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  1. Sports

Coffee shop encounter leads to once-in-a-lifetime trip to Masters

A stranger gifts her late husband’s ticket to the ultimate golf event after months of friendship and conversation.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — This is a story full of magic that runs around and through the Masters.

It begins, however, far from the rolling green Georgia hills of Augusta National Golf Club.

It begins with a cup of coffee.

In Tampa.

One morning more than a year and a half ago I dropped off my daughter at Wilson Middle School, as I do every day, and walked into one of my favorite shops to get this fateful cup of coffee.

As I waited, the woman next to me had several newspapers on the counter in front of her. One of the headlines grabbed my attention and I leaned in to steal a read.

She caught me and said I was free to take the section. We talked about the story and then another story and so on.

The first meeting lasted 15 minutes or so.

We said nice to meet you and learned each other’s names (though she wants to keep her name anonymous for this story). We said maybe we’ll see each other again at the coffee shop.

We did.

For the next few months, we met once or twice a week, always unplanned, and discussed everything from raising kids, to the newspaper industry, to breakfast sandwiches.

Then one day we talked about the Masters, which had a headline in the sports section.

I babbled.

I told her I loved golf, a game I shared with my father and friends and a beloved teacher for most of my life. I told her when the Masters was on television I watched every minute and over the years I learned every hole like the back of my hand, but only in the sense of the television coverage. I said it was a dream of mine to see the course in person but I never thought that would happen because it takes years to get a ticket through the lottery and then, of course, there was the expense of going, which probably took me out the mix anyway.

She listened and nodded. She also loved the Masters because her husband was a long-time member of Augusta National Golf Club and every year she shared the PGA event with him.

I knew the numbers. Augusta National has a membership of about 300, including some of the most influential people on earth. Membership is by invitation only and there is no application process. Exclusive? Exclusive doesn’t cut it.

I said something stupid like, “Wow.”

Then she told me she couldn’t bear to go Augusta National any longer. Her husband died several years ago and the one time she went without him it hurt so much because she kept looking up and expecting to see him come around the corner to meet her.

“But he wasn’t there.”

She paused another moment, and said, “I will give you a ticket to the Masters.”

She explained that because of her husband’s membership she still has access to tickets. She said all we had to do was have a few unplanned meetings through the next year and continue to discuss the daily news over cups of coffee.

We did.

At one of those brief meetings about a month ago, she handed me the ticket.

I asked why she felt compelled to give me this gift, and she said she saw in me how much I appreciated the Masters. “I want to honor my husband’s memory by sharing it with you.”

This week I drove more than an hour and a half, each way, for three days, to Augusta National, because I couldn’t find a hotel any closer that I could afford.

But each day was a great day.

Each day I stood and watched live shots at Amen Corner. I walked down the steep hill of the par-4, 495-yard No. 10 hole named Camelia (way steeper than it is on television). I marveled at tee shots sailing at me, standing behind the fairway bunker on the par-4 No. 18 hole named Holly. I sat in the stands behind the practice tee lined with players. I saw Phil Mickelson nearly ace the par-3 No. 16 hole named Redbud.

I walked every perfect hole, listening to the gorgeous roars after great shots on other holes.

I ate, and I’m not kidding, 16 “Masters sandwiches” (including four famous pimento cheese and four egg salad). I applauded the lightning speed of the concession stands (Disney World should take a page from the Masters’ concession-stand playbook). I stopped between tee shots and listened to birds chirping, behind the banks of blooming azaleas and the gurgling of Rae’s Creek.

Sometimes you see things on television, then visit and they don’t hold up to your expectations.

Not so with Augusta National.

There were moments I stood beside a green, looking at the place, and tears welled. It would come over me all of the sudden.

Was it because I thought I’d never see it in person? Was it because it was so perfect? Or because it was given to me in a beautiful, perfect gesture?

I was so touched. I am honored.

Thank you, my friend.

I believe your husband would be happy with your gift to me.

We will meet soon for a cup of coffee. We’ve got plenty to chat about.