped, I had a 50-yard pitch back up the hill. I had a near “gimme” for 3. I made 6.

You will hear the announcers talk about the tricky winds at Augusta, but you again won’t have a clue. On the storied, par-3 12th hole, Jimmy pointed to the tallest tree behind the green. “That’s where you gauge the wind,” he said.

Wind was blowing briskly in my face. I swung a 6-iron and nailed it dead at the flag just as the wind stopped.

“Uh oh,” Jimmy said.

My ball buried in the back trap, stone cold dead. “Not even Snead could do anything with that,” Jimmy said.

I did. I skulled the trap shot over the green and into Rae’s Pond. I made 6.

••••

An 8-handicapper then, I shot 91 and didn’t hit the ball all that poorly. I four-putted at least three times. I had 44 putts in all. If Jimmy said it once, he said it 18 times: “Uh oh.”

I prefer to remember the first hole, the day after Mize chipped in to win the Masters. I duck-hooked my drive, chipped back out into the fairway, wedged over the green and then faced a tricky, downhill chip for my par. Without a word, Jimmy handed me the sand wedge. I pitched the ball to the fringe, where it bounced once and rolled into the cup as if it had eyes.

“Helluva shot,” Jimmy said.

It was, too. Forty-four putts and now 30 years later, I prefer to remember the chip-in.

• • •

Rick Cleveland, Mississippi Today’s sports columnist, this year was named Mississippi Sportswriter of the Year — an honor he achieved for the 10th time — by the National Sports Media Foundation. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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