For Lewis, Masters week pure fantasy

For January, you could not have asked for a nicer day in Augusta, Ga. The sun was out, the temperature peaked around 70 degrees, the air smelled of the tall pine trees that frame one of the most famous golf courses in the world.

Randal Lewis had driven in through the front gate earlier that day, his first trip to Augusta National in 18 years, since he managed to score a practice round ticket to the Masters.

Now he was entering the hallowed ground as a competitor in the tournament, a surreal sentence for a 54-year-old amateur who will play in the Masters for the first time next week.

A few months ago, he was getting to experience one of the perks of a Masters invitation -- unlimited practice rounds.

And then it hit him.

"I was on the back nine, me and my caddie; the weather was perfect," Lewis recalled. "I said, 'Is this for real?' It was incredible."

Imagine what the actual tournament will be like.

Things have only gotten better for Lewis, who played a practice round with Phil Mickelson on Wednesday and has another scheduled for Monday with Tom Watson.

One of six amateurs in the field, Lewis is perhaps the most unlikely. At 54, he is believed to be the oldest first-time competitor in tournament history. Who keeps such a stat?

The financial advisor from Michigan won last summer's U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship -- 15 years after losing in the final -- with a 3 and 2 victory over Kenny Cook in Richmond, Texas.

And that meant a Masters invitation. The tournament has traditionally invited the finalists at the U.S. Amateur, as well as the British Amateur champion and U.S. Public Links winner. Mid-Am winners started receiving invites in 1988. This will be the third year that the Asian Amateur winner gets a spot.

The Mid-Amateur requires that participants be at least 25 years old and was instituted because college players were dominating the U.S. Amateur. The tournament is geared more toward amateurs who decided not to make the game a career. Perhaps for that reason, no Mid-Am has ever made the cut at the Masters. Lewis became the Mid-Am's oldest champion in its 31-year history.

"I don't think Tiger and Phil are overly worried about me," Lewis said. "It'll be one of the great weeks of my life. I can't imagine how you could top it."

And his family is just as pumped. Wife Melanie, also an avid golfer, along with their sons Christopher and Nicklaus (yes, named after the Golden Bear) will gather with several other family members in a rented house this week.

"It's just been a great experience," said Melanie Lewis, who accompanied her husband on one of his Augusta visits in early March. "I met all the people he had been talking about, they've just treated him so well. All these things are just falling together."

Like, for example, when Lewis met Mickelson on Tuesday. Turns out Lewis had been using an Augusta National caddie whose brain Mickelson likes to pick during practice rounds. One thing led to another and ... Mickelson is inviting Lewis to breakfast on Wednesday morning in the Champions Locker Room prior to playing the course.

To get ready for the occasion, Lewis has taken advantage of his right to play practice rounds at the club. He has gone to Augusta several times, which is why he has been there again this week. After taking Sunday off, he has a scheduled Monday morning game in front of the practice round masses with Watson.

"There's nothing like being on the course and playing it," Lewis said. "It was neat to get on the holes that you've watched all those years. Especially to get out there on 11, 12 and 13 where you can't get that close as a spectator. That part of the course is just spectacular.

"They require you to use an Augusta caddie until Masters week, and that is really helpful. Unless you've played it a bunch you would want a caddie. Augusta is so strategic, so they are really helpful.

"It was pretty quiet and that first time I played both rounds by myself. I wanted to take a lot of time and that was a great experience."

Lewis is from Alma, Mich., and graduated from Central Michigan University in 1980. He turned pro and headed to the Florida mini tours with $2,000 but soon recognized that playing golf for a living was not for him. His pro career lasted all of four weeks.

Over the years, he became something of a Michigan legend, winning numerous state tournaments and being inducted into the state's golf hall of fame. Over the years, he entered his share of USGA events, and ultimately the goal of winning one -- not getting to the Masters -- is what carried him.

"I had 15 years to kind of watch the Masters and think how close I had come," Lewis said of losing to John "Spider" Miller in the 1996 Mid-Am final. "I put that behind me a little. My focus was more on winning a USGA championship.

"Obviously I dearly wanted to play in the Masters. But the Mid-Am is my favorite USGA event. I had come close before. That was my focus, to try and get that done. No matter what, I'll always be a USGA champion. That put the focus where it needed to be. All of this is a bonus."

And some bonus it is.

Lewis is all but assured of playing with a former Masters champion during the first two rounds, as the tournament traditionally groups the amateurs with former winners.

And then comes the hard part -- trying to perform in this arena.

"It's definitely a young guy's golf course, and length is a huge advantage," Lewis said. "For me to be successful, I'm going to have to putt exceptionally well. My wedges around the greens will have to be exceptional. I don't have the length to have some of those automatic birdies. I will have to work hard to make any birdies.

"I don't have specific goals. Obviously it would be nice to be the first Mid-Am to make the cut. I just want to try and play to the best of my abilities and have fun. If I can do that, it'll be pretty successful. How many guys at age 54 are going to play in the Masters for the first time?"

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.