An invitation to the Masters is a cherished memento, physically and practically, for all who receive it, usually around the first of the year. While in almost every case it is expected and a formality, it still signifies something special: the opportunity to compete in one of golf's most revered tournaments.
But there is another perk that comes with it, one that gets far less attention but is quite welcomed by those who are able to take advantage: the ability to play Augusta National, basically, whenever the club is open.
Tiger Woods visited the club on Saturday, the first time he had returned to the hallowed ground since his 2019 Masters victory, which saw him win the green jacket for the fifth time and garner a 15th major championship.
A smattering of other players have gone to the club since its reopening on Oct. 12 in advance of next week's first-ever fall Masters, but the numbers are far less than normal, another byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic. The club closed in March, before the scheduled date of the Masters in April, and the short window before the Masters made it difficult for many players to get there.
Still, it is an opportunity that those with the chance to experience it say they relish.
"It's such a surreal place," said Patrick Reed, who won the 2018 Masters. "When there's no stands, no people, and the sun is setting over those trees, you just kind of get the golden views going through the entire property and being able to see all the way through it.
"It's an unbelievable sight and something you never get to see. I think that's something that this year is going to be special about it. You're going to have all these views that you normally don't have. You'll be able to see all the holes. All the green grass through the trees. It's going to amazing."
Masters champions are deemed honorary members and can set up a visit and play the course whenever it is open to regular play. The player must take an Augusta caddie, although his own caddie is allowed to attend and watch. Masters champions have some leeway with bringing guests as well.
Those who are eligible for the tournament can also show up to play rounds at Augusta National, but if they want to bring a guest, they need to be hosted by a club member. This is typically not a problem.
"I've done an overnight trip probably five times," said Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion who tied for fifth at the Masters last year. "I just love everything about it. I love going to dinner; you have to put on a coat and tie. Good wine. Playing the Par-3 [course]. I love being there, whether it's serious or laid-back. Any trip there is great."
Simpson, who lives in Charlotte and is a member of the Quail Hollow Club there, said he knows several Augusta National members who are also members at his course. He's also gotten to know Jeff Knox, an Augusta National member who has gained a bit of renown for being the club's best player.
Hosting a player means the member plays in the group and might join the player for other activities, such as dinner or playing the adjacent Par-3 Course. The trip includes staying in one of the numerous cabins on site.
"The member takes care of all of it," Simpson said. "The only awkward thing is when they don't let me pay. I always try to say on the front end I'm going to take care of everything. Your food, everything. They don't usually let me do that, but they might let me take care of the caddies. I feel better that way. That way I can ask them again."
Simpson couldn't recite exact numbers, but guessed staying in one of the cabins cost "a little bit more" than a typical hotel room. Throw in the guest fees, caddie fees, dinners, etc., and he estimated a two-day trip to be around $2,000.
"It's special," Simpson said. "I feel like walking around Augusta, the little kid in me comes out that always admired the Masters. You've got the Masters on every TV. And I stay up late and watch it. Two places I felt something special on the grounds are St. Andrews and Augusta. It's not some mystical feeling. But you know that history was made there. You know who's played there. And not much has changed there over the years. The clubhouse is still where it is. They make subtle changes so much, but we don't' know that anything's been changed."
Simpson said one of the neat aspects of the privilege is being able to bring others who might not otherwise get the experience. His longtime caddie, Paul Tesori, accompanied him on one of the trips.
Tesori, a professional golfer who attempted to play the tour at one time, beat Simpson.
"He beat me straight up," Simpson said. "Took it to me. Birdied 18."
As you can imagine, Tesori has fond memories.
"He took me for my birthday in 2015," said Tesori, who said they were there for two days in February, playing the Par-3 and the main course the first day before playing another 18 the second day. "He walloped me the first day 69-79. Those back tees are brutal.
"It was an incredible time. We stayed on site. [On the second day,] I shot 74 to his 75. It was in the 40s and windy. I birdied 13, 14 and 15 and was 1 up on 18. He didn't know where we stood, but I told him.
"We both hit good drives. The pin was back right. I hit a 4-iron on the top tier about 20 feet pin high and left. He hit a 5-iron to a foot. I had to make to beat him and poured it right in. I think he was more excited than me."
Stories like that are what make the experience so special.
"Everybody that goes there [has that feeling]," said Phil Mickelson, who said he typically has a friendly outing at least once a year. "From my dad and brother [Tim, now his caddie] to [agent] Steve Loy and my attorney, Glenn Cohen. It's really a special thing. If you love golf the way we do, playing Augusta National and being on the grounds is a very spiritual experience.
"It's like being on the grounds of St. Andrews. You can't help but feel there is something different. You can't help but feel the history of the Masters. Bobby Jones, [President Dwight] Eisenhower [who was a member and has a cabin named for him on the grounds]. You just feel the history that has occurred there. If you love golf, it's just a spiritual experience."
And sometimes some business takes place. Mickelson said that his "Coffee for Wellness" venture, which he's been promoting for more than a year, took root at Augusta National in the spring of 2019 when he visited the club.
Mickelson's partner, Dave Phillips, was on the trip and they ended up playing golf with Augusta member Scott Ford, who runs a large company that helps distribute ... coffee. One thing led to another, and this past summer Mickelson filed for a trademark.
"It's just a cool little random tidbit that started out there," Mickelson said.
Many use the opportunity simply as a scouting mission. Amateur John Augenstein, who finished runner-up at the 2019 U.S. Amateur, was on the grounds in March when he learned that not only was the rest of his college season canceled at Vanderbilt but the Masters was being postponed.
The perks are especially useful for amateurs who qualify for the Masters. Not only are they getting a remarkable opportunity to play in the tournament but they are afforded the same privileges as far as pre-Masters-week practice visits.
After winning the 2015 U.S. Amateur -- which meant he qualified for the 2016 Masters -- Bryson DeChambeau went to Augusta more than 10 times before Masters week. It seems the club has put a limit on those visits now, as Matt Parziale -- who qualified for the 2018 Masters thanks to his 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur victory -- was told his visits outside of Masters week would be limited to five.
For many, one such trip down Magnolia Lane would be plenty.
And for the established players, the beauty seems to be more about having the experience than about gaining experience.
"My favorite times at Augusta have been not the Masters," Rory McIlroy said. "My favorite times is we've taken a couple of father-son trips (with his dad, Gerry), which has just been awesome. It's the greatest -- I think for a golfer, the greatest experience in golf is being invited to Augusta by a member, staying in one of the cabins, doing the dinners at night, going down to the wine cellar, picking your bottle of wine, all that sort of stuff. Those are the cool things about Augusta that a lot of people don't see.
"Those experiences at Augusta when you're there and there's nothing on the line apart from just having a good time, they're the best times."