A Masterful History Lesson
April 6, 2006
When Dillon Dougherty started hitting golf balls around his Northern California home near Stanford University at the age of four, the Northwestern senior knew nothing of Green Jacket ceremonies, Magnolia Lane, the Crow's Nest, Amen Corner, Hogan Bridge or the Champion's Dinner.
When he tees off at Augusta National on Thursday, the dreams Dougherty started building as a child will be realized. The first Wildcat amateur to participate in the Masters Tournament, one of the most renowned competitions in the world, the history major from Woodland, Calif., will begin his implausible first-hand lesson in those age-old traditions. He will tee off in a threesome with three-time Masters champion Gary Player and three-time entrant Rory Sabatini.
"I've been excited for it for seven months and now that it's finally here, I'm just ready for it to happen," he said. "It's always been a dream of mine. Augusta's a special place. I've always dreamed of playing there."
Player should be an unparalleled teacher. The PGA Tour veteran has participated in 48 Masters and boasts a storied career that spans five decades. He claimed his first green jacket in 1961 - more than 20 years before Dillon was born.
Dougherty, who recalls Fred Couples title victory in 1992 as his first Masters memory, punched his ticket to one of golf's most prestigious tournaments with a runner-up finish in the 2005 US Amateur. After falling 4 and 3 to Italy's Edoardo Molinari in the final, Dougherty received an honorary invitation to play in the 70th Masters Tournament.
The event of a lifetime for Dougherty kicked off Sunday evening when he moved into the famed Crow's Nest, the living quarters at Augusta for amateur participants. Next he rubbed elbows with some of the sport's greatest competitors during a Tuesday practice session with former Masters champions Tom Watson and Vijay Singh.
Joining Dougherty as amateurs in the 90-player field are Molinari, Kevin Marsh, Brian McElhinney and Clay Odgen. The group will not only compete for a green jacket but also for the Silver Cup, which is awarded to the low-scoring amateur who makes the 36-hole cut, and a chance to participate in Sunday's Green Jacket ceremony for the tournament champion.
While an amateur participant has never won the Masters title, Dougherty holds level-headed expectations for his time at Augusta. An air of California cool helps the 23-year-old Dougherty feign calm as he talks about the monumental event, but he cannot camouflage his excitement.
"There will be different points where I'm more nervous than others, but the only expectation I have is to enjoy it as much as I can," Dougherty said. "I'd love to make the cut, I'd love to be there Sunday, and I'd love to be the low amateur and be in the ceremony Sunday night, but I want to enjoy it. That's the main thing."
In the seven months since he received the invitation, Dougherty has made three scouting trips to Augusta, each more sobering than the first, playing the course 15-20 times. On his last trip in February, the ropes were in place and the tournament scoreboard was set up. When desolate course struck his stomach, Dougherty knew there would be no fighting the nerves he would imminently feel teeing off at the first hole.
"You just have to expect them to be there," he said. "I've been practicing and doing stuff for months to try and make game better and get ready in terms of calming nerves and not getting anxious. But there's probably nothing I can really do, it's just going to happen."
Despite never having played in a tournament, Dougherty does not expect the change in pace and format to be too much of a factor. He also said the new course lengths should not affect him too much, hoping his unshakable short-game will be on point in the tournament.
Dougherty did not have to look too far for practiced Augusta advice. Former Northwestern standout and 1999 NCAA Champion, Luke Donald, has been a huge supporter of Dougherty. The two were paired together in the 3-Par Contest and took in a practice round. A five-year member of the PGA Tour, Donald made his Masters debut last year with much success. The four-time All-American finished tied for third, seven strokes behind champion Tiger Woods - another influential, albeit brief, figure in Dougherty's golf coming-of-age.
When he was 12 years old, Dougherty often caddied for Woods at Stanford before he became one of the most recognizable one-name celebrities in the world after Madonna and Prince. During one such round, Woods checked with the preteen on which club he should use for a long par 3. When Dougherty sheepishly suggested an eight iron, Woods laughed, "Who do you think I am, John Daly?"
Now that Dougherty has honed his club selection skills, he looks forward to meeting Woods again at Augusta.
"He was very good even then," he said. "The way he treated me was unbelievable. He was really nice to me, and we talked the whole time. It was really interesting to see someone of his level be so generous to just a little kid."
When Dougherty had to pick a caddy of his own for the Masters, he made his priorities clear. Rather than using a veteran Augusta National caddy who is well-versed in the subtleties of the course, he opted to have his caddy from the U.S. Amateur - his father, Dan - by his side for the experience.
"The thing he's good at is talking to me, keeping me calm, dealing with me emotionally. Plus, he's watched my game for 10 years-plus," Dougherty said. "[Not knowing the course like some of the other caddies on the tour] is probably a little disadvantage, just not having an Augusta caddy who knows the greens really well, but I think that it's more about the experience, and I'll be more comfortable with my dad out there."
Dougherty proved he can handle himself in the most unnerving conditions when he notched his place in program history, becoming the first Wildcat to reach the U.S. Amateur championship match Chick Evans, who lost to Masters Tournament founder Bobby Jones in 1927. He achieved the feat with a prolific semifinal performance.
One hole down with two to play, Dougherty's first shot on the 246-yard, par-3 17th sailed to the left, leaving him with a 30-yard chip shot from the matted rough if he had any hopes of evening the match. His second shot bounced off the flagstick before slipping in the hole, squaring the match with his second birdie. On the final hole, Dougherty hit the flagstick again to rest a foot from the hole before his opponent, J.C. Deacon, sailed a comeback putt 10-feet wide of the hole to give Dougherty the victory.
A spot in the Amateur final put Dougherty 18 holes away from joining Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as distinguished owners of the Havemeyer Trophy, but his mind was already on his April trip to one of golf's most hallowed grounds.
"I couldn't believe it, especially with the way I won that semifinal," he said. "I remember standing on the 18th green, but the first thing that hit me was that I was going to Augusta. It wasn't really about being in the final of the U.S. Amateur, it was that I was going to be playing in the Masters."
The achievement has followed him to every golf course he has stepped foot on for seven months.
"For him it's a neat deal because he really earns the respect of the players," said Northwestern coach Pat Goss, who is also Donald's swing coach. "We're not on a driving range or Dillon's not in a pairing where someone doesn't come talk to him about it. The good college players know what he accomplished and really respect it."
While Dougherty begins play in the biggest tournament of his career, his Northwestern teammates head to West Lafayette, Ind., for the Boilermaker Invitational. Goss will be at Augusta coaching Donald, and because of NCAA rules, supporting Dougherty only as a spectator.
Goss said he is about as excited for Dillon's experience in Augusta to commence as he is for his team and Dillon to begin preparing for the rest of the season, especially the 2006 Big Ten Championships which Northwestern will host on its own Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill., at the end of April.
"Part of me, I'm torn on this event because I'm so excited for Dillon. I know as a golfer what it means for him, but as a college golf coach I'm kind of excited for this thing to be done," Goss said with a laugh. "I'd like to get back to getting us all focused on college golf here. We have a team that should be the best in the Big Ten."
A fifth-year senior, Dougherty is consistently one of the Wildcats top three finishers and is on the 2006 Big Hogan Award watch list for the top Division-I golfer. He claimed his first collegiate title in October 2004, winning the Alister MacKenzie Invitational title after posting a third-round-best 67, and within a year propelled his game to a national level - an exposure-affecting accomplishment Goss certainly appreciates.
"The thing I've been most proud of with our program is that we've created the opportunity and the resources for great players to go to the top level in golf, whether it be [former Northwestern golfers] Jim Benepe to Scott Rowe to Luke Donald to now Dillon with what he's achieved," Goss said. "I feel it is further validation that if you're that good, you can do it at Northwestern."
March Madness is over, but the former basketball prep star is not ruling out hopes of making history with a Cinderella run of his own before returning to the reality of Big Ten golf and graduation. "The only expectation I have is to enjoy it as much as I can," Dougherty said. "I'd love to make the cut, I'd love to be there Sunday, and I'd love to be the low amateur and be in the ceremony Sunday night, but I want to enjoy it. That's the main thing. I love the underdog story, I love March Madness. I think that's something I would love to be. The Masters are what I'm thinking about right now, but in two weeks I'll be back to college golf."