AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If Augusta National Golf Club is Disney World for golfers, Berckmans Place is the intersection between The Smithsonian and The Strip.
The history within Berckmans Place -- Augusta's newest attraction -- is humbling. As with Vegas, when the sweet mix of lemonade and grenadine waltz with the smooth buzz of Ketel One vodka, the pink azaleas flow with such ease you forget what day it is, right after you forget your troubles.
Tucked just inside the Gate 9 patron corridor of golf's pearly gates and nestled alongside the fifth fairway, Berckmans Place is hospitality brilliance. Built three years ago, it is open for business just one week a year: Masters week.
I'm told the rumored admission is $6,000. I could not confirm this and have no idea whether that's just for the day or for the week. But I do know the cost covers all food and drink, both of which are spectacular.
I got lucky. My agent had two extra entrance passes for Friday only and asked if I'd like to attend. That's like asking if I want oxygen.
My wife's uncle, Joe Cocozza, is fanatical about golf, more so than anyone I know. He goes with his buddies on golf expeditions -- four days, 72 holes, countless beers and the like. He loves to play the game and consumes it with great passion. He knows the statistics and tendencies of players I've never heard of. I called him and told him I was taking him to the Masters.
After 10 seconds of silence, he finally spoke -- to tell me he was speechless.
Prior to Friday, I had never been to Augusta National Golf Club and had only seen it through the foggy lens of a sports nut's dream. I'm no golf enthusiast, but I have a distinct obsession with sports history and the transcendent traditions that often accompany it.
Initially, I felt guilty about the opportunity. Avid golfers deserve this far more than I do. That guilt lasted about 25 seconds. Joe and I arrived at Augusta at 9 a.m. He had perma-grin. He wasn't alone. We were greeted with verbal welcomes and genuine smiles from every attendant. Patrons were giddy. People are happy here. It is not forced. It felt important.
To me, the Masters is bigger than the game. The event exemplifies sports tradition. And it has nothing to do with the slogan they just emblazoned across the back of a T-shirt for 30 bucks.
In my mind, the Masters always carried a fogginess that amplified the intrigue. You know how when you wake from a dream, the fine detail lives in a striated fog -- even after the most vivid dreams? That's how Augusta looked in my mind: mythical, surreal.
That is not how it looks. It is stunning. Strikingly vibrant. The rough is soft enough for an infant's nap, and it's Ireland green. The bunkers are raked so cleanly and evenly, the striations dragged through the sand look like the parallel wood grains of a 100-year old pine. It is that way everywhere.
There is an old adage I adore: There is beauty in simplicity. Whomever wrote that might well have been inspired by the scene one sees while seated in a little green chair with no arms and a half-back at Amen Corner.
The rock bridge competitors climb to reach the 12th green and the 13th tee, named Hogan Bridge, is like a Norman Rockwell painting. You find yourself lost in time, staring awestruck at how gorgeous fundamental beauty can be.
That's part of the beauty -- the focus.
"Tradition hangs in the air like the pollen that blankets the South. Oddly enough, the only location south of the Mason-Dixon that isn't covered in pollen right now is Augusta National. I swear they must vacuum it up." Marty Smith on his first trip to Augusta National
On the course, the Masters is a welcome step back in time. There are no cell phones, no cameras, no distractions. There is an honor code among patrons and a demand to uphold it. There is just one type of chair allowed on the grounds. It is a green, canvas folding chair with no arms and a short back. It can be placed at its owner's desired location early in the day, and once placed, it will not move until its owner chooses to move it. That is code. It is commandment. Adherence is understood.
The keen respect for the grounds and for one another is nearly extinct in this world of constant faceless, voiceless, emotionless communication. At the Masters, you're actually listening. You're actually watching. You're actually engaged.
Everything you've ever heard about the Masters myth is very real, and the experience is absolutely surreal. Tradition hangs in the air like the pollen that blankets the South. Oddly enough, the only location south of the Mason-Dixon line that isn't covered in pollen right now is Augusta National. I noticed this immediately. All those flowers, and no pollen. I swear they must vacuum it up.
If the world operated more like Augusta, there wouldn't be so much turmoil.
Countless buddies told me Augusta was like Disney World. This is true, to a degree. There is no trash. Trash bags don't reach half-full before they are removed and replaced. Again, respect is your guide. You don't dare drop a gum wrapper. If you do, someone will make sure you know it.
Concessions are befuddling. You've heard about the pimento cheese sandwiches. They lived up to the hype. I'm a nutrition freak, but I ate one. And I ate an egg salad sandwich. And a fried chicken sandwich. And a barbeque sandwich. That ran me a whole $9. Beers are $4. I drank six. At noon, my agent bought a round for four people, plus waters and sandwiches. He spent $31.
Crowd control is impeccable. That's partly due to the aforementioned respect factor and partly due to the premium access. You don't just go buy tickets to this place.
Walking up the 10th fairway, I ran into my boss' boss' boss' boss, John Skipper, ESPN president and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. He was chatting up friends, out for a stroll just like the rest of us.
I saw every famous golfer and every single hole. Joe and I walked the entire course. We stood mere feet from the ninth green and watched Jordan Spieth stick a shot four feet from the cup. Fifteen minutes later, we watched Tiger Woods crouch down gingerly to eye a long uphill putt and just as gingerly stand back up. He is, by far, still the most commanding presence in the game. Every time we were at a hole with him, he received a tremendous ovation. We sat in the 15th green grandstands for a long while, and as Woods walked to the putting surface, the crowd erupted. It made me believe unequivocally that folks want to see him win more major tournaments.
Near the end of the day, Joe and I were walking back to Berckmans Place for some azaleas and air conditioning. We crossed the sixth fairway just after Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy teed off. (One crazy thing about that hole is the golfers tee off down a steep hill and over patrons' heads. If it were me teeing up the ball, those folks would be in grave danger.)
I did see one young lady get hit with a drive. Jimmy Walker was in Woods' group. He accidentally hit a drive too far to the right on No. 10 and blasted the young lady in the chest. She was 10 feet from me. She was a bit startled but undaunted. We all crowded around the ball to watch Walker blister one straight through the trees toward the green.
As we crossed No. 6, a gentleman blocked our progress with a rope. Down the hill strode Phil and Rory, Mickelson with that lumbering gait and McIlroy with a quizzical expression. At that moment, he was 2 over par and wondering if he might miss the cut. Joe told Phil to stay after it and go get 'em, and Phil acknowledged him with a grin and a thank you. It was magic for Joe. You couldn't remove his smile with a pressure-washer.
We got back toward Berckmans Place and were greeted by NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, who, as an Augusta member, was wearing his green jacket. A guy beside me asked him the time -- 3:45 p.m. To our left were scores of folks seated at a beautiful outdoor bar enjoying the perfect weather -- mid-80s, not a cloud -- while others took turns on the exclusive putting green.
Speaking of putting, get this: There is a putting green at Berckmans Place that includes exact replicas of holes seven, 14 and 16 at Augusta National. Precise GPS tracking was used to recreate the exact undulations of every bump and turn. Every hole has its own caddie to assist patrons in making their putts. I failed at all three. There is a velvet rope that creates a waiting line to choose your putter. Attendants are on hand to help you choose the proper fit.
Oh, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice greets you at the front of the line for a handshake and a brief conversation. We chatted college football. She served on the playoff selection committee this past season, and my agent had on a University of Michigan polo, while Joe wore his West Virginia University colors. She was very kind and gracious.
Inside Berckmans, there are four restaurants: Augusta's Seafood, MacKenzie's Pub, Calamity Jane's and Ike's Southern Experience. Ike's had quite a menu, with southern dishes such as applewood-smoked bacon, country sausage, shrimp 'n' grits, fried oysters, southern fried chicken and barbecue po' boys. There is a business center (just in case) and bathrooms so clean they would garner a 100-point restaurant grade from the FDA.
In the foyer at the center of all four restaurants is a large leaderboard. Three young men spend hour-long shifts updating the scores. They see famous people all the time. I asked one of them whom he'd seen over the past couple years: Chipper Jones, Bo Jackson, Lindsey Vonn. Not bad.
Joe and I hung out at MacKenzie's. He drank Smithwick's beers, and I drank azaleas. Azaleas are a liquid delicacy. Lemonade, grenadine and Ketel One. The key is ratios. My buddy went to the Masters last year and has tried tirelessly to recreate the magic. He has failed.
Inside MacKenzie's, no sooner do you take the final sip and your glass is gone than another round is on the way. It is a model of efficiency. There are no hats while seated. The sweep-up crew is stealthy. If a crumb hits the floor, it's here-and-gone, immediately. Half the time, it looked like the crew was sweeping air.
I left Joe to his beers and the broadcast and walked out toward the Berckmans entrance. There is a glass case that holds four replica trophies from Bobby Jones' 1930 Grand Slam. There is a glass-frame casing that holds President Dwight D. Eisenhower's green jacket, golf bag and other personal items.
President Eisenhower was a member at Augusta National from 1948 to 1969. His bag was red with blue piping and yellow cursive lettering. His driver head cover was inside, white with a green No. 1. There was also a letter he sent from the White House to Augusta National chairman Cliff Roberts detailing a story his friend George Humphrey told him at a dinner about the excellence of Augusta.
Recalling Humphrey's story, President Eisenhower wrote: "The informality of the occasion, the free exchange of views among good fellows, with no pressures or exhortations marring the quality of a pleasant conversation, left an indelible imprint."
That sentence applies to this very day.
In the hallway hangs a poster from the First Annual Invitation Tournament held here in 1934. There is also a blown-up rendering of the Augusta Chronicle front page from July 15, 1931, which proclaims "Bobby Jones to build his ideal golf course on Berckmans Place." Among the other lead stories that day was a tale of a man who perished after he swallowed his false teeth.
According to a glass-encased explanation across the hall from the Eisenhower exhibit, the Berckmans were visionary horticulturists and promoters of the Georgia peach culture. The document reads:
Descendants of Belgian nobility, the Berckmans purchased Dennis Redmond's manor house and plantation in 1857. Baron Lewis Berckman's son, Prosper Jules, planted the seeds for Magnolia Lane and later founded the Georgia State Horticultural Society. He is credited with introducing the Georgia Peach to the north and ornamentals like the azalea to the south.
Reading that made me marvel further about the vision. The exclusivity and demand for authenticity from Augusta's very conception are fascinating. The fact that Augusta has staunchly upheld the traditions is so very impressive.
Before we departed, Joe wanted to walk the holes we had not yet seen. The grounds crews were already out, walking shoulder-to-shoulder like a search party looking for divots. With each find, they would lean down with a cupful of green powder and fill in the hole. They probably wondered why we were there, walking, all alone. Many of them said hello to us with a smile. As we walked, the breeze picked up quite a bit. It was 6:30 p.m. Suddenly, real-time real life had that late-afternoon, six-beers fogginess about it.
It looked like the dream.
As the evening sun eased west toward dusk and the clean breeze rushed through the tops of these trees, the magic of the myth pierced me. Directly between the first and ninth fairways is a 200-or-so-yard strip of pine needles garnishing a row of thick Georgia pines that reach toward the heavens. These trees have seen some things.
It was quiet. From over the hill, there was a roar of applause in the distance.
I shivered a bit; cold chills in 70-degree weather.
It felt spiritual, like there was no one there but Joe, me and the ghosts.