Even for some of college football’s biggest names, hardened competitors used to the glare and adrenaline rush of Saturdays in the fall, the chance to play Augusta National Golf Club is nothing short of nirvana.
And they’ve experienced it all, from holes-in-one, to calls from U.S. presidents, to bets involving Super Bowl quarterbacks, to epic meltdowns on the final two holes, to encounters with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
On Saturday, two of sports’ greatest traditions will align at Augusta when ESPN’s College GameDay Built by the Home Depot will broadcast live from the Masters.
A handful of college football coaches, including a few icons — both past and present, shared their stories of playing the world’s most famous golf course.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, with six national championships to his credit, has long preached the importance of finishing games. But even Saban cringes at his finish five years ago in his only chance to break 80 at Augusta National.
Saban, who has played the famed course just about every year he’s been at Alabama, had just parred No. 16 when his caddie looked at him and said, “If you make a bogey and a bogey on the next two holes, you’re going to break 80.”
The dreaded jinx was on. Saban double-bogeyed 17 and then double-bogeyed 18 and finished with an 81.
“I wanted to kill him,” Saban joked. “… He was a good caddie, though. I would have never been in the position I was in had it not been for him.”
Saban doesn’t necessarily have a favorite hole at Augusta National, but he did once eagle No. 8.
“I couldn’t even see the green on my second shot and asked the guys I was playing with, ‘Where do I even hit this?'” Saban recounted. “They say, ‘See that pine tree sticking out, just hit it at that.’ So I hit a 3-wood or something, and it ended up like 2 feet from the hole. It had to be close because I probably wouldn’t have made the putt. But no gimmies when you’re putting for eagle. Not at Augusta, anyway.”
One of Saban’s most memorable experiences at Augusta National is now a bittersweet one. Saban met the late Arnold Palmer while playing there several years ago.
“It was early in the morning, and he was standing on the first tee,” Saban recalled. “We had a chance to talk for a few minutes. He was unbelievable, just to be able to meet him.”
A few months later, The King reached out to Saban and invited Saban to come play with him at Palmer’s Bay Hill just outside of Orlando.
“I couldn’t do it because of my schedule, and it’s probably one of the greatest regrets of my life,” Saban said softly.
Palmer, one of golf’s most revered figures, passed away in 2016.
The only time Saban has attended the Masters was in 2002 when he was coaching at LSU and took his son Nicholas. They went to watch former LSU golfer David Toms, who had won the PGA Championship the year before. Toms was honored on the field prior to an LSU game that fall and was on the sideline with the team.
“David said he was more excited to run out of the tunnel at Tiger Stadium than he was to win the PGA,” Saban said. “We wanted to go watch him, and I remember being struck by the beauty of Augusta. It’s almost like going back in time.”
When Mack Brown was coaching at Texas, a good friend promised to take him and NFL quarterbacks Eli and Peyton Manning to play Augusta National — with one caveat.
Brown had to win a national championship or one of the Manning brothers had to win a Super Bowl title before they could go.
In 2005, Brown ended the Longhorns’ 35-year drought without a national title by guiding them to a 41-38 upset of two-time defending national champion USC in the Rose Bowl.
That spring, Brown and the Manning brothers got to play 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 upset of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Brown and the Mannings were invited to play Augusta National three years in a row. (Peyton Manning is now a member of Augusta National.)
“It’s unbelievable,” said Brown, who now coaches at 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 over again.'”
Brown said he has never attended the Masters as a patron, but watches the tournament every year on TV. His mother and younger brother attended practice rounds in the past.
“I think when people talk about Yankee Stadium, it’s the same with Augusta National,” Brown said. “You’re talking about the most iconic places in the world. The first time I played and got to the first tee, I had the shakes just because I was at Augusta. We’ve seen so many wonderful moments and the best golfers in the world compete there. It’s just an honor to be able to play there.”
Similar to the way he remembers just about every playcall, every down and distance and every final score from his playing and coaching days, Steve Spurrier remembers most of the shots he’s hit at Augusta National.
Especially the good ones.
“First time I played there was when I was at Georgia Tech in 1979 with Pepper Rodgers. Shot 78 that day,” Spurrier recounted. “That’s back when I was playing decent.”
Known to run up the score on occasion, Spurrier said he once got a chance to play Augusta for not running up the score. When he was coaching at Florida, Spurrier’s Gators beat Arkansas 34-3 in the 1995 SEC championship game. Spurrier said Frank Broyles, then Arkansas’ athletic director and the Hogs’ legendary former coach, called afterward and invited Spurrier to play. Broyles, who died in 2017 at the age of 92, was a member at Augusta.
“We got ahead and had ’em at halftime about 28-3 … and then got ahead 34-3 and they were just sort of running out the clock. We just sort of ran out the clock with them,” Spurrier said. “So Coach Broyles said, ‘Steve, for being so nice to us and not trying to run up the score, I want to invite you to Augusta, and you can bring two of your buddies with you.’ I said, ‘Well, thank you coach, we’ll do that,’ and we did.”
They played that next spring and had enough time to play nine more holes after playing 18 in the morning.
“Let me tell you, Coach Broyles shot 35 [for nine holes] and said, ‘I might ought to finish up. I can shoot my age today,'” Spurrier remembered. “But we all had to catch a plane later in the afternoon, so we took off.”
Spurrier has carded two rounds under 80 at Augusta, but he’s also proud of the 81 he shot toward the end of his South Carolina coaching tenure when he was pushing 70 years old.
“Yep, had nine pars and nine bogeys,” said Spurrier, who played Augusta about every year he was at South Carolina as a guest of the late Hootie Johnson, who played football for the Gamecocks and was the former chairman of Augusta National.
Spurrier isn’t sure he has a favorite hole at Augusta.
“I’m trying to figure out which one I birdied the last time,” he quipped.
And you can’t talk about Augusta without the Head Ball Coach bringing up his hole-in-one in 2008, albeit an ace with a caveat.
“When I tell people that I made a hole-in-one, they say, ‘Really?’ and I say, ‘Yep, hole No. 7,’ and they say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a par-4,’ and I say, ‘Not on the par-3 course,'” Spurrier chirped.
Urban Meyer received two memorable phone calls after leading Florida to his second national championship with the Gators in 2008.
One was from soon-to-be President Barack Obama and the other from Fred Ridley, who played golf at Florida and would later become chairman at Augusta National Golf Club.
“It was really cool to get a call from President Obama, and then I get an incredible call from Fred Ridley, who said, ‘I’m going to take you to Augusta,'” Meyer recalled. “I tell people that those were two great calls, and I won’t say which one I enjoyed the most.”
Meyer, who calls Augusta National “one of my favorite places on the planet,” has played the iconic course four times in his life, the first time in the spring of 2002 when he was the head coach at Bowling Green. Meyer was invited by Lou Holtz, a member at Augusta National and Meyer’s boss when Meyer was an assistant at Notre Dame.
“It was two weeks before the tournament and Jim Nantz drives out on his golf cart,” Meyer said. “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 the hole on the par-3 12th hole for a tap-in birdie. He can’t say the same about the closing hole.
“That [18th] hole has always crushed me,” said Meyer, who won two national championships at Florida and a third national title at Ohio State. “It’s a tough hole. The drive and then that second shot … you’re about 200 yards away. I love the hole, but it hasn’t been good to me.”
Meyer and his son, Nate, have a tradition of watching the Sunday round of the Masters together, a tradition that was passed down from Meyer’s youth when he and his late father, Bud, did the same.
“So when Nate was growing up, that was one of our rules,” Meyer said. “No matter where we were, we had to watch Sunday at the Masters together. I got a little choked up the first time I drove up Magnolia Lane, thinking about all those Sundays together with my father watching the Masters.
“If someone said you’ve got one more place to go, I might say Augusta.”
Former Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is fortunate enough to have played Augusta National more times than he can count, but there’s no getting out of his mind the first time he made the stroll through the iconic azaleas and dogwoods.
It was right around 2005 or 2006, Stoops said, and he remembers walking off the second hole like he’d just won a national championship.
“I hit my third shot down the hill on the par-5 and hit it into the right-side bunker,” Stoops said. “So I get my sand wedge out and have a smooth sand shot, and it rolls dead into the hole for a birdie.
“I looked at my caddie, smiled and said, ‘This isn’t all that tough of a course.'”
Stoops was obviously joking and would soon experience the real teeth of the course — its greens. He said his best score at Augusta is an 84 and that it’s impossible to get a feel for the severity of the greens until you’ve played the course.
“If you’re uphill against the grain, you can’t hit it hard enough, and if you’re downhill and with the grain, it’s impossible to stop it,” Stoops said. “Tee to green, it’s very manageable, but if you’re not on the proper one-third of the green, you might as well be 100 yards away. The key is listening to the caddies. Those guys are incredible. If you’ll just listen to them, you start to figure it out.”
Stoops has played the course with everybody from his brother, Mike, to Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, to country music superstar Toby Keith. And for several years in a row, Stoops and an Oklahoma contingent would take on Gary Patterson and a TCU contingent during a two-day stay at Augusta that also included a round on the par-3 course.
“Every time you go, it gets better. There’s no other place like it,” said Stoops, adding that his favorite memory at Augusta remains the time he met Arnold Palmer.
Stoops saw Palmer on an adjacent fairway while playing. Later, while eating lunch, Palmer came over to Stoops’ table.
“Everybody in our group stood up and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Palmer,'” Stoops recalled. “He looked at me and said that I looked familiar, and I introduced myself and told him I was the head coach at Oklahoma. He couldn’t have been nicer. What a thrill.”
It’s a round of golf that Stanford coach David Shaw will always cherish.
Admittedly not much of a golfer, Shaw got to play Augusta National with his father, Willie, younger brother, Eric, and Stanford grad and Augusta member Tom Nelson in 2014. At the time, Eric was undergoing treatments for a rare, aggressive skin cancer, and it took a miraculous bone marrow transplant by David four years later to save his brother’s life.
“We didn’t even keep score. It was my dad’s idea,” Shaw said. “My dad is the golfer in the family. He plays against people my age and takes money from them all the time. But on that day, he said, ‘Here we are at Augusta. I’m playing with my two sons. Let’s just enjoy this.’
“We’ll have that memory forever.”
Shaw jokes that a memory he could do without was his tee shot on No. 1.
“Everybody talks about the first tee and how intimidating it is,” Shaw recalled. “So here I am, and I’m not a golfer, and I’m thinking, ‘You can’t intimidate me. I don’t even play, so whatever.'”
Eric was the first to tee off and didn’t quite hit the shot he wanted, and warned his brother, “Man, you get anxious.”
Shaw, still undaunted, teed it up and, in his words, hit the nastiest slice you’ve ever seen.
“I mean, just awful, and then my dad gets up there and, bam, right down the middle, and he just starts walking,” Shaw said, laughing. “So, yes, the first tee is real because you’re playing on hallowed ground. It got me.”
One of the things from Shaw’s round that he is most proud of: He only took out one real divot.
“It was a chunk, and I thought the divot police were going to come out of the trees and escort me off the grounds,” Shaw joked.
Shaw’s second favorite memory from that day was getting to meet Jack Nicklaus at dinner.
“It was almost as if you were in his home, and he felt like he needed to welcome you,” Shaw said. “It was the coolest thing. We’re sitting there talking to Jack Nicklaus at Augusta National about college football.”
Shaw is quick to note that he didn’t call Stanford classmate and five-time Masters winner Tiger Woods to give him a report on his round. They had a Portuguese Studies class together when they were in school at Stanford and have kept in touch.
“I’m embarrassed to bring up my golf game in the vicinity of Tiger Woods,” joked Shaw, who did once get to don one of Woods’ green jackets.
Woods spoke to the Stanford team last year prior to the UCF game in Orlando and brought along one of his green jackets.
“He put it on me, so I’ve actually worn 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 the Masters almost every year when he was a kid.
So when an Auburn booster invited Muschamp to play Augusta National with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in 2015, Muschamp, then the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, couldn’t decline the invitation — even if he’s not much of a golfer.
“I knew the other guys were good players,” Muschamp said. “I went and got two lessons so I didn’t embarrass myself.”
The end result? Muschamp avoided triple digits on the famed track, shooting a 98 with bogeys on the final three holes.
“I was really nervous on the first hole,” Muschamp said. “But I hit a really good drive. It was a very memorable moment on that first tee box.”
The night before his round, Muschamp stayed in one of the cabins on the property and watched highlights of past Masters tournaments on TV.
“I stayed up all night watching the Masters, thinking back to when I was sitting on the back porch with my dad and brother on Sundays,” he said. “It brought back so many memories of watching one of the greatest, if not the greatest, sporting event in the world.”
Muschamp has attended the Masters several times. The first time was in 1996, when Greg Norman famously blew a six-shot lead to Nick Faldo in the final round. Muschamp still remembers the collective gasp from the gallery when Norman’s tee shot on No. 12 rolled into Rae’s Creek, handing Faldo a two-shot lead.
“To hear the crowd collectively make that sound was pretty amazing,” Muschamp said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, an avid golfer, estimates he has played Augusta National Golf Club between 15 and 20 times.
“I guess I had good friends,” Beamer said.
Beamer’s low round at Augusta National is 89. One of his most memorable rounds there was witnessing his son, Shane, now the assistant head coach for offense and tight ends coach at Oklahoma, shoot even par on the iconic course.
Well, sort of.
Beamer and his son had been invited to play the course one day in the spring, and there was bad weather forecast for that afternoon.
So the member suggested that they start on the par-4 10th hole, walk back up 18, and then head to the clubhouse for lunch if the inclement weather came in.
Shane Beamer made four on the 10th, and then the skies opened up.
They never got back on the course that day.
“My mom and dad like to tell everybody that I shot even par at Augusta,” Shane Beamer said.
Since they didn’t finish the round, the member invited Shane Beamer and then-Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart back to play the next spring. They started on No. 1. Beamer couldn’t control his nerves and badly sliced his tee shot into the ninth fairway. Beamer then chunked his second shot, before somehow hitting his third one over the trees and onto the green. He made a 30-footer to save par.
He was still even at Augusta National — more than a year later.