AUGUSTA, Ga. — I know what you’re saying. Golf? He’s covering golf? And I admit, it’s a stretch, because I cannot play golf, not really, not unless you count throwing the ball, picking it up, and throwing it again, which I once did, just for fun, down the longest hole at Royal Troon in Scotland. Took 13 throws to reach the green. Of course, the wind was at my back.

So I am not exactly a golf pro. But my boss, who believes Moses came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments in one hand and a sand wedge in the other, told me: “You really should cover the Masters once. You’ve never been there.”

And I nodded. I did not tell him I had never been there because I had never wanted to be there. You don’t say that to a golf lover. Saying that to a golf lover would be like throwing up on his new car seat. Besides, he was right. A sports writer should cover the Masters, at least once in his life, if only to see why those CBS guys keep whispering all the time.

(Really, why is that? I mean, I half expected to arrive here and find policemen holding one finger to their lips and saying, “Shhhh! You’re at the Masters. Shhhh!” It’s like, you get here, and you are in church. Any other place, a man might exclaim: “HOT DAMN! WHAT A GREAT COURSE! LET’S GET A BEER!” Here, at Augusta National, that comes out: Goodness, what a blessed landscape. Look at the azaleas. Back to you, Jim.

Also, I had one other reason for never attending the Masters. And I want to say this as nicely as I can, so please don’t take it the wrong way.

I hate the South. Hot and bothered in the South

Now, I don’t mean the whole South. I don’t even mean all the states. I do declare, parts of the South are the friendliest, prettiest and most humid places on earth.

No. What I mean is, there are certain things in the South that just bug me. Like the heat. And the slow service. Coming from the North, I have this crazy idea that if you order breakfast before 9 a.m., it should arrive at your table by noon. Call me nuts.

Here in Georgia — and every time I have ever eaten in South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi — you order breakfast, and a sweet, middle-aged waitress with her hair in a bun smiles and says, “Will y’all be havin’ coffee?” And you say yes. And she smiles. And she walks into the kitchen. And is never heard from again. Her family doesn’t know where she is. The police are looking for her. Nothing. And four hours later, after you have eaten all the sugar packets on the table, another waitress shows up and says,
“Will y’all be havin’ coffee?”

But wait, you say, what does this have to do with the Masters? And I say nothing, so why are we talking about it? Especially when we should be talking about azaleas and dogwood trees and magnolias–

Oops. I mean azaleas and dogwood trees and magnolias. Back to you, Jim.

Which is the first thing I want to tell you: What azaleas? Here I am, in my rent-a-car, following the directions to Augusta National, and I turn onto Washington Road, the road it is on, and I expect to see angels sprinkling green dust over my car — and here is what I see instead: Econo Lodge. Wendy’s. McDonald’s. Shell station. Long John Silver’s. Texaco station. Del Taco.

And I say, “Hey. It’s Woodward Avenue.” The scenery is . . . not all seen

Really. The road to the Masters is chain store heaven. You can get a pizza, a fish fillet and a Midas muffler. And then, burping, you can walk down Magnolia Lane, which is probably the most impressive driveway you’ll ever see. “I’ve been entering Magnolia Lane all these years,” Jack Nicklaus told us Wednesday, “and I still tell passengers, ‘Wait till you see this. The trees are 600 feet high and the road is 20 miles long.’ “

Of course, it only seems that magnificent. And I would like to tell you about it firsthand, except when I tried to turn in, this Georgia traffic cop with those aviator sunglasses and a big jaw that seemed permanently clenched just shook his head, as if to say, “Don’t even think about turning in here, you jerk. I know you can’t play golf.”

And I drove on.

And parked in a Food Mart.

Another thing I don’t like about the South.

But what the heck? We are here now, safely inside the stately green landscape of the greatest golf course in this land. It is easy to get cynical about this place, seeing as, for all its majesty, it just admitted its first black member last year (more on that in the days to come). You can get cynical under the legendary oak tree, which is so large and sprawling its branches are held up by steel cables, and you can get cynical sipping drinks from green cups on the veranda of the clubhouse. You can get cynical walking along the wide fairways (no rough at Augusta) or passing “Amen Corner” and the 12th hole, where Hubert Green once killed a snake in Rae’s Creek, and where Tom Weiskopf once took 13 strokes to get the ball in the cup.

You can get cynical, and then you bump into Phil Mickelson, the apple-cheeked amateur champion who will pair with Nick Faldo today for his first round ever at Augusta. “It’s like stepping on history,” Mickelson said of walking the grounds Wednesday, his eyes as big as quarters. “It’s awesome!”

Forgive him. He meant to say: What a wonderful experience. Magnificent. Why are we whispering?

Who knows? I’m still looking for the waitress.

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