I still remember the phone call.
I was in my dressing room on the "Everybody Loves Raymond" stage when my assistant called to say CBS President Leslie Moonves was on the line. We were in our fourth season and had started to do pretty well in the ratings, but not great. I wasn't about to rule out that this was the "cancellation call," that I was now officially out of the business and had to give back all the money. Hesitantly, I answered the phone.
"Hey, Ray, Les Moonves. How are you?"
I wanted to say, "Cut the lame small talk; just stick the knife in me and be done with it." Instead I went with, "Fine." Then I laughed lamely, coughed and said, "Excuse me."
There was a short, awkward silence, and then, "So, you wanna come play Augusta?"
Did I hear right? Did he say, "play Augusta"? I think he did, and if he did, then holy crap, that's the exact opposite of canceling the show and taking back all my money.
As suave as I could, I said, "Augusta? Yeah, why not?" while trying hard not to let him hear the Tom Cruise jump I was doing on my couch. I couldn't believe it. Not only would I get to see the Masters in person, I'd be playing Augusta National with some CBS bigwigs the day after.
The first thing I had to do was explain to my wife, who knows nothing about sports, that I really needed to leave her and our four kids for three days so I could watch and then play golf. Somehow I needed to explain the enormity of this invitation. Terms like "Mecca" and "Holy Land" have little effect on someone who cares nothing about golf. I had to put this in terms she could relate to.
"Honey, it's like you got an invitation to the land where they make Gucci "
Almost. She almost understood.
" and Bon Jovi lived there."
Boom! Now she got it. There's no way I wasn't going.
We arrived on Friday of the 2000 Masters and hopped in a CBS golf cart for a ride to the clubhouse. That's when I used my cell phone for one of those "Guess where I am?" calls to my buddy Claude in New York. Suddenly, Les Moonves panicked. "Put that phone away, Ray. They're not allowed here. Holy s---, we'll lose the account."
I apologized, put it away and thought, Man, this is cool. I'm at the only golf course in the world that can make the most powerful man in show business panic. I couldn't wait to call Claude and tell him.
On Sunday, Moonves, me and a couple of other execs watched the final round from the press stands on Amen Corner. We had a great view of the approach shots at 11, the entire par-3 12th and the tee shot for the par-5 13th. We watched about the last 10 groups come through, and then walked to the 18th to see Vijay win. Absolutely thrilling.
That night I slept like a fat kid on Christmas Eve. I looked at the clock every 10 minutes, just willing the morning to arrive. Somehow I got two or three hours sleep, and Monday we drove to the no-nonsense security checkpoint at the entrance to Magnolia Lane, where everyone had to show his official invitation from the club. They even demanded a picture ID. For a minute, I got a little scared. This was Augusta. They have their own rules. What if they run my name through their computer, find out I owe late fees at Blockbuster and ban me? Before I could really panic, they waved us through.
That day I made a promise to myself that with respect to the tradition and history of the ground we were on, I always would play by the rules. That meant no mulligans, no gimmes, no "I'll just drop it here." I really wanted to see what I could shoot on the same course that Vijay, Tiger and the boys had faced on Sunday -- same tees, same hole locations. My handicap then had fluctuated between 14 and 17, and I set a goal for myself: I wanted to break 100 from the tips.
That first year I shot 106, but it wasn't without some memorable moments. I finished with a par on 18, and even better was parring the 13th, the same hole Ernie Els would make an 8 on in 2002. You hear that, Claude? On one of the most famous holes in golf I beat Ernie Els by three shots. Of course, I don't think he ever six-putted No. 14. That's right, six-putted.
But here's the beauty of playing Augusta: Even after six-putting, the smile never left my face. It never does when I'm there. That's the magic of the place. You get swept up in the beauty, the history and the colors. When I saw the course in person for the first time, the green of the fairways blew me away. It's like green in High Def.
Last year, I returned for what I'm afraid might be my last round at Augusta. It was two months after we'd filmed the last episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond." I had to be realistic. This was a great perk of having a CBS show, but it wouldn't last forever. And if this was my last time, I was determined to come away with a score in double digits.
In my foursome are two agents and one of Moonves' writer friends. All three are single-digit handicappers, but for some reason they don't want to play the back tees. I explain that I have a 16-handicap, but I still want to play the tournament tees. It's tradition.
They tell me it's fine if I wanna play the tips, but they're gonna play up front.
Oh boy. Now I have a dilemma.
It was 7,290 yards from the tips then, and 6,365 from the fronts. If I break 100 from the front tees, it won't mean the same. On the other hand, if I play the backs it might get weird when I dub one 50 yards and don't even reach them.
"C'mon, guys," I say. "If you get to take batting practice at Yankee Stadium, are you gonna take it from second base?"
No response. I got a little desperate.
"Bon Jovi would play the tips."
They played the fronts; I played the backs.
Standing on that first tee, I tell myself that all I need to do to reach my goal of breaking 100 is to shoot 27 over par or better. I remind myself to have fun and not think about score. Then I remind myself that breaking 100 would make it fun, so I'll probably be thinking about my score.
With that, I pull my opening tee shot way left over the trees, into the ninth fairway.
Calm down, stupid.
My next shot sails majestically over the trees and back into the first fairway, leaving me 60 yards from the hole.
My third stops one foot from the hole.
Calm down, stupid.
I make the putt, and I'm even par at Augusta after one hole. You hear that, Claude? If this was the Masters, I'd be on the leader board!
After a bogey and a double bring me back to reality, I stand on the 205-yard fourth trying to decide between a 4- and a 5-iron. It's downhill, so I hit the 5-iron. As it sails right for the pin I worry out loud:
"Is it enough? Is it enough?"
If it was enough, why I am holding a sand wedge?
I try to blast out of the bunker, and the ball goes nowhere. Double bogey. It doesn't seem right to curse at Augusta, but I do.
On the 455-yard fifth I hit driver, 5-iron to pin-high on the left. I need a flop shot over the bunker to get it close.
I flop it into the bunker.
Another curse, a small whimper and a guttural half-yell.
I blast out to six feet. This would be a moral victory to come away with a bogey.
I sink it. I'm back.
On the 180-yard sixth, I hit a good tee shot just on the fringe but follow it with a terrible chip. Why? Because I'm a stupid man with body odor.
I tell the agents I'll miss them as I hike 80 yards back to my tee on the 410-yard seventh. In the history of the Masters, I'd learn later, no pro had ever scored higher than 8 on this hole. Time to make history.
Ten. I got a 10.
Why? Because I'm a hack and my face is ugly.
Even with that disaster, I refuse to give up. I'm actually driving the ball great, which gives me hope. The surprising thing about Augusta is how wide open it plays. It always looked narrow on TV, but in reality it's not. Even so, I finish the front nine with a bogey on 8 and a triple on 9. When I look at the damage, it says 53. That's 17 over par.
I need a hug.
Am I giving up? No. I need to shoot 10 over on the back to break 100. Stranger things have happened. On the 495-yard 10th I hit driver, hybrid 5-iron to 15 feet and make the two-putt par. I don't think you heard me: I'm not giving up!
After a bogey at 11 to start Amen Corner, I'm on the famous 12th. The history, the tradition, the shank into the pond.
Double bogey. I then bogey 13 and 14 and realize that with all the trouble I had on the front nine, I can still shoot 98 if I bogey out.
I nail a drive on the par-5 15th that leaves me 240 yards to the green. I want to go for it, but I have to clear that damn pond. Yesterday Chris DiMarco laid up from 218 yards. Ray Romano is going for it from 240.
I grab my 3-wood. I take a deep breath. And I reconsider.
Lay up, I tell myself. Just leave a 40- or 50-yard pitch for your third.
I switch to a 7-iron, and just as I'm about to address the ball I look at my caddie. "I've gotta go for it," I tell him. "I've got a chance to get on the 15th in two." Who knows, maybe a little Gene Sarazen magic.
He hands me the 3-wood and spits a little chewing tobacco on the grass. It's a dramatic touch that pumps me up. I take a breath and then drill the 3-wood right on the button. It's headed for the hole.
"You got it!" says my caddie.
"Go! Go!" I yell.
I get a rush of adrenaline as we watch it sail toward the hole. These are the coolest moments in golf. You can't change what's going to happen. You did what you could, now it's up to the golf gods. You can only watch and hope it goes your way.
Green or water?
Green or water?
I curse my luck, my game and my dog as I walk up and take a drop 40 yards from the hole. Then, somehow I pitch to four feet and have a putt to save par. I stand over the putt, and to quote my son Joe, from when he was 3 years old: "I scared."
I make it. I make the putt, my third par of the day. I'm 22 over with three to play. If I bogey out I shoot 97. I can do this.
On to the 16th, the famous par 3 that Tiger made even more famous with his chip-in the day before. I hit a 6-iron behind the bunker on the left. And, once again, my flop shot fails me and lands in the bunker.
Why, why, why?
I'm thinking about score again. "I'll blast out and one-putt for bogey."
I blast out to 15 feet. But wait a minute. This is that green where magic happens, and sure enough the ball rolls back to three feet. I get a little giddy.
A simple three-footer.
Right here I learned there's nothing worse than a lip-out on a three-footer. UNLESS YOU LIP OUT THE TWO-FOOTER COMING BACK. Triple-bogey 6.
I want to rip my ear off.
Now I need bogey-bogey for 99. I start talking to myself.
"C'mon, it's your last time here. Just keep it together. You need a haircut."
On 17, I make a clutch five-footer for bogey. I start talking again.
"Way to go, Ray. Just relax and swing easy. You're not gay just 'cause you got a manicure."
I step up to 18, and as much as I try to relax, I'm a little nervous. Somehow, I manage a good drive that just catches the right rough. I've only got 165 yards. Uphill. I stand over the ball with a 6-iron and talk:
"Just get it airborne."
What I should have said was, "Don't top it. Don't hit the worst shot of the day and advance it only 40 yards."
Now I need to regroup. I need to knock it on and two-putt. Another deep breath and I hit a pitching wedge that looks good but drifts right. Will it get over the bunker and onto the green?
No, it won't. It's in the bunker.
One last chance for 99: Get up and down.
I blast out, and the ball lands a foot from the hole. For one moment I have a glimmer of hope, and then it's crushed as the ball continues rolling, 20 feet down the hill.
For the first time I let the thought register that I'm not going to break 100, and I'm OK with it. I got to play Augusta again, and as the kids say, "It's all good." Of course, in the back of my head I'm thinking, Maybe I can make a miraculous chip for 99.
Chip to six feet. Miss the putt. Triple-bogey 7. Final score: 101.
We all gather for a group picture, and after one final look down the 18th fairway we walk off, and I realize that when I talk to my kids, and eventually my grandkids, about playing the greatest course in the world, score won't matter. What will matter is when they hear the excitement and thrill in my voice as I describe what it was like.
I told Claude I shot 94.