Masters patron relishes annual trip

Rattle off the most difficult tickets to obtain in sports and the Masters might just be the toughest. Argue about the Super Bowl or the Final Four or the Rose Bowl or any other notable event, but the annual golf tournament at Augusta National treats its patrons like royalty and offers but a handful of tickets to the general public.

To put it in the tournament's language, "patrons" buy "badges" and only those on the club's list of recurring buyers get asked to purchase them on an annual basis for the four tournament rounds. (Practice rounds badges are distributed separately via lottery.). It would be a shock to learn of anyone turning down the privilege.

All of which makes Mike Millsap the source of envy.

Millsap, 65, will attend the Masters Tournament next week for the 45th time, with a streak of 44 in a row that began in 1970. He started attending the tournament with a friend who lived in Augusta, Ga., then made the fortuitous decision to get on the club's waiting list for tickets, securing them a few years later and buying them every year since.

Now $250 for a four-day badge -- a bargain when you consider that is just $62.50 per day -- Millsap is again looking forward to making the drive from his home in Tampa, Fla.

"I've been to at least 25 Bay Hill tournaments, 10 to 15 [Players Championships], some LPGA events, a few others. I love golf. They are all fun," Millsap said. "But the Masters is the standard. The Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500, the Super Bowl, World Series. ... if I could only go to one, it would always be the Masters.

"It has always been a lot of fun to me. While I have gotten older, the Masters Tournament, to me, has not. I still enjoy going and watching about as much as I did when I was younger and could run around the golf course, following my favorite players and going where the action was. I don't think there is anything else I have ever done for 44 straight years, except being married [to Theresa] and playing golf myself."

One tough ticket

Strange as it might sound today for fans that long have had the Masters on their bucket list, getting a ticket in the years after the tournament began in 1934 was actually quite easy. The club in the early days had difficulty giving them away and sold them at the gate.

Despite having Bob Jones' name attached to the event, Augusta National struggled financially well into the 1950s. Jones and co-founder Clifford Roberts twisted arms to get media coverage, inviting writers who were traveling north after baseball's spring training in Florida and even paying for media from Great Britain to attend.

Augusta National was so appreciative of those who did buy tickets that the club kept a list of its patrons. At first, it was in the hopes of getting them to purchase again the following year.

According to the club, it wasn't until 1966 that the tournament was "sold out" prior to its start. The patrons list was closed in 1972 and a waiting list was started but was closed in 1978. In 2000, the waiting list was reopened, with more names added, but closed again the same year. In 1995, the club began a lottery system for the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday practice rounds -- where more people attend on those days than at most other tournaments for an entire week.

In 2011, the club announced it would sell a very limited number of single-day tickets that could be purchased only through a lottery system via its website. The tickets became available through "attrition," club chairman Billy Payne said, and that the number being put on sale was "significant." But he later added: "I will tell you that we already get hundreds of thousands of requests. It's not a real good chance [to get them], but it's a chance."

The club does not disclose how many badges are for sale, how many are available for practice rounds or any kind of attendance figures.

Because there is no other public sale of tickets, the event has become a scalper's dream. While the club prohibits the resale of badges, it has a difficult time enforcing that rule because it does allow badge holders to give them to family, friends and acquaintances. A random internet search shows a four-day badge going for $4,000 at the moment.

Over the years, Millsap has attended the Masters with all manner of family members, friends and associates. But he has never sold them. "I toed the line," he said. "I didn't want to risk them being taken away. I see the people every year who are willing to buy them, and I walk right on by."

Maiden Masters

In 1965, Millsap was a Tampa high school student and arrived at his first Masters on the weekend to find a trio of guys named Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player tied for the 36-hole lead. "Can you imagine that?" Millsap said.

Millsap was there to see Nicklaus shoot a third-round 64 -- which tied a course record that stood until 1986 -- and cruise to his second Masters victory by 9 strokes over Palmer and Player. Nicklaus' first-place check was $20,000.

Five years later, when he was a student at the University of Tampa, Millsap had befriended Tommy Kearley, whose family happened to be from Augusta. In 1970, Millsap returned to the Masters for the second time -- and the start of his 44-year run -- with Kearley and learned that if he wanted his own tickets, he needed to request them.

Millsap wrote a letter to Augusta National and was placed on a waiting list. Four years later -- after attending from 1970 to 1973 with his Augusta friend and family -- he was informed he could purchase two tickets. And he's been doing so ever since.

In recent years, Millsap has noticed a difference at August National. Everything is bigger, better. While officials keep such numbers to themselves, Millsap has given it the eyeball test and come away believing that more people walk through the gates each spring than in his first years of attending.

"Almost from the day that Tiger Woods set foot on that place as a pro [1997], the crowds have gotten bigger," Millsap said. "I don't know if they sold more tickets or more people went. But more people were on the grounds. Particularly on Thursday and Friday. You could just tell. You know they don't say anything about it, so there is no way to know for sure. But I would guess more people had tickets from Augusta in the '60s and '70s, so the weekends were bigger. Maybe they didn't use them on Thursday and Friday. And they are huge now.

"Making ends meet in the early days of the tournament must have been a struggle. But they've made up for it in recent years, maybe the last 20. The effort made on site that the TV cameras don't show is amazing. It was always the best facility that I had ever seen for a tournament, but they have not stood still."

Soaking it all in

Over the years, Millsap has used various approaches to attending the Masters. Sometimes he flies to Atlanta and drives the 2½ hours to Augusta, other times he makes the 9-hour trek by car from Tampa. He's stayed for the entire tournament, sometimes left early and given tickets to others. Now retired, Millsap said he has more flexibility to come and go as he pleases.

In earlier days, he would be all over the course following the action. Now he finds a spot -- perhaps at Amen Corner, or near the third green so he can watch tee shots on No. 4 as well. The grandstand near the par-5 15th green is another favorite spot. With no phones allowed on the golf course, a more modern mode of keeping up with the action is not available to spectators. That is why Millsap marvels at the hand-operated scoreboards still in use.

"They are basically just like the ones used in the '60s and '70s but they have added one that I know of and moved a couple around so that they are easier to see and by more people," he said. "Scoreboard watching is an important part of the tournament. They do a fantastic job of staying up to date on the leaders which is important when you are only watching from one spot or one hole. Some tour events have gone to electronic scoreboards. Ugh. Too small, it moves to fast, and really, gives you too much info.

"Augusta's tried and true big boards are like watching the rest of the tournament unfold before your eyes. I hope that they never change."

Millsap is unsure if he will stay for all four days this year. But if he leaves early, it won't be because he doesn't love being there to take it all in.

He will be angling to get home in time to watch the final round on TV.

"It has always been … about the golf," he said. "I don't know what other people do with their badges, but I always wanted to [be] up there and enjoy the experience. I wanted my badges every day. Walking Augusta National is like being in a park. It's a beautiful place. The club really knows how to treat its patrons and they are always looking for ways to make being [there] more enjoyable and make watching the golf more fun."