9:00 am: The courtesy car turns down Washington Road in Augusta, Georgia. It is early on a Tuesday morning, but not just any Tuesday morning. For the man behind the wheel, this is a tradition unlike any other.
He has driven from Atlanta, making a cross-sport pilgrimage between two worlds. Nothing made sense last night, as he sat in the empty football stadium where the Final Four was supposed to be. The sphincter-like roof loomed tightly closed above him, cocooning only a deafening silence. The court sat empty, and the moment did not shine.
So Jim Nantz did the only thing that did make sense. He got in the car this morning and headed east down I-20, to the azaleas siren-calling him home. He has always been drawn to this one-time plant nursery, or so he will tell you. The voices that came through the television when he was a boy ring through his head now as clearly as they did then.
There is a fine line between ritual and routine. When he is on this grass, he is toeing both.
He’s onto Magnolia Lane now, and into the Clubhouse.
He walks to the dining room to start his day. It begins with toast, ordered from the dining room. The card he carries in his wallet speaks for him. When he says burnt, he means burnt. There is no waitstaff here this morning. Perhaps they’ve been given the day off? He decides to burn the bread himself.
10:00: Nantz retires to the locker room to change. Will it be this Vineyard Vines tie or that? He still has the one from last night. He never got the chance to give a senior his tie. He thought about leaving it on that empty floor in Atlanta so that someone — anyone — would know he had been there. But he brought it with him instead. Maybe he can give it to the amateur golfer in the tournament. Rewarding those golfers is part of the tournament’s lore.
10:30: It’s time to call Tony. Of course Tony will know what’s going on. It’s likely Tony even predicted this would happen, with his all-seeing eye. But Nantz’s gridiron broadcasting partner does not answer. Nantz is, again, left to his own devices.
The course, perhaps, can offer him some solace. The challenge will not be getting the ball into the hole. Instead, it will be stopping on an early April day, for the first time in three decades, and confronting himself.
11-3 pm: Nantz sashays through 18 empty holes. There are no golfers on the course practicing. Erected stands sit unused. But the fairways still undulate, and the breeze still whistles through Georgia pines.
He stops where the Eisenhower tree used to be, and takes it all in from the Hogan bridge. He realizes that Rae’s Creek will babble whether he’s here or not.
This offers him a moment to sit with the bizarre. He sips from the creek, cupping his hands and letting the cool liquid pool into them. No one is watching. This faux pas will be only his to know. He raises his hands to his face and drinks. The yearning to be bound to this place has never been so satiated.
He is now one with Augusta National, in the way Arnold and Jack and Tiger never could be. Their legacy will permeate these grounds forever, but how many of us can say we have truly drunk it in? They have felt the roars, but he is tasting them.
4:00 pm: He tries Tony again, to no avail. He shunts from his thinking that maybe money has forever changed their relationship. Surely that cannot be. He’ll always have a spot in his QB’s heart — or so he tells himself. It’s not important now.
The afternoon gleams bright, and that’s what matters. He loosens his tie and and tosses his sport coat over his shoulder. He is feeling freer as the day goes by, allowing the sun to warm his slacks and the feeling of spring to flow through him. He is, for the first time, living a life abundant in early spring. This comes without obligations. This comes with a choice to simply be. He can exist.
5:00 pm: To the porch outside the clubhouse he goes, to swirl and sniff the vintage cabernet sauvignon. He reflects on this day. A tradition unlike any other has become one day unlike any other. He looks out over the course with hope that normalcy will reign again soon, but has today truly been so bad? The romance is still here, even if the patrons are not.
6:00 pm: Nantz leaves the clubhouse and walks to Butler Cabin, where he ends this week every year. He is waiting for a green jacket ceremony that won’t come, and a tournament that might never begin. He is the loneliest man in Augusta, but at least he is here.