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Once-in-a-lifetime experience

It’s a bit of a surreal experience, being here in Augusta for the first time, having watched the Masters on television since I was a little tyke barely able to hit the golf ball out of my own shadow.

But I’m here now and very fortunate to be a guest of George Coetzee, who is one of the eight South Africans (along with Els, Grace, Sterne, Immelman, Schwartzel, Oosthuizen and Clark) in the field, and playing the Masters for the first time.

The trip from South Africa was quite something, starting at 17:55 on Sunday evening, and ending when I walked through the door around the same time the following day, US time. Having said that, it’s a fairly straightforward trip – a flight to Atlanta, where I then hired a car and took a two-and-half-hour drive along the highway to Augusta. It was great, and I managed to find some boot-slapping radio station to jam along to!

George is staying in a house in Augusta with his family, and he’s just down the road from where I am staying with a few close mates of his. It’s barely a seven-iron to the front gate of Augusta National Golf Club, so we’re in prime position. Augusta itself is actually a city in the state of Georgia, although when you say the word, most of us golf nuts just think about the exclusive golf course where the Masters is staged every year.

There isn’t much to downtown Augusta and it really does exist because of the golf course – I drove past a Masters pizza place and a Masters laundrette. A Masters laundrette??

The golf club is off Washington Avenue and driving down it you really get a sense of what the Masters means to this place. There’s so much going on there, including John Daly, who isn’t even playing this week, parking his huge RV outside Hooters and selling his John Daly merchandise!

Tickets to the Masters really are like hen’s teeth. Scalpers, I believe, are selling practice day tickets for around $800 (R7 200), while a tournament-day ticket will start around $1 500 (R13 500) and go up to about $3 000 (R27 000) for the weekend. And that’s just for one day! A tournament ticket – Thursday to Sunday – you’re looking at $10 000 (R90 000).

George and I did a fair amount of fitness work together when he was an amateur, and in the past year we’ve been looking after his shoulder, as he has hyper-mobility there. I chatted to his physio here, and they are happy he’s in good shape for this week. George played nine holes on Monday, but spent some good time on the course on Saturday, playing 27 holes and getting a feel for things.

On Tuesday he’s playing a practice round with Gary Player and Branden Grace, and that’s going to be amazing and so useful for George, playing with Gary, who has won the tournament three times. George feels he’s hitting the ball nicely, but that the Augusta greens are already incredibly quick. No surprise there, as that is the key to winning here.

At face value, the course doesn’t suit George, as he hits a fade and it favours those golfers who hit a draw. But, having said that, guys who hit a natural fade have won here in the past – Fred Couples in 1992 is an example. You just have to take your medicine and find the fairway.

I’m lucky to be here as a guest of George, as players get an allocation of tickets and are then able to purchase an extra four, which is what he did for myself and his mates. Unfortunately, I won’t be carrying his bag in Wednesday’s par-three tournament. That honour has already gone to his little sister, and that will be some experience for her.

If you’ve read anything on the Masters, you’ll know that the Sunday before the start of the tournament is pretty quiet, although I read online that a couple of players took the chance to get out on the course, along with some of the members, as it’s their final opportunity to play before the course is officially – from a playing point of view – off-limits to them for the week. Quite interesting seeing that one of those members was former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, having a round with three-time champion Phil Mickelson.

The Masters is just so special for golf fans. On Washington Avenue I chatted to a guy and his son who had flown down from California just for a practice day!

It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Garth Milne is a golf fitness specialist who is at Augusta as a guest of George Coetzee. He will be writing a column each day of the Masters week. Click here for Garth's 2012 Open diary

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