Even for some of college football’s biggest names, used to the glare and adrenaline rush of Fall Saturdays, the chance to play Augusta National Golf Club is nothing short of nirvana.
And they’ve seen everything from hole-in-one to calls from US presidents to betting on Super Bowl quarterbacks, epic breakdowns on the final two holes, and encounters with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
On Saturday, two of the greatest sports traditions will be coordinated in Augusta when the ESPN College GameDay built by Home Depot is broadcast live from the Masters.
A handful of college football coaches, including some icons from past and present, shared their stories about playing the world’s most famous golf course.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, who has won six national championships, has long preached the importance of finishing games. But even Saban shudders at his goal five years ago at his only chance to break at Augusta National 80.
Saban, who played the famous course almost every year in Alabama, had just parried number 16 when his caddy looked at him and said, “If you build a bogey and a bogey on the next two holes, you’ll break 80 . “
The dreaded curse was on. Saban double-bogeyed 17 and then double-bogeyed 18 and finished with an 81.
“I wanted to kill him,” joked Saban. “… He was a good caddy though. I would never have been in the position I was in if it hadn’t been for him.”
Saban doesn’t necessarily have a favorite hole at Augusta National, but he does have eagle number 8 once.
“I couldn’t even see the green on my second shot and asked the guys I was playing with: ‘Where do I even hit that?'” Saban said. “They say, ‘See the jaw sticking out, just hit it.’ So I hit a 3-wood or so and it ended about 2 feet from the hole. It had to be close because I probably wouldn’t have made the putt. But no gimmicks if you bet for Adler. Not on Augusta anyway. “
One of Saban’s most memorable experiences at Augusta National is now a bittersweet one. Saban met the late Arnold Palmer when he was playing there a few years ago.
“It was early in the morning and he was on the first tee,” recalled Saban. “We got the chance to talk for a few minutes. He was amazing just to meet him.”
A few months later, The King reached out to Saban and invited Saban to play with him at Palmers Bay Hill outside of Orlando.
“I couldn’t do it because of my schedule, and it’s probably one of the biggest regrets of my life,” Saban said quietly.
Palmer, one of the most revered figures in golf, passed away in 2016.
The only time Saban took part in the Masters was in 2002 when he was training at LSU and taking his son Nicholas with him. They visited former LSU golfer David Toms, who had won the PGA championship the year before. Toms was honored on the pitch before an LSU game in autumn and stood on the sidelines with the team.
“David said he was more excited to run out of the Tiger Stadium tunnel than to win the PGA,” said Saban. “We wanted to watch him and I remember that Augusta’s beauty impressed me. It’s almost like traveling back in time.”
When Mack Brown was training in Texas, a good friend promised to play him and NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning against Augusta National with a restriction.
Brown had to win a national championship or one of the Manning brothers had to win a Super Bowl title before they could leave.
In 2005, Brown ended the Longhorns’ 35-year drought with no national title by leading them to a 41:38 surprise from two-time defending champions USC at the Rose Bowl.
That spring, Brown and the Manning brothers got their chance to play at the Augusta National Golf Club.
The next season, Peyton Manning won his first NFL title, leading the Indianapolis Colts to a 29-17 win over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.
In 2007, Eli Manning led the New York Giants to a 17:14 surprise for the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Brown and the Mannings were invited to play Augusta National for three years in a row. (Peyton Manning is now a member of Augusta National.)
“It’s incredible,” said Brown, who now trains in North Carolina. “I mean, it was just one of those things we laughed about every year. Are you kidding me? And then of course after the third one, [the member] said, ‘OK, now we can start all over again.’ “
Brown said he has never competed in the Masters as a patron but watches the tournament on television every year. His mother and younger brother have participated in practice sessions in the past.
“I think when people talk about Yankee Stadium, Augusta National is the same,” Brown said. “They speak of the most iconic places in the world. When I first played and came to the first tee, I had the shocks just because I was in Augusta. We saw so many wonderful moments and the best golfers the world is competing there . It’s just an honor to be able to play there. “
Much like the way he remembers almost every game call, relegation and distance, and end result of his playing and coaching days, Steve Spurrier remembers most of the shots he has hit at Augusta National.
Especially the good ones.
“I first played there when I was at Georgia Tech with Pepper Rodgers in 1979. Shot 78 that day,” said Spurrier. “That was when I was playing decently.”
Spurrier, who is known to occasionally increase the score, said he was given the chance to play Augusta once for failing to get the score. While training in Florida, Spurriers defeated Gators Arkansas 34-3 in the 1995 SEC championship game. Spurrier said Frank Broyles, then Arkansas’ director of sporting activities and the legendary former coach of the Hogs, called afterwards and invited Spurrier to play. Broyles, who died in 2017 at the age of 92, was a member of Augusta.
“We got ahead and had them at half time around 28: 3 … and then we went 34: 3 and they just ran out of time. We just ran out of time with them,” said Spurrier. “So Coach Broyles said, ‘Steve, because I’m being nice to us and I’m not trying to increase the score, I want to invite you to Augusta and you can bring two of your friends with you.’ I said, “Well, thanks, coach, we’ll do that.”
They played the following spring and had enough time to play nine more holes after playing 6pm in the morning.
“Let me tell you, Coach Broyles shot 35 [for nine holes] and said, ‘I should maybe finish. I can shoot at my age today, “Spurrier recalled.” But we all had to take a plane later that afternoon, so we took off. “
Spurrier carded two rounds under 80 in Augusta but is also proud of the 81 he shot towards the end of his coaching stint in South Carolina when he was 70.
“Yeah, had nine pars and nine bogeys,” said Spurrier, who played Augusta every year in South Carolina as a guest to the late Hootie Johnson, who played football for the Gamecocks and was the former chairman of Augusta National.
Spurrier isn’t sure if he has a favorite hole in Augusta.
“I’m trying to find out which one was the last bird I spotted,” he quipped.
And you can’t talk about Augusta without the 2008 Head Ball Coach finishing his hole-in-one game, albeit an ace with a caveat.
“When I tell people that I did a hole-in-one, they say, ‘Really?’ and I say, “Yes, hole number 7” and they say, “Wait a minute, this is a par-4” and I say, “Not on the par-3 course,” Spurrier twittered.
Urban Meyer received two memorable calls after leading Florida to its second national championship with the Gators in 2008.
One came from soon-to-be President Barack Obama and the other from Fred Ridley, who played golf in Florida and later became chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club.
“It was really cool to get a call from President Obama and then I got an amazing call from Fred Ridley who said, ‘I’m going to take you to Augusta,'” Meyer recalled. “I tell people those were two great calls and I’m not going to say which one I enjoyed the most.”
Meyer, who calls Augusta National “one of my favorite places on the planet”, has played the legendary course four times in his life, the first time in spring 2002 when he was the head coach at Bowling Green. Meyer was invited by Lou Holtz, a member of Augusta National and Meyer’s boss, when Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame.
“It was two weeks before the tournament and Jim Nantz is driving his golf cart,” said Meyer. “I tell people this story, but you can’t paint a better picture.”
Meyer’s best score at Augusta is an 80, and he remembers dropping his tee shot about 2 feet from hole on the 12th par-3 hole to get a birdie. He can’t say the same thing about the closing hole.
“The [18th] Hole always knocked me down, “said Meyer, who won two national championships in Florida and a third national title in Ohio.” It’s a hard hole. The ride and then the second shot … you’re about 200 yards away. I love the hole but it wasn’t good for me. “
Meyer and his son Nate have a tradition of following the championship Sunday round together. This tradition was passed on from Meyer’s youth when he and his late father Bud did the same thing.
“When Nate was growing up, that was one of our rules,” said Meyer. “No matter where we were, we had to watch the Masters Sunday together. The first time I drove up Magnolia Lane I was a little congested and thought of all those Sundays together while my father watched the Masters.
“If someone says you still have a place, I could say Augusta.”
Bob bends down
Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is fortunate enough to have played Augusta National more times than he can count, but nothing goes out of his head the first time he walks through the iconic azaleas and dogwoods.
It was around 2005 or 2006, Stoops said, and he remembers just leaving the second hole like he’d just won a national championship.
“I hit my third shot on the par-5 down the hill and hit it in the right bunker,” said Stoops. “So I get my sand wedge out and I have a smooth sand shot and it rolls dead in the hole for a birdie.
“I looked at my caddy, smiled and said, ‘Of course it’s not that difficult.'”
Stoops was obviously joking and would soon be witnessing the real teeth of the place – its greens. He said his best result on Augusta was 84 and it was impossible to get any sense of the severity of the greens until you’ve played the course.
“If you’re uphill against the grain you can’t hit him hard enough, and if you’re downhill and with the grain it’s impossible to stop him,” Stoops said. “Tee to Green, it’s very manageable, but if you’re not on the correct third of the green you might as well be 100 yards away. The key is listening to the caddies. These guys are amazing. If you’re ‘if you’re them just listening, you start to find out. “
Stoops played the course with everyone from his brother Mike to Oklahoma Sports Director Joe Castiglione to country superstar Toby Keith. And during a two-day stay in Augusta, which included a round on the par-3 course, Stoops and an Oklahoma contingent competed against Gary Patterson and a TCU contingent for several years in a row.
“Every time you go it gets better. There’s no place like it,” Stoops said, adding that his favorite Augusta memory remains the time he met Arnold Palmer.
Stooping saw Palmer playing on an adjacent fairway. Later, while he was eating lunch, Palmer came to Stoops’ table.
“Everyone in our group got up and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Palmer,'” Stoops recalled. “He looked at me and said I looked familiar and I introduced myself and told him I was the head coach in Oklahoma. He couldn’t have been nicer. What a thrill.”
It’s a round of golf that Stanford coach David Shaw will always appreciate.
Admittedly not a great golfer, Shaw got to play Augusta National with father Willie, younger brother Eric, and Stanford graduate and Augusta member Tom Nelson in 2014. At the time, Eric was being treated for a rare, aggressive skin cancer, and four years later David needed a miraculous bone marrow transplant to save his brother’s life.
“We didn’t even score points. It was my father’s idea,” Shaw said. “My father is the family golfer. He plays against people my age and takes money from them all the time. But that day he said, ‘Here we are in Augusta. I play with my two sons. Let’s enjoy that easy. ‘
“We will have this memory forever.”
Shaw jokes that one memory he could pass up was his tee shot to # 1.
“Everyone’s talking about first tea and how intimidating it is,” Shaw recalled. “So here I am and I’m not a golfer and I think, ‘You can’t intimidate me. I don’t even play, so whatever.'”
Eric was the first to tee off and didn’t quite get the shot he wanted and warned his brother, “Man, you’re getting scared.”
Shaw, still intrepid, turned it up and, in his words, hit the nastiest piece you have ever seen.
“I mean, just awful, and then my dad is up there and, bam, right in the middle and he just goes off,” Shaw said with a laugh. “So yeah, the first tee is real because you’re playing on holy ground. He got me.”
One of the things about Shaw’s circle that he’s most proud of: He’s only taken out one real divot.
“It was a stretch and I thought the Divot Police would come out of the trees and escort me off the premises,” Shaw joked.
Shaw’s second favorite memory of the day was meeting Jack Nicklaus over dinner.
“It was almost like you were in his house and he felt like he had to welcome you,” Shaw said. “It was the coolest thing. We sit and talk to Jack Nicklaus at Augusta National about college football.”
Shaw is quick to note that he failed to call Stanford’s classmate and five-time Masters winner Tiger Woods to give him a report on his round. They had a Portuguese class together when they were at Stanford school and kept in touch.
“I’m embarrassed to play my golf game near Tiger Woods,” joked Shaw, who was once allowed to wear one of Woods’ green jackets.
Woods spoke to the Stanford team before the UCF game in Orlando last year and brought one of his green jackets with him.
“He put it on me, so I wore the green jacket for about 45 seconds,” Shaw said. “That was surreal.”
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp grew up in Rome, Georgia, and his grandfather and father attended Masters almost every year as children.
When an Auburn booster invited Muschamp to play Augusta National with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in 2015, Muschamp, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator at the time, could not refuse the invitation – even if he is not a great golfer.
“I knew the other guys were good players,” said Muschamp. “I got two hours so I wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
The final result? Muschamp avoided three-digit numbers on the famous route and shot a 98 with bogies on the last three holes.
“I was very nervous on the first hole,” said Muschamp. “But I drove really well. It was a very memorable moment on this first tee box.”
The night before his round, Muschamp stayed in one of the booths on the property and watched the highlights of past Masters tournaments on television.
“I stayed up all night watching the Masters. I thought about it when I was sitting on the porch with my father and brother on Sundays,” he said. “It brought back so many memories of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sporting events in the world.”
Muschamp has taken part in the Masters several times. The first time was in 1996, when Greg Norman scored a six-shot lead over Nick Faldo in the finals. Muschamp still remembers the collective panting from the gallery when Norman’s tee rolled onto No. 12 in Raes Creek, giving Faldo a two-shot lead.
“It was pretty amazing how the crowd made this sound together,” said Muschamp. “I will never forget that.”
Former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, an avid golfer, estimates he has played between 15 and 20 times at the Augusta National Golf Club.
“I think I had good friends,” said Beamer.
Beamer’s low lap at Augusta National is 89. One of his most memorable laps there was watching his son Shane, now the assistant head coach for offensive and tight-end coaches in Oklahoma, even shoot par on the legendary course.
Well, something like that.
Beamer and his son had been invited to play the course one spring day, and there was a bad weather forecast for that afternoon.
So the member suggested that they start on the par 4 hole 10, go back to 18, and then go to the clubhouse for lunch when the bad weather hits.
Shane Beamer made four on the 10th and then the sky opened.
You never got back on track that day.
“My parents like to tell everyone that I even shot par at Augusta,” said Shane Beamer.
Not having finished the round, the member invited Shane Beamer and then Alabama Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart to play again next spring. They started in first place. Beamer couldn’t control his nerves and cut his tee shot badly into the ninth fairway. Beamer then threw his second shot before hitting his third over the trees and onto the green. He did a 30-foot-foot to save par.
He was still in Augusta National – more than a year later.