Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licóur Of which vertú engendred is the flour…
Thus begins English literature as we know it, with lines quilled by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1390s. The above translates (very) roughly to “April showers bring May flowers,” and they kick off the second greatest April pilgrimage story ever told.
The Canterbury Tales follows a pack of holy folks headed for the tomb of Thomas Beckett where they hope to cash in miles for miracles. They get chummy along the way and trade stories to pass the time, and while high schoolers have long decried the text as obsolete, I can’t help but feel as if I lived it today, and yesterday, and the day before—in the media center and in the merch line, in the grandstands and the parking lot and even in the restrooms, where Masters joy melts us into cronies with stories to share. Come to Augusta and hear introverts bend your ear about their cousin from Charlotte who scored tickets but then had a baby so they got the tickets while their cousin got a hat. The words read differently, but Chaucer’s tales are all over this place where the crowds have traveled far to come walk where the miracles happen.
My April pilgrimage was joined by a chef and an accountant and a guitar player and a cop, met at restaurants and in a drugstore and along yellow fairway ropes that can feel like a long bar top, crowded elbow-to-elbow with raconteurs. Three allowed me to record their remembrances of Masters past and present—a retired banker named Penn, a grandfather named Robert, and a teacher named Paul. We don’t know if Chaucer’s travelers found the health or riches or revenge for which they were praying, but these pilgrims seem to have acquired far more than a cardboard ticket should provide. —Tom Coyne, Friday, April 7, 2023
Robert 64 Masters attended
I went to my first Masters in 1958 with my father. I don’t know how he got them, but we had badges. I was a 19, 20-year-old kid, but at that time you could just show up. Out on Washington Road there was a shopping strip center atmosphere, but once you got inside the gates, you were in heaven. It just took your breath away.
You parked your car on these temporary crushed rock parking areas right on the property of Augusta National. I remember seeing the first tee and this big wide open area there where I was told the members hit their practice shots. The practice tee for the tournament was on the right as you came toward the clubhouse, and once the round started and everybody was on the course, they’d park cars there. The course you see now has been expanded so much, but back then it was a smaller club that felt very compact. What hasn’t changed is the members who have always been so gracious and exuded hospitality. They really wanted to make sure you were having a good day.
Penn 58 Masters attended
My first Masters was in 1961. I was 12 years old and we were there for every round. I was the biggest Arnold Palmer fan in history—still am probably—and I was standing right there when he hit his second shot into the bunker on 18, about the same place where Gary Player had just got it up and down to make four. Palmer had a one-shot lead and he hit his bunker shot over the green, chipped up, two-putted, and lost to Gary by one. It was the first time a non-US player won the Masters. I cried all the way home to Valdosta that night.
In those days, you walked up to a ticket booth that may have had a hundred people standing in line and you paid $5 to get a cardboard badge that got you in on Thursday and Friday. Then on Saturday and Sunday it was $7.50. I still have the Sunday badge from that year. I tried to get Arnie to sign it over the years, but I couldn’t get close enough to him. I ran into Player in a practice round probably 10, 15 years ago. I said, “Mr. Player, would you mind signing this?” He said, “Ah, 1961. That was a very good year.”
Paul 1 Masters attended
I’ve put in for the ticket lottery every year since I can possibly remember and accepted that going to the Masters someday would take some stroke of crazy luck. Then a friend told me he might possibly have access to tickets for us this year. It was presented as a sure thing, but I really tried not to get my hopes up. If I got the tickets, of course I would bring my dad, but I didn’t want to get his hopes up so I kept the secret to myself. We’ve been on some great golf trips over the years, but we’d really never talked about going to the Masters.
Once it was all confirmed, I announced it to the family on Christmas: “Dad, we got Masters tickets—Merry Christmas.” I think everyone thought I was joking. There was a lot of excitement and hugs. it was very cool.
The members had some challenges over the years. When we were there in college in the early 1960s, a person I knew took a dive into the pond on number 16. During play on Saturday, I believe. It was a certified swan dive into the pond because it was on the front page of the Augusta newspaper the next day. Not only did he swim across the lake, but he got out and ran around the lake with the Pinkertons chasing him, and jumped back in because one of his friends started throwing dollar bills onto the pond. They caught him and turned him over to the Augusta police, and off he went down Broad Street.
One of the things you have to visualize is that in the early 1960s, if you stood behind the 16th green and looked across the pond, there was no grandstand over there. Now there’s a grandstand there right where you tee off, but there used to be a large bank with azaleas and people, and that’s where the crowds gathered to watch. To be honest with you, most of us at that age, we were down there because that’s where all the girls in sundresses were. That was the great part of early spring in the South. Springtime was when you went to Augusta and all the co-eds would be there.
I remember one year before they built the new fancy bathrooms on the course, they used to have cinder block buildings with aluminum troughs. It wasn’t a separate urinal. And one year I was there as a young man, probably 15 at the time, and I heard this rustling going on and this excitement. Palmer came in and took a leak right next to me. I have to admit—I was afraid to look over [laughs]. Literally, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to Arnold Palmer.
I spent months reading up on everything about going to the Masters. Where to stand, who to follow, best way to get there. My parents were spending the winter in Florida, so the timing worked out that I could meet my dad in Naples and drive up with him on their way back home. We started the drive up from Naples on Monday and headed for Savannah, which seemed like a good stopping point. It looked like it was 2½ hours from Augusta, so we had to decide when we were going to leave to give us enough time. We were thinking 6 a.m., then 5. Then I said we have to leave at 4:30, and it was the easiest 4 a.m. wake-up call I’ve ever had.
The whole drive I’m studying Google Maps and watching the traffic, and it’s starting to back up, and I’m starting to panic…we only calmed down when we got into the parking lot with plenty of time. We turned off our phones and put them in the glove compartment, which felt like a powerful moment. Then we headed for the gates.
We had no idea where we were going, but everyone was so happy all around us. It was early in the morning but everyone was fired up. Everyone working the entrance said, “Welcome to the Masters. Have a great day,” with big smiles on their faces. It solidified what people tell you: being here is better than you can imagine.
The Masters really brought our friends together. When I was in college, we’d drive down the old Route 1 to Augusta—there were no interstates. That was an adventure in itself. And then Sunday night we’d have to drive all the way back home. We would either stay with friends whose parents lived in Augusta, or we’d bring sleeping bags and look for housing developments that were under construction and we’d go sleep in an unfinished house. We’d wake up at dawn and brush our teeth somewhere, and then move along to the tournament.
I came down with people who loved golf, so we’d stay for the green jacket ceremony. Back then they did it out between the first tee and the putting greens, and anybody could just walk right up. My sons have a picture of me at the ceremony standing between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. There’s Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts and Jack and Arnie and there I am, sticking my head right in the middle of it.
Before Augusta built the new patron parking lots, there were houses there, and I used to park in the yard of a guy named Jimmy Spears. He was a professional sign painter and he called the place Amen Corner Parking. I would park there for the entire week. After parking there for a few years, I showed up one April and Jimmy said, “Hey Penn, I’m trying something different this week. If you want a spot for the entire week, you can pay me now and I’ll hold your spot for you for the next six days,” which I did. I bought four spots because we had clients that were coming over, and when I got back that first day, Jimmy had painted these very professional signs: RESERVED FOR PENN WELLS. Of course my friends would see it and they’d stick business cards in my window with a note asking who the hell I thought I was. I still have one of the signs.
The community involvement was part of the charm of the Masters in those days. It’s still involved, but in a different way now. Jimmy would set up a big tent out by the cars and he rigged some extension cords, and I always arrived with a few cases of beer for Jimmy to put in his cooler. Every year we’d sit along 16 green, and as soon as the last group came through, we would scurry up the hill and go out the back gate behind the fifth hole to get over to Jimmy’s and watch the final two holes there under his tent. I did that with Jimmy for 20 years.
At the end, Jimmy came down with cancer. By that point we were close with their family and his wife Marlene called me one day and said, “Are you going to be anywhere around Augusta in the next few weeks?” It turned out that I was, and she said, “If you have time, Jimmy would love to talk to you. He can’t get out of bed, but if you have time, I’d love it if you could come by.” I said, “I’ll be there.”
My wife Sally and I got in the car and we went to their home and I sat with Jimmy for about an hour and we told all the stories of the stuff that went on in that parking lot. Twenty years of stuff. He passed away about two weeks later. Just the greatest guy.
Our original plan was to do the merchandise first. But I saw that line and called an audible—we shot over to Magnolia Lane and got our picture taken by the photographer stationed in front of the clubhouse, which I’m glad we did because that’s a picture that will mean a lot to both of us.
We went to concessions and got some breakfast, and we were eating by the scoreboard when I dropped a piece of my biscuit. I turned around and one of the Augusta staff had already picked it up and put it in the trash. When you say you’re going to the Masters, most people tell you about the changes in elevation and how you can’t appreciate it until you’re there. I thought maybe that was overdone until we got there and was like, “Whoa, they’re right. This is the real deal.”
My dad and I got so excited that virtually all the studying we did to get ready went out the door. We just started walking. We walked down the hill toward the second hole and watched a couple of players come through, then all of a sudden a big crowd started forming and we realized Tiger and Fred Couples and Justin Thomas were coming. We started skipping two holes ahead and getting in good positions for Tiger, which is something we won’t forget.
On the big scoreboard by 18, there used to be a spot on the right side that said MESSAGES. That’s how you got messages in case your wife had a baby or something like that. In 1968 I saw my name was posted there with a phone number for me to call. I found a phone and made the call, and it was the department of the Navy telling me that my orders had been cut for Vietnam. That’s why I missed that one Masters in 1969.
The biggest thing about going to the Masters, now or back then, is that respect for the course and the game is instilled in the people. It’s the best crowd you’ll ever be among in your life. You come to wish that the world was full of patrons from Augusta National as you go to shopping centers or office buildings.
For the last several years, we’ve rented a house and all our children and grandchildren come and have a week together. Having all your family in one place is one of late life’s blessings so we love doing it. I’ve been restricted to one day only because I can’t walk as far and fast as I used to, but I still love being here. Last year I almost got pneumonia sitting on No. 16, on the coldest, wettest day I’ve ever experienced. But being on the course with your sons and friends—there’s nothing like it. I always look forward to my egg salad sandwich and Diet Coke.
I was on the very first badge list. It was shortly after 1961 when they started doing it. I went to the Masters from 1961, every single year, until 2009 when my mother was ill and I didn’t go, and then went every year after that until the last three.
When I graduated from college, which was in the fall of 1971, I went off to work in Atlanta. My badge form came to my mom’s house in Valdosta. She saw it and she said, “He’s working now, he doesn’t have time to go fool around with some golf tournament.” So she threw it in the trash.
I came off the list but it really wasn’t a huge issue. Those of us who knew our way around could get a badge for one or two days. But the story became pretty well known with my colleagues at work. We used to do some entertaining at the Masters, and my 50th birthday happened to fall on Friday of the tournament. So we’re there at the course when the woman I worked for, whose father was close to Jack Stevens who was chairman of the Augusta National in those days, says, “For your birthday, Penn, I’ve got 15 minutes for you with Jack in his office.”
It was incredibly kind of her, but now I’ve got to figure out something to say to the Augusta chairman. On the walk over I looked at her and I said, “What are we going to talk to Jack about?” She said, “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell him the story about your mom throwing the badge list and the order form into the trash?”
I stopped walking. I looked at her and I said, “If you bring that up in front of Jack Stevens, I’ll never speak to you again.”
We got up to the tournament headquarters and we were ushered into Jack’s office. Hootie [Johnson, who would succeed Stevens as chairman] was in there. We get through the introductions, and then there’s this moment of silence and she says, “Penn, why don’t you tell Jack and Hootie about your mom and the order form?”
I could have died. Now I have no choice but to tell the story and I know they’re thinking I’m trying to weasel my way back onto the list. I tell the story, and there’s another moment of silence. Hootie looks over at Jack and says, “I don’t know, Jack. I think we ought to double the size of the concession stand down on Amen Corner next year. What do you think?” In other words: Son, we’ve heard every story in the book. You’ve got to do better than that.
We sat at the green at No. 9 and watched a lot of folks come through. The area was full of chairs but it didn’t seem like a lot of people were using them. I know it’s different on tournament days, but for this day we used those really nice seats and watched groups come through and had some drinks and sandwiches and it was just perfect.
It started getting hotter so it seemed like a good time to go to the golf shop. The line wasn’t too bad by that point but the shopping was sort of stressful with so many things you could buy and trying to remember what you were supposed to get for friends and family. I’m not even sure what we ended up with—it was intense! Then we headed back out to the car and took a deep breath, and on the drive to the house we talked like we knew more about Augusta than anyone alive, because of course now we were experts.
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