Virginia amateur preps for 'surreal' Masters golf experience

By Norm Wood
Published on
Virginia amateur preps for 'surreal' Masters golf experience

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- Standing on a hill in November outside the clubhouse of Augusta National Golf Club, Derek Bard was able to gaze upon more than half the course that has produced legends requiring just one name to identify them.

Jack. Tiger. Phil. Bard grew up idolizing all of them. Now, he's just days away from playing in the same tournament that helped make them all famous. The Masters.

It's a lot to soak in for a young guy just finishing up his junior year at Virginia.

"To accomplish one of my dreams and one of my goals I had when I was just a little kid growing up and starting to play is kind of surreal," said Bard, who gets to tee it up Thursday in the opening round in Augusta, Ga. as one of the spoils for his runner-up finish last August in the United States Amateur championship. "I can't wait to get down there."

Getting swept up in the moment at one of the most revered courses on the planet is a pitfall that must be avoided by any first-timer in The Masters, but here's the thing about Augusta National -- brutal reality checks come quick among tall pines and postcard-worthy azaleas.

Bard, a native of New Hartford, N.Y., has played three practice rounds on the course, two just before Thanksgiving and one on the first Saturday in March during U.Va.'s spring break.

He's one of the best in the college ranks with a putter in his hands, but he soon discovered getting his approach shots into greens within scoring distance at Augusta is an order much grander than it appears on television.

On the first hole, a par-4, 445-yard hole bearing the benign name of "Tea Olive," Bard learned there's a tiny landing area to hit on the green in order to prevent the ball from rolling into trouble. He left the hole with a very different impression of the place than when he'd first driven up picturesque Magnolia Lane.

"I'll never forget in November when I played the first hole," Bard said. "I mean, that first green on TV doesn't really look like anything too special. Then, you get up there, and it's one of the most severe greens on the course.

"Everyone who's seen (the course) on TV, and then actually been there, says TV doesn't do it justice. When you actually go there in real life, you can kind of tell how undulating the course is and how hilly it is. On TV, it looks relatively flat. I mean, you get there and there's so many elevation changes from hole to hole, and even on the same hole, so that was the first thing that really stuck out to me."

Bard has already received a working, non-tournament education on the course. Of course, it won't compare to what he'll feel when strokes actually count and the pressure sets in.

He's dealt with the swirling winds on the par-3 12th hole and the rest of "Amen Corner," which also includes the 11th and 13th holes. He's tangled with the steep front on the green at the par-5 15th hole, and the insane breaks on the par-3 16th green.

Before he has to confront those challenges at the outset of the tournament, he'll get his taste of one of the most distinctive honors any amateur golfer can earn. He plans to spend Sunday night in the crow's nest above the clubhouse -- spartan accommodations reserved only for the amateurs in the tournament field.

Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods all stayed in the crow's nest during their amateur days, before they each went on to win multiple Masters.

"Back in November, the pro (at Augusta) gave us a tour of the clubhouse, so we went up there (in the crow's nest) and checked it out," said Bard, adding he'll stay in a house about 10 minutes away from the course with about 17 family members and friends for the duration of his trip other than Sunday night. "It was really cool to see. It's another small room. It's all one room, and the beds are divided by little walls. It's a really old-fashioned room, like one shower, one toilet. I think the simplicity of it is really cool. They haven't changed anything about it over the last several years."

Bard, who is ranked 34th in the Golfweek college standings and 39th in Golfstat college rankings, will have his 18-year-old brother Alec serving as his caddie this week. It's a comfortable partnership that worked wonders for Derek at the U.S. Amateur, where he lost 7-and-6 in the 36-hole final at Olympia Fields Country Club in Olympia Fields, Ill. to Bryson DeChambeau, who was a senior at Southern Methodist.

"It's cool," Derek said. "To have (Alec) on the bag at the (U.S. Amateur) was a really special moment and to play well and make a run with him right there every step of the way, it was fun. It's something that we'll never forget, and he did such a good job. Obviously, he knows my game. He's a golfer, too. We've played together for forever now, and he knows my game really well and knows how I think, knows how I work."

With everything going on in Derek's golfing life, U.Va. coach Bowen Sargent had a sense it was going to be a stressful year for Derek, who will also get to play in June in the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa.

Sargent has gone through a similar experience as a coach in the past, most recently last year with Denny McCarthy. He made it to the semifinals of the 2014 U.S. Amateur and went on to play last June in the U.S. Open, where he made the cut and finished tied for 42nd in University Place, Wash. at the Chambers Bay course.

For Sargent, watching one of his players compete in the U.S. Open is a little different than seeing one of his guys tee it up in The Masters. The U.S. Open takes place outside of the college season, while The Masters is contested as college golfers begin to head toward the tail end of the college slate and gear up for conference and NCAA tournaments.

Just to get a handle on how Derek was prepping for the year, Sargent sat down last August with him for a long discussion. Derek has also had meetings with Dr. Bob Rotella, perhaps the world's most renowned sports psychologist, who also happens to be a volunteer assistant golf coach at U.Va. and who goes by "Dr. Bob" in golfing circles.

"I thought I did a pretty good job of staying focused for the events we've played so far this spring," Derek said. "Obviously, in the back of my mind, I'm trying to kind of peak for this event and for the events coming up for the postseason of our college season, but I feel like overall I did a really good job."

Indeed, Derek has done nothing to show he's been sidetracked from his duties at U.Va., finishing top five in college tournaments five times, including March 22 when he logged a tie for fourth-place (six-under score of 210) at the Linger Longer Invitational in Greensboro, Ga. at the Great Waters Golf Course.

"I've seen other kids that had been in this position over the years as a coach, and they usually don't play very well," Sargent said. "I just told him that, 'Hey, first and foremost, you need to be here for your team and your teammates,' and he was totally fine with it. I was just trying to get him to understand that it was just not going to be that easy as just saying, 'Yeah, yeah. I'll be there,' because there are distractions that go along with playing in The Masters.

"I'll give him the majority of the credit. I think he's done a lot of credit with Dr. Bob talking about how to approach this thing and, as best you can, to treat it like it's another tournament, knowing full-well that it isn't. (Derek has) done a really tremendous job of kind of compartmentalizing this thing and realizing that the team does need him and we need him to play well and The Masters is going to be there in the second week of April and when that time comes around, he'll focus on that. To his credit, he hasn't checked out on us at all."

Sargent has shared everything he knows about Augusta National with Derek, mostly centered around notes Sargent has collected over the years regarding those diabolical greens.

He has some firsthand knowledge of the course, having played it once, and also having traveled 10 hours round trip to the course from his hometown of Nashville with his dad every year from the time he was 8 years old through his senior year of high school to see the Monday practice round on Masters tournament week.

Now, it's all up to Derek. He's honed all the necessary tweaks in his golf swing in preparation, working to incorporate more of a right-to-left approach on a course that often requires draws off the tee for right-handed golfers, as opposed to his natural tendency to fade tee shots.

Nobody expects a performance rivaling Ken Venturi's runner-up finish in the 1956 Masters -- one of three amateur-best second-place finishes in 79 tournaments, but Derek has high expectations for himself.

"I know there's so much history that goes with all this, but come Thursday, I have to make sure that I'm only focused on my first tee shot in my round and what I can control," Derek said. "When you're out on the course playing in the tournament, all that history and stuff goes out the window. It doesn't matter.

"The competitor in me wants to go there and play my best golf and, obviously, have a chance on Sunday. I just think the main thing is I can't put any pressure on myself. It's supposed to be a great, fun time. Obviously, I'm not just going there treating it just like a walk in the park and enjoying everything, but I should in that sense a little bit."

This article was written by Norm Wood from Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.