AUGUSTA, Ga. – What would you do if the wonder of a Masters tournament pass came your way? For most first-timers there is a list of things to do, and William McGirt, a contender to win after rounds of 69 and 73, has checked every box.
Come out early on Thursday morning to watch Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots? McGirt, who qualified to play in his first Masters with a victory in the Memorial last summer, was there.
“There was never any question that I was going to be there,” said McGirt, who is 37 and as wide-eyed here this week as any kid outside the ropes. “I don’t care if I was two groups later off the tee, I was going to go watch it. We were right at the entrance to the tee box at the back. I figured if I wasn’t supposed to be there, somebody would tell me, but it was fine, so everybody came right by us and left right by us.”
McGirt came early to Augusta National to soak it all in, arriving on Friday. Given the chance, would you race straight to the merchandise shop as soon as it opened to buy shirts and caps and anything else with a Masters logo? Yeah, McGirt did that.
“AMEX is going to be very happy to have me as a customer,” he said.
And how about that initial drive on tree-lined Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse. OK, none of us will ever get to do that, but McGirt, a mini-tour struggler through much of his career, never thought he would either, so let’s ride along with him.
“One of the most sacred drives in the game,” he said. “Honestly, the first time I made that trip, by myself, I’m pretty sure I teared up about halfway down.”
Too sappy? Oh, come on, you’re loving it. Here’s some more from a guy who is so humble that he described his game to the world’s golf media Thursday as “sneaky short.”
McGirt, for instance, got emotional when he stepped to the first tee on Thursday morning prior to shooting a 69 that was the only score within shouting range of Charley Hoffman’s 65.
“When I heard ‘Fore, please, William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear,” he said, “but I realized I had to get up there and I had 40 seconds to hit it, so I better get it done quick.”
He parred that first hole and birdied the next. Matter of fact, McGirt had just one bogey all day, on No. 3. In 30-40 mph gusts, that is remarkable, and it follows the native South Carolinian’s pattern of playing his own game and not trying to chase the longer hitters.
“I know what my limitations are,” McGirt said. “I’m not the guy that’s going to stand out there and try to hit it over the trees on 13…I kind of plod my way around the course and take what it gives me.”
What it’s giving him so far is the kind of thrill he could only get at Augusta National.
“It’s kind of neat to hang around late in the afternoons and walk out on the porch outside the locker room and watch as everybody’s leaving,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most beautiful sunsets. And the same thing with the morning sunrise. To sit out there on that porch and watch the sun come up is pretty darn special.”
[McGirt actually attended the Masters a few times in his youth but didn’t step on the course other than the way other patrons do, when using the crosswalks on the fairways. His first memory here was 1988, the year Sandy Lyle won.
“I remember it was super hilly,” said McGirt, who was 8 at the time. “We watched Mr. Palmer and Mr. Nicklaus come up 18, and I remember there was a guy who was at least 6-feet-6 who put me on his shoulders so I could watch Greg Norman tee off on No. 1. Other than that, I remember I was dead tired when we got in the car to go home.”
Whether he stays near the top of the leaderboard this weekend or falls off the map, it probably will be the same way. McGirt is giving it everything he’s got, inside the ropes, with great shots like his hole-out from the bunker at No. 4 on Friday morning, and out.
“I don’t know if this is a one-time thing or if I’m going to be back every year,” he said. “I’d love to be back every year but I’m not going to walk away and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have enjoyed it more or I wish I would have doine this or I wish I would have done that.’
“It’s just something that I’ve dreamed of my whole life, playing in this tournament, and I’m going to enjoy it. Plain and simple.”
If you can’t root for a guy like this, you’re probably not following and watching the Masters in the first place.