Inside Augusta: Masters rookie discovers a golfing theme park

Story highlights

"Augusta is Orlando for golf freaks," says Masters first-timer

No timeshare presentations, but it could be any theme park in Florida

The top-class players on show have more tricks than killer whales at Sea World

Seeing three of golf's greatest legends tops off a perfect pilgrimage

Augusta, Georgia CNN  — 

I’m a Masters rookie. My assignment here this week as part of CNN’s coverage team marks the first time I’ve been to the tournament or Augusta National Golf Club.

I don’t know what I really expected when I got this assignment, but it sure wasn’t what I found.

Augusta is Orlando. That’s what keeps going through my mind. Orlando for golf freaks. Florida in Georgia. Golf World, anyone?

Arriving off Interstate 20 onto International Drive – I mean Washington Road, which leads to Augusta National – the first thing to catch my eye was the ticket brokers, some with just tents, others with tents set up outside their motorhomes. The only thing that seemed to be missing was the mandatory 90-minute timeshare presentation, but maybe that was being offered somewhere.

Along the road, the restaurants and bars are jammed, and hawkers try to push traffic inside – even the person dressed up as a Subway sandwich. Traffic is Orlando-like, too. It inches along and genteel Southern hospitality doesn’t extend to the road. It can take forever for someone to let you make a turn across traffic.

The entrance to Augusta could really be any Orlando theme park. In the mornings, the multiple lines are long as people get their passes checked and check in any bags. No backpacks in Augusta National.

That means you have to get stuff inside. Disney perfected this, to great profit. Augusta National has it nailed too, but at least they don’t nail you with the prices. Four dollars for a sandwich, chips and a Coke is nothing to complain about.

Like Orlando’s theme parks, they will get your last dollar at the souvenir stand – they call it the golf shop at Augusta National – and a Masters 2012 cap will set you back $24 and a polo shirt $65. But the lines are long and the patrons are leaving with large, clear plastic bags jammed with goods bearing the Masters logo.

Before souvenirs though, should come the show, which is, of course, world class. These are the world’s best golfers. But like the Shamu show at Sea World, the place is always jammed – and when you think about it, the whale doesn’t really do all that many tricks considering the time you waited.

It was kind of like that watching the star of the Masters, Tiger Woods, on Thursday. I followed him on his back nine, about two and a half hours’ worth of show. Woods hit 37 shots during that time. Of course, though I was there on each hole, I didn’t see them all. The crowds were just massive, and I’m not tall enough to see over many folks.

I did get within 20 yards of Woods twice, kind of in his splash zone, you could say. On the 18th hole, his tee shot did go directly over my head and get stuck under a bush. At Sea World, I would have needed the rainsuit.

Another theme park show moment happened Wednesday when Woods, Mark O’Meara and Sean O’Hair came to play the 16th during their practice round.

It’s tradition on the hole that during practice rounds, after taking their tee shot on the par-3, players try to get balls onto the green by skipping them across the pond between the tee and the green. Most do it alone, I’m thinking magicians during Disney World’s Main Street parade.

But Woods, O’Meara and O’Hair lined up across the pond’s edge and hit their skip balls in unison. It was like when the dolphins all do the same leap at the same time at Sea World. It did elicit the same kind of “that’s cool” laugh from the crowd.

But, in the end, golf’s royalty saved this from being just like a trip to Orlando for me.

During Wednesday’s Par 3 tournament, I got to see Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer play two holes together. I had goosebumps (chicken skin, for some of you) and moist eyes. Player and Palmer each even made birdies.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Orlando that could compare to that.

Call my rookie Masters a success.