Dougherty wins fans, fine tunes for Masters (Men’s Golf)

Zach Silka

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The day started with a “Thank you,” ended with a hole-in-one and in the middle there was a lump on the head and a miraculous shot.

It was quite an eventful nine hours of work Wednesday for Northwestern golfer Dillon Dougherty in his final day of preparation before he tees off this morning in the first round of the Masters Tournament.

About an hour after the gates opened and spectators flooded the grounds on a brisk, sun-drenched morning at Augusta National, Dougherty made his way to the driving range. Under the warm morning light flickering down among the magnolia trees, the Wildcats’ senior became more superstar than amateur as he slowly treaded down the dirt path, signing autographs along the way.

Among the “Go Wildcats” and well-wishes from the gallery came a distinct, perplexing choice of words – “Thank you.” Perplexing not because the fans were saying it, but because Dougherty himself was uttering the gratitude.

After Dougherty scribbled one signature, a middle-aged woman turned to her husband, saying in a sweet, Georgian drawl, “I don’t even know his name, but he’s just a good ol’ guy. He’ll sign autographs ’til his hand falls off.”

A final practice round with NU alumnus Luke Donald awaited just before noon and would be Dougherty’s last chance to sharpen his game before today’s 8:55 a.m. local time date with history.

Sharing the experience of Dougherty becoming the first NU amateur to compete in the Masters will be three-time Masters winner Gary Player and current 2006 PGA Tour money leader Rory Sabbatini.

Dougherty and Donald played just the back nine Wednesday, along with David Howell and Steven Ames.

The round was filled with plenty of good and bad for Dougherty, who played similar to his practice round Monday and a little worse than Tuesday’s, according to NU men’s golf coach Pat Goss.

Rock bottom came on the 15th hole when Dougherty’s 3-wood from the fairway hooked left and struck an elderly man in the head while he was sitting in the grandstand next to the green. He was escorted away by medical personnel walking under his own power but didn’t leave without a signed ball from Dougherty, who went over to check on the injured spectator.

“(The autographed ball) is worth about nothing,” Dougherty said with a laugh, “but he wanted it.”

Dougherty found a positive takeaway from the afternoon on No. 18, however, when it originally appeared his round would end dismally. After slicing his tee shot badly into the woods, Dougherty ripped a low, cutting 2-iron just short of the green with a 25-person gallery roaring around him.

“That’s what I like to do,” Dougherty laughed. “Sometimes it’s more fun to hit drives way off line out here (so) you get crowds around you.”

Dougherty capped off the day at the Par-3 Contest, in which playing partner Tim Clark rolled his tee shot into the cup on the final hole, with his family by his side. His twin 16-year-old brothers, Ian and Graham, caddied for Dougherty and Donald, while his father and tournament caddie, Dan, and mother, Jamie, watched behind the ropes.

With the strong backing of more than 10 family members and countless other friends and acquaintances in attendance, Dougherty may find himself playing into the weekend and participating in the Green Jacket ceremony as low amateur, Donald said.

“Dillon’s playing nicely,” Donald said. “He seems pretty relaxed already.”

Added Dougherty: “I don’t know if I play well what (score) that will be. So I’m just going to try to play well and see what that does.”

Reach Zach Silka at [email protected]