Illinois men’s golf experiences Augusta National

Every year during the first full week of April, cameras, throngs of golf fans and the world’s best golfers invade Augusta, Ga., for the Masters Golf Tournament. On Monday, the Illinois men’s golf team was among the sold-out crowd at the Augusta National Golf Club.

As participants in the cross-town Augusta State Invitational, the Illini got tickets to watch the first day of practice open to the competitors.

While it was the team’s third consecutive visit to the Masters, it was the first time for freshmen Brian Campbell and Alex Burge.

“It felt like Disneyland,” Campbell said.

“It’s like what you picture but even better,” Burge added.

The Augusta National Golf Club consistently ranks among the world’s most beautiful golf courses. It has a myriad of features, including the prestigious Amen Corner, that are highlighted during the television coverage.

“TV doesn’t do it justice,” junior Mason Jacobs said.

Flowering shrubs and trees provide the names for each of the course’s holes. Burge, Campbell and sophomore Thomas Pieters all said the “Redbud” hole (No. 16), which is played entirely over water, was their favorite.

Much of the sold-out crowd was gathered at the hole watching the professionals skip balls across the water.

“It was really fun, like a basketball game,” Pieters said.

Tickets for the Masters are hard to come by even for the practice rounds. Fans must apply for tickets almost a year in advance and then be selected in a lottery of the applicants.

The course and the crowd were only part of the show. The players also got to see many of the best golfers in the world, including No. 6 Tiger Woods.

“Everyone was there to see Tiger,” Campbell said.

Campbell was a Woods fan growing up. He and the star golfer’s Southern California high schools were only 23 minutes away from each other.

Woods made headlines two weeks ago when he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his first tournament victory in more than two and a half years. Woods’ momentum has propelled him to be the favorite in this weekend’s tournament.

One spot ahead of Woods in the world rankings stands Illinois alumnus Steve Stricker. Currently the No. 5 golfer in the world, Stricker was a college teammate of Illinois head coach Mike Small. He and Small led the team to the 1988 Big Ten Championship, where they placed first and second, respectively.

This weekend, Stricker will be making his 12th appearance at the Masters. He has made the cut to the final rounds in six of those tournaments, with a career-high finish of sixth in 2009. Stricker finished 11th last year.

The Illini said they used Monday as a learning opportunity.

“It’s just really awesome,” said senior Luke Guthrie, who was visiting the event for the third straight year. “Every year, more and more I watched the professionals and tried to learn their practice habits … and tried to incorporate them into my game.”

Jacobs said his favorite part of the day was “just getting to see the top players and see how they practice and prepare.”

The Masters tee off Thursday morning.