Being my first and probably only Masters, I was given a special assignment.
Upon my arrival in the press theater at Augusta National that early Tuesday afternoon in 1994, following a full morning of travel from my home in New Jersey, my good friend and golf buddy Mike Kern from the Philadelphia Daily News looked up from his laptop.
“Welcome pal,” he said. “Since you’re new here, I’ve got to give you the rookie test.”
I had some writing to do that day on our local stick Jeff Thomas, a legendary New Jersey player whose title in the 1993 U.S. Mid-Amateur was the ticket to Augusta for both of us, but I could spare some time.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s the test?”
Kern, who accepted the rookie challenge years before, spoke up.
“You have one hour,” he said. “Go anywhere inside the boundaries of the club – and I mean anywhere – and bring me back a weed. If you bring me back a weed, I’m buying dinner.”
Of course I took the challenge, and I had a strategy. I’d give myself a chance to win by going to all those places out of reach of the television cameras.
I dropped my work bag in the top row of the theater, and off I went. The media parking area, basically a pebble-paved vacant lot, was going to be my best bet. But funny, I thought, that I didn’t recall seeing any weeds when I arrived, and I wasted the first 30 minutes of my test looking for the odd dandelion.
I moved on to the concessions area. Certainly, they couldn’t have been so meticulous as to make that area pristine before covering it with tarps and tents, right? Yes, they could.
One last walk behind the main scoreboard and I was done. I gave up, reasoning that if they spent so much time and effort making the common grounds weed-free, there’s no way there could be any weeds on the hallowed course itself.
I returned to the theater empty-handed. I was buying dinner.
Kern, who fancies himself a foodie but whose secret crave is Jack In The Box tacos, was the Masters veteran so he got to choose the restaurant.
“There’s a great Mexican place not too far out of town,” he said.
“No way, Mikey,” I said. “We’re in the Deep South. There’s no way there’s decent Mexican food here. Would you order a cheese steak in Georgia?”
He insisted, and it was his call, so off we went.
I honestly do not remember the name of the place, but it looked nice outside and inside – like it had been there for a while. The parking lot was full, but this being early Masters week every restaurant was going to be packed.
We ended up as a party of eight and were led through the dining room to a large outdoor dining deck with room for maybe 40 diners.
I knew what I was going to order before I glanced at the menu. My test on my first visit to any Mexican restaurant – one that I use to this day – is that it better be able to serve a proper chile relleno.
The waiter came, and I asked, “Tell me about your chile relleno.”
He smiled – more of a smirk, really. “Senor,” he said, “where are you from?”
I told him I was living in New Jersey but was a native Californian.
His eyes widened. “You’re from California?” he said. “Senor, you don’t want our chile relleno.”
That was enough of an overwhelming positive endorsement for me. I ordered a beef enchilada plate. Yep, stale corn tortillas filled with dry ground beef, smothered in cheddar cheese and a red sauce bland enough to be used on the pizzas found on the menu’s back cover.
Someone else at the table ordered the chile relleno. It was a four-inch stick of pepper jack cheese wrapped in green chili pepper strips, rolled in bread crumbs (again from the Italian part of the menu?) and pan-fried. Lovely.
Every time I run into my old sportswriter friend, unfortunately rare these days, and he speaks up about wanting to choose where to eat, I’m compelled to bring up this story, and then we end up at Jack In The Box.
But that restaurant did have something going for it. Behind us on that dining deck was a planter bursting with azaleas that could have been transplanted that morning from Amen Corner.
You know what that planter didn’t have?
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2150. Follow him on Twitter @modestobeek.