Mike Cullity's NH Golf: Granite State golfers revel in their first trip to the Masters
I've been lucky enough to make pilgrimages to Augusta National to watch practice rounds in 1997, 1998 and 2003. And to mark my 40th birthday, I returned last week to the Georgia golf cathedral, where I shared a few hours with three New Hampshire golfers enjoying their first Masters.
Crossing the 15th fairway during Wednesday's practice rounds, I bumped into Mike Moran, Gregg Mikolaities and Mike Bernard, three longtime friends who grew up together in Manchester. Moran, a 52-year-old Queen City pharmaceutical salesman whose friends call him 'Mugsy,' scored the chance to buy three Wednesday tickets in the Masters' annual lottery and invited Mikolaities, a 51-year-old Rye engineer, and Bernard, a 52-year-old Manchester postal carrier, to join him.
'It was Mugsy's Christmas present to us,' Mikolaities said.
Childhood pals who attended Manchester Memorial High School together - Moran graduated in 1977, while Mikolaities and Bernard followed in '78 - all three are devoted golfers. Moran, a former club professional, and Bernard play at Derryfield, while Mikolaities is an Abenaqui member.
After the Granite Staters strolled through Augusta National's gates Wednesday morning, they were awestruck by their surroundings.
'I just thought it was incredible,' Moran said. 'The range is spectacular, watching the players hitting it up close. Golfers consider this a shrine. The conditions are amazing.'
Added Mikolaities: 'There are more trees than I thought, and it's a lot more hilly than it looks on TV.'
During a morning stop at Augusta's mammoth merchandise pavilion, the three dropped $900 collectively on gifts for themselves and others. 'We got into the souvenir shop, and it was like a kid in a candy store,' said Moran, who coughed up another $1.50 to sample one of Augusta's famous pimento cheese sandwiches.
Out on the course, they watched Tiger Woods as he finished a practice round with Mark O'Meara and Sean O'Hair. And when I met them at midday, they were trailing Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, David Toms and Scott Verplank, who were practicing wedges into No. 15, the back nine's second pivotal par-5.
Were it not for Moran's wardrobe choice, I might have missed the trio. His plaid Bermuda shorts from Loudmouth Golf - the apparel company that makes John Daly's outrageous trousers - were like a beacon.
'He's been getting a lot of compliments on the shorts,' Mikolaities explained.
'Especially from the young women,' Moran deadpanned.
High spirits and good-natured banter marked my ensuing three-hour tour of Augusta with Moran, Mikolaities and Bernard. As we tailed Stricker, Furyk, Toms and Verplank - watching them engage in the practice-round tradition of skimming iron shots across the pond at the par-3 16th was particularly entertaining - I listened as the New Hampshire friends recalled their first experience together at a PGA Tour event.
When Moran was as an assistant pro at the venerable Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., Mikolaities and Bernard traveled there to watch the 1983 Kemper Open. Fred Couples won the tournament in a five-way playoff, but Bernard has a more vivid memory than the result.
'I was hanging around with the guy who wore the shirt that said 'John 3:16,'' he said, recalling Rollen Stewart, the rainbow-wig wearing proselytizer who was a fixture at '70s and '80s sporting events.
Later, during the Masters' annual Par-3 Contest, we found a sunny spot along the ropes near the second tee and watched several players up close. A competition among tournament entrants, past Masters champions and honorary invitees on Augusta's par-3 course, the Wednesday afternoon contest is an informal interlude between the practice rounds and the tournament's Thursday kickoff.
Located behind the cabins that line the left side of Augusta's 10th hole, the par-3 course features nine holes that measure 140 yards or less, with No. 2 being the shortest at 70 yards. A favorite retreat of President Dwight D. Eisenhower during his years as an Augusta member, the intimate layout meanders around Ike's Pond, which reminded Bernard of a south Manchester landmark.
'It's kind of like Crystal Lake,' he quipped.
From the second tee, we watched as honorary invitee Jack Fleck scored one for nostalgia.
Author of perhaps golf's greatest upset when he defeated Ben Hogan in a playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open, the 90-year-old drew hearty cheers when his pitch stopped 18 inches from the hole. After making a show of knocking his knees, Fleck drained his birdie.
A few groups later, the 'Big Three' of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player came through. But minutes later, the clouds rolled in. With severe storms in the area, a siren blared, suspending play.
Club officials soon cancelled the rest of the Par-3 Contest, but despite the day's premature end, New Hampshire's big three at Augusta had the time of their lives.
'This will put it in a whole different perspective when we're watching back at home on Sunday,' Moran said.
Added Bernard: 'We'll have to come back every year now.'
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THROUGH THE GREEN: The Golf Writers Association of America honored Luke Donald, Yani Tseng and Tom Lehman as its 2011 male, female and senior players of the year at a Wednesday banquet in Augusta. Accepting his award, Donald broke up the crowd when he donned a Rory McIlroy wig. ... Kirk Hanefeld, the Champions Tour player from Somersworth, has been named director of instruction at Renaissance Golf Club in Haverhill, Mass.
Mike Cullity's column on New Hampshire golf appears weekly during the golf season in the New Hampshire Sunday News. E-mail him at email@example.com.