New memories are made each year at Augusta National. From the professionals vying for the right to wear the Green Jacket on Sunday to the children experiencing a pimento cheese sandwich for the first time, it’s one of the most special weeks of the entire golf world’s annual calendar.
Becoming the first international champion of The Masters in 1961 was extraordinary. Capturing my third Green Jacket at 42 years of age after a dramatic seven-shot comeback victory on Sunday is debatably the finest moment in my 64-year career as a professional. Even to this day, The Masters brings new and unforgettable experiences and memories.
My final time playing this great tournament in 2009, I set the record for appearances at 52 and it remains at the top to this day. It’s a tribute my longevity in golf which I dedicate to my consistent exercise regimen and healthy diet. I knelt to the ground on the 18th green that day to say thank you to God, my family, my friends, the media, and the fans. But I was not done, and I plan to be at The Masters each year until I am gone from the Earth.
Each year I return to Augusta to participate in the week’s festivities. The Champions Dinner on Tuesday, the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, and the Ceremonial Tee shot on Thursday are events I cherish. It’s an honor to reconnect with old friends. From Chairman Billy Payne to the kind waiters in the clubhouse to the smell of the blooming azaleas, everything about the week is just magical.
During the course I my career, I have sunk 31 hole-in-ones, but as I like to joke, only one was lucky. And my most recent happened last year during the Par 3 Contest. I was playing with my friends Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. The year before, Jack aced No. 3. Of course, I was happy for him, but it made me hungry to hear that famous Augusta roar cheering me.
One never really expects to make a hole-in-one. Well, maybe my wife, who had two in one round! As players, we know where we want the ball to land. But golf is a game of misses, and sometimes you miss in the perfect spot.
To this day, I expect to win the Par 3 Contest. Even at age 81, my short game is sharp and my putting remains strong. From 100 yards in, there aren’t many people who can beat me, regardless of their age or skill level.
I stepped up to the No. 7 green on that perfect April afternoon, and quite honestly, I had been disappointed in my play. Two of my 22 grandchildren were caddying for me, and each year I give a different one a turn. Jack hit first and came within five feet of the hole. Tom hit next and gave himself a good chance for birdie. We were within one stroke of each other so this was an important shot. We still want to beat one another any time we compete. The competitive fire still burns.
My youngest grandson handed me the nine iron, and my ball landed on the green about 20 feet right of the hole. I do not believe anyone was expecting what would happen next.
We briskly walked down the fairway with thousands of people pressing the ropes on each side as my ball continued to roll. The noise grew and grew as the ball caught the slope and slowly trickled down toward the cup. We were already some way down the fairway when the ball dropped. And the roar of Augusta National echoed through the Georgia pines like I had never heard before. Goosebumps covered my body.
It was my 31st hole-in-one, and another lasting memory at The Masters.