(Photo courtesy of Getty Images.)
DAWN BROKE AND WITH IT, NEWS WE DIDN’T WANT – a low-ceiling, dark skies and a forecast peppered with intermittent heavy downpours.
Not exactly the type of weather you want or need for a chopper shoot of Augusta National Golf Club. Or any target from “the eye in the sky”, for that matter.
Careful planning had taken weeks and we were set to go except that we hadn’t counted on April showers arriving a few days ahead of schedule in late-March. Radar images that morning evoked memories of a childhood kaleidoscope. To say we were bummed would be like saying Roberto De Vicenzo didn’t like the Sunday scorecard he signed at Augusta back in 1968, thereby signing away his only shot at a Masters Championship. (“What a stupid I am!”, one of the great one-line quotes ever.)
Looking back, I was a lucky S.O.B. because I’d been assigned this Masters project 11 times during my 15-year fun run as a Creative Director/Senior Producer at The Coca-Cola Company. It wasn’t ‘til after The Company and I parted ways that I realized how lucky this S.O.B. truly was to have opportunities like this.
I digress …
Regardless of weather, our chopper had been chartered and paid for, cleared by the tower to fly that morning, and awaited us at PDK, as Atlantans call it (Peachtree-DeKalb Airport in Chamblee). We’d made arrangements to use the 96Rock traffic helicopter; at the time a sleek black bird with aviation-style racing stripes along the sides and a broken headset that turned out to be the one I would wear on the way over, arriving with a headache for the ages.
I hired the same shoot crew for many years and we’d shot “The National” nine ways to Sunday, so to speak.
We’d shot the glorious clubhouse from every conceivable angle. We’d shot the iconic flowerbed fashioned perfectly into the Masters Tournament logo in front of that pristine clubhouse. We’d shot from behind the azaleas bordering the back of No.12 tee box and we’d shot gurgling close-ups of “Rae’s Creek”.
We’d shot the Par-3 course (another story for another day) and “The Crow’s Nest” against royal blue skies unlike what we had today. We’d shot reverent, teary-eyed “Masters Patrons” (as fans are politely called) visiting the hallowed grounds for the first time. We’d shot “The Veranda”, the “Eisenhower Tree” on No.17, and we’d shot beneath “The Big Oak Tree” (everything has an understood name at Augusta National). We’d shot golfers playfully skipping balls across the pond fronting No.16 green. We’d even shot slow-mo of fans sipping Coca-Cola from branded cups in the gallery. (Outside trademarks are a non-no at Augusta National, I learned.)
What was left?
That’s when aerials came to mind.
Mind you, this was a quarter-century ago, long before drones and Sony GoPros and HD imagery were even in play. Our Director of Photography — a tall, cool lanky guy name Brian who tolerated my wisecracks — worked diligently to prepare a shoot rig that allowed him to mount his camera outside the nose of the chopper while he sat right of the pilot and operated the camera with a joystick. At the time, it was pretty ingenious. Today, a $500 Costco drone and HD cam could pull off the same task in less time, for far less money, and with remarkably better results.
But this is now, and that was then …
I’d contacted the Federal Aviation Administration at Bush Field in Augusta to find out what our minimum altitude would be over the grounds of Augusta National and was told told 500 feet. Out of respect, I also contacted the club’s Communications Director at the time and asked him what he preferred. He said, “We’ll have members on the grounds that day. Please, no lower than 1,000 feet.” Shoulda kept my mouth shut!
Chopper blades whirling and decibels soaring, we lifted off for the 59-minute trip through thick clouds, rain and the occasional splash of brightness that temporarily lifted our spirits … only to dash them minutes later. We knew when we left, we had Vegas odds of capturing anything remotely beautiful on such a bad-weather day and this would probably be a mission of futility. But as I said, payments had been made and, who knows, maybe one of us had a good karma chit that could be cashed in that day.
It wasn’t me but it was someone on the crew, thankfully.
Just as we approached Augusta National and prepared to ease down in the grassy Patrons parking lot, a brilliant slash of sunlight broke through the clouds and, with it, glorious patches of blue appeared. Soon, the last of the dark skies gave way to bright, white puffs that make for great images. The rain and sudden sunburst had turned Augusta National into a spectacular shade of emerald-green that would look absolutely amazing on motion film.
There IS a God, I thought … and he probably plays golf at Augusta National!
It took an hour or so for Brian, our DP, to mount the camera, test the joystick, and review the “shot sheet” one last time. Damn near giddy with our good weather fortune, we lifted off again, blades of shiny green grass flattening against the ground from the blades above creating a powerful “prop wash”.
We journeyed about a mile beyond Washington Road, away from Augusta National, and made a slow bank back towards the club, moving in a northwest-to-southeast direction so we had the perfect shot that would open with a glorious overhead of the magnolias that line both sides of, well, Magnolia Lane. From there, we’d pass above the flowerbed logo, the clubhouse, “The Veranda” and its classic green and white umbrellas, and “The Big Oak Tree” before veering slightly left down No.10 fairway southeast towards “Amen Corner” – the most iconic of the Masters icons, in my opinion — before banking west and following Rae’s Creek along No.13 fairway. In post-production, the 27 frames-per-second would be slowed down dramatically so the viewer could take in the majesty of the grounds as seen from the Heavens.
We made at least a half-dozen passes on this route, keeping to a respectful 1,000-foot altitude, and even got a shot of several golfers on the putting green behind the clubhouse waving to us as we made our third or fourth pass. The rest of the day was spent shooting other parts of the course and we got lucky and captured a brilliant lens flare as the late-day sun reflected off the lake that separates No.16 tee box and green.
Knowing we were about done for the day and had what we needed, we decided to make one final pass along the original route, just for shits and giggles; along Magnolia Lane, over the clubhouse and down through Amen Corner.
This time at 500 feet. I mean, the FAA said it was OK.
We pulled it off, fingers crossed we’d gotten away with this, ahem, transgression.
After landing in the grassy parking lot, we climbed out of the chopper and began packing gear. About that time, a green golf cart from the direction of the clubhouse came speeding across the parking lot towards us. The driver’s green-and-yellow Augusta National tie whipped back over one shoulder and flapped angrily in the wind.
We’re screwed, I thought. It’s my project. My crew. My bad.
As he drew closer, I realized it was the club’s Communications Director. I approached the cart and greeted him as cheerfully as I could, anticipating an earful and a lifetime ban from the grounds of Augusta National.
“Y’all get everything you need?” he asked.
Fearing this was just an opening line before the tongue-lashing and eternal banishment, I fired a pre-emptive strike.
Hey, (name redacted), have you ever been up in a chopper?”
“Want to ..?”
“Sure!”, he said, smiling like a kid about to ride his first roller-coaster.
While the crew continued packing gear, the two of us climbed in the bird. Once aloft, he asked if we could fly over his childhood home a few miles from Augusta National. We did, he marveled, and after a quick pass over the club’s grounds and about 15 minutes later, we landed.
Handshakes and smiles all around, hearty goodbyes, and “thanks for everything” send-offs, we took off on our return trip to PDK.
Crisis averted and, along with our amazing aerial footage, another personal Masters memory was safely “in the can”.