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Three locals enjoy golf experience of a lifetime

The routine was the same for the venerable pro. He fished out a golf ball. He fished out a tee. He bent to stick the peg into the crew-cut tee apron. Somehow, for his hand shook like an old pickup in the fast lane, he managed to fumble the ball onto the tee.

He straightened and addressed the ball.

Something was missing. Something very important.

His breath. It was gone. Disappeared faster than a duck hook on a tight fairway.

Jim Wise wanted desperately to play the hallowed track that is Augusta National, home of the Masters, the greatest tournament on earth. The only thing stopping him was his inability to swing.

"I don't think I've been that nervous over a ball in 30 years," said Wise, the longtime Rogue Valley Country Club head pro. "I had to step back. I was using this club I'd used three million times. I just had to step up and hit it."

Eventually, he did, and no longer was this item in jeopardy of not being crossed off his bucket list.

Wise and RVCC members Chris Littleton and Jim Garrison enjoyed links nirvana when they played the exclusive course on a recent Sunday, the result of Littleton's friendship with a member of the Augusta, Ga., club.

Littleton is the tour manager for the Eagles rock band. He's worked with a number of recording stars while living the past 20 years in Medford. As such, the northern California native is associated with an array of powerful folks, including those in golf.

To wit: The day before Augusta, the three were the guests of Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA, for a round at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. East Lake is the permanent home of the PGA Tour Championship, and it's where Bobby Jones honed his skills.

How blasphemous is it to call that an appetizer? But it did come before Augusta.

Littleton played Augusta for the first time last year. When he invited Garrison and Wise this year, they nearly tripped over the their spikes rushing to accept.

"It was funny," says Littleton, 59, himself a single-digit handicapper. "I got the guys out there after having had the experience, and I knew what they were feeling when we were on the first tee. You're numb for about four holes.

"When you're on the first tee for the first time, the ball looks like an aspirin tablet."

Just getting there was part of the fun.

After East Lake, the three drove to Augusta. Littleton's friend picked them up at the hotel the following morning and steered them down Magnolia Lane to the front gate. They were ushered to the locker room to change shoes, then went to the pro shop and met the staff. When they stepped out of the clubhouse, Wise was slapped in the face by the expanse of beauty.

"What an impressive sight that is," he said.

Go green? Augusta went some time ago.

Off they scooted to the driving range, where their caddies waited.

Sidney was Littleton's and the most talkative. On Wise's bag was Moses, who was "very knowledgeable but very quiet," said Wise. Garrison had Briscoe.

"One of the caddies was on Tony Jacklin's bag the first time he played there," said Garrison, who likened the scene to a parade because about 100 people played that day — busy for Augusta — and all of them had caddies in those recognizable white coveralls.

Of course, the caddies could have been mistaken for photographers.

"We gave them our cameras and said take all the pictures you want," said Wise. "And they did."

Once the early jitters dissipated, golf set in.

The course itself appeared wide open. The difficulty was in greens that swell like the ocean and the steep areas around them.

"I've often said it looks like there's an elephant buried in the greens," said Wise. "It's not one elephant, it's a whole herd. The people here say we have tough pin positions. We don't have one compared to Augusta."

There are hills galore, and not only on the greens, where Wise was proud he had no three-putts.

"Probably the thing that amazed me the most," said Garrison, "was the elevation changes. On TV you can't really appreciate how hilly it is. And the fairways are so nice, they could have stuck a flag in any fairway and you would have believed it was a green."

The group played tees that measured nearly 6,600 yards.

Wise, a 6 handicap, shot an 83. He played the back nine in 41, with a triple bogey.

Garrison, a 14, shot an 88.

Good numbers considering.

"The problem with playing is you're busy looking," said Wise. "It's tough to concentrate on hitting a golf shot when you're busy looking at where you are and what you're seeing."

The newbies had great anticipation for certain holes.

Wise hit one of his best shots at No. 12, the shortest hole on the course but famous for its swirling winds, shallow green, Rae's Creek and Hogan's Bridge. Oh, and the steep front bank. Wise knew Fred Couples won the 1992 Masters only because his ball was the only one in history to hit short and not roll back into the creek.

"I'd been imagining that shot for a month," said Wise.

He had a Couples thought.

"I said, 'Self, don't leave it short," said Wise.

He flew his tee shot over the flag in the middle of the green on the 145-yard hole, leaving 8 feet for birdie. He didn't give the first putt enough break and made par.

No matter.

"It's funny," he said. "One of the things we always teach is to visualize the shot, and I'd been visualizing that shot for a month. That's quite possibly why I hit such a good shot."

Wise found the best vista to be from the No. 11 fairway, where there were ample views of Amen Corner (holes 11, 12 and 13).

There's only one hole on the course that has no bunkers, the 14th, but it "has the most intimidating green," said Wise.

Similar to conjuring Couples on 12, the group enjoyed an up-close look at where Tiger Woods made his famous chip shot on No. 16 in 2005, the ball with the Nike logo pausing while the world gazed before tumbling into the cup. And the players felt Kenny Perry's pain when they came to 17, the site of his skulled bump-and-run shot last month that cost him the green jacket.

Wise bogeyed the last two holes, "just like Tiger," he said.

Garrison marveled at the approach shot on the par-5 13th and the tee shots at 12 and 16, both par 3s.

Actually, he marveled at everything.

"It was beyond anything I could ever imagine," said Garrison. "Sometimes you do those things and it's like, I hope I'm not disappointed."

No chance here.

"I could come back as a tree and live my life there," he said.

Wise swooned similarly. The 62-year-old, who's been golfing since age 6, has played some nifty courses. Cypress Point, St. Andrews, Carnoustie, Ballybunnion.

"Best golfing experience I've ever had, no doubt about it," he said.

And now it's crossed off his list.

Have a local golf story? Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail ttrower@mailtribune.com

Jim Wise poses for a picture at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., recently.