A couple of visitors were chatting with Eric Meeks in the pro shop at the TaylorMade Golf Experience out on Las Vegas Boulevard recently, where he operates the Eric Meeks School of Golf. It was coming up on the 25-year anniversary of Meeks having qualified to play in the Masters.
As an amateur, no less.
He said he had pictures in his office.
His office was outside, in one of those tough sheds. It seemed a solid tough shed, though. Nice and sturdy. The wind was blowing like crazy; Meeks’ office didn’t budge.
It was chilly and nobody was playing par-3 golf and there wasn’t a magnolia tree in sight.
Eric Meeks considered all of this and chuckled when he thought about where he was 25 years ago.
Twenty-six years ago he had won the U.S. Amateur golf championship, which punched his ticket to Augusta National, as well as the U.S. Open at Oak Hill, and the other Open, the one in Great Britain, at Royal Troon in Scotland. This was heady stuff for a kid just out of the University of Arizona, even if he was the world’s top-ranked amateur.
Twenty-five years ago, when he turned off Washington Road and onto Magnolia Lane, Eric Meeks had a mullet. He drove his car under those magnolia trees that formed a canopy to the clubhouse. There were 61 magnolia trees then; this was before a thunderstorm on a rainy night in Georgia took one out in 2011.
There was pristine and grandeur wherever you looked. Everything was venerable; everything was green and yellow and pink and in full bloom. Augusta National was alive with color, as Eric Meeks knew it would be. And yet, it caught him off guard.
Any kid who has dreamed of playing in the Masters since he was old enough to grip a 9-iron can become mesmerized driving under those magnolia trees the first time.
“It’s all upper crust or whatever,” Meeks said recalling his first practice round. “I’ve got the caddie with the white overalls, green hat, and I’m walking down the middle of 10, and it’s 70 degrees, and it’s pristine — and growing up, I watched the tournament every year, and I know on the front right of that green is where Ben Crenshaw knocked in that 50-footer, and then on 11, Larry Mize chipping in, and Greg Norman, and so I hit those shots. Going through Amen Corner, the whole deal.
“And I couldn’t share it with anybody.”
He couldn’t even take a picture with a cellphone, because that was when cellphones looked like Maxwell Smart’s shoe.
“But in my mind, I have sketched it there. That’s how awesome it was.”
Meeks, now a youthful-looking 49, said television simply does not do Augusta National justice. Well, TV does it some justice, because Augusta National still looks spectacular on TV, especially in high definition when they play that soft piano music coming back from commercials and Jim Nantz speaks in a reverent tone.
But you can’t see the slope of those greens, Meeks said, and going up 18 the first time during the tournament itself — where’s the hole?
When all those people are out there in all those galleries, Meeks said you can’t even see the 18th green. And then when you get there, he said putting was like putting on the tabletop at which we were sitting, or like putting in the neutral zone at old Maple Leaf Gardens.
“It was a little overwhelming,” Meeks said.
And then you throw in that he was an amateur, and that Sandy Lyle, his playing partner the first day, was not — Lyle, in fact, had won the Masters, had become the first Briton to wear the green jacket, the year before. And, yeah, you knew a lot of people were going to show up, but not this many people.
This was a little bigger than playing against Arizona State in the NCAA regionals.
Meeks held his right hand up and started shaking it, as one does when one is nervous. He said he would learn to manage anxiety on the golf course, but not then, not at Augusta National during the opening round of the 1989 Masters.
He said he was even with par for a while, but then they announced his name and it was time to play.
Meeks shot 83 on Thursday, 79 on Friday. Arnold Palmer beat him by one stroke. It was a fantastic experience for a young guy who hadn’t yet turned pro.
When Meeks drove under the magnolia canopy on his way out, he vowed to get ’em next year, or the year after that.
“I thought I would be back multiple times. It didn’t turn out that way.”
Eric Meeks would spend most of his professional career on the Nike Tour, which became the Nationwide Tour. It was a nice career. He’s proud of it. He got to drive under those magnolia trees when he still was an amateur, and how many guys can say that?
“There are a lot of guys who never played in the Masters,” he said. “If you’ve played in the Masters, you’ve accomplished something.”
He has pictures to prove it. They’re in the tough shed. But many of those photos are blurry and fuzzy.
Those are mostly ones that Bob Meeks took. Sometimes it’s hard to focus when your son is playing golf at the Masters.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.