Most people measure time by months and seasons, but when I was a kid our family always marked time by how close it was to the first full week in April. And that was not because of the days getting longer, or the dogwoods beginning to bloom, but because of a little yearly pilgrimage that we were able to make to Augusta.
When I was young, somewhere in the early to mid sixties, we spent a few years living in Greenville, South Carolina. And my dad and some of his buddies had just taken up golf and decided to head over to Augusta National to see the tournament. Back in those days, to the best of my dad's recollection, you could just walk up to the gate and get tickets. My, how times have changed! One year, when my father and his friends were leaving the tournament to head back to Greenville, they noticed a table set up where you could sign up for season tickets, so they all did. And a family tradition was born.
For the next 55 years or so, someone from the Branch family would get to go to one of the most beautiful places on the planet, to see one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports. It was glorious! It wasn't until my early thirties that I finally worked my way into being one of the regulars, most often going with my dad for a week of excitement, drama, some of the best golf ever, and as many pimento cheese sandwiches as we could stand. During those days dad always set himself up behind the green on #7 and watched as every single golfer made his way around the course. Then he would meander over to Amen Corner and do the same. I usually picked a couple of groups to follow and walked the course, enjoying watching the story of the tournament unfold for some of my favorite golfers, dropping by #7 green several times during the day to hang out with dad. At the end of each day we would grab a bite to eat and watch the replay on TV as we fell asleep in the hotel room, only to go and do the very same thing the next day. It was wonderful.
When my dad's health began to decline and he was unable to attend anymore himself, he gave the tickets to me and my family so that the Branch family tradition could continue. And as a result, for several years my wife and I had the privilege of sharing the wonder of The Masters with our children as well. For years everyone would take off of work, or school, and cram into a couple of hotel rooms in Augusta, Aiken, or Columbia and have the week of our lives, trading off the badges so that everyone got the chance to see as much golf (and eat as many pimento cheese sandwiches) as possible. They are some of my very favorite memories.
A couple of years ago, we knew my dad was nearing the end of his life's journey. His only prayer that year was that he would live long enough for us to be able to get the Master's tickets one more time. You see, not only was my dad a great father, but he was also an incredible grandfather. Right up to the end what brought him the most joy and happiness was to bring joy to his kids and grandkids. And did he ever!
That year his prayers were answered. In his grace and kindness, God gave my dad the exact gift he most wanted to have, another Masters for his children and grandchildren. My father passed away on April 8, 2019 and on April 10 we all piled into cars one more time to make our final pilgrimage to Augusta National. We knew that's exactly what my dad would have wanted. And it was probably our best trip ever: being together, enjoying the tournament, eating way more than we should, laughing a lot, remembering dad's life, and once again experiencing his love and care. In fact, every time I passed by the 7th green I looked for him, and imagined where he would be sitting and what he would be eating and who he would be waiting to see come through. It was, and always will be, holy ground.
So if you are fortunate enough to be one of the lucky few (relatively speaking) who get tickets (especially this year when tickets are so scarce), savor every minute. And if you see a silver-haired man in an Appalachian State hat, eating a pimento cheese sandwich behind the seventh green, it wouldn't surprise me one bit. I'm not really sure how things work in heaven, but if somehow dad is not able to be there, I would like to image that he and Jesus are sitting somewhere with a great view of the seventh green, eating pimento cheese sandwiches, and watching some incredible golf. Even the thought of that makes me smile.
So pardon me if I get a little sentimental this time of year, because April always makes me think of the Masters, and the Masters will always make me think of my dad. And now, with the birth of my first grandson, last year on April 9th, I have so much to celebrate and be thankful for every time this time of year rolls around. It's my favorite!