Five-year-old Blake O’Brien returned from his first Masters with a special souvenir golf ball and the memory of capturing the attention of three of the world’s top golfers on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National Golf Club.
Holding up his Coastal Carolina University cap, the Myrtle Beach kindergartener called out to former Chanticleers star Dustin Johnson as he walked with playing partners Phil Mickelson and Ricky Fowler toward the 12th tee during Tuesday’s practice round.
“Dustin looked right at him and gave him a thumbs-up,” said Blake’s father, T.J., a former Chanticleer golfer, who had helped Blake and son Ty, 7, plan the friendly ambush in Amen Corner, site of spectacular holes Nos. 11, 12 and 13 at Augusta National. “He was thrilled.”
But the exchange wasn’t over. As the three golfers waited on the tee for the group playing in front of them to putt out on the 12th green, they looked toward the O’Brien brothers and chatted.
“It was obvious they were talking about them,” said T.J. “They were laughing and hamming it up. Even [three-time Masters champion] Mickelson got a kick out of it.”
A few seconds later, Mickelson’s longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, reached into Mickelson’s golf bag, grabbed a ball, walked over to the ropes and presented it to Blake as the gallery cheered.
“As soon as Blake got a handle on what was happening, he ran straight to us with a smile any parent would hope to see on their child’s face,” said T.J., who had never met any of the three players.
The Callaway ball bore Mickelson’s personal markings, four black dots around each number.
“Everybody cheered for me,” Blake said. “I’m going to put it someplace safe where nobody can steal it.”
T.J., who looked on with wife, Sherri, joked, “I almost reached in and grabbed it. It was a thrill to have your two boys singled out like that. It’s so important to kids when they get a chance to see stars they root for in person. Hopefully, years from now they’ll be able to share something like that with their kids.”
The O’Briens overcame some tough hurdles to merely get their practice round tickets. Since 1995, when the Masters began distributing practice round tickets through a drawing, T.J. had entered every year and failed.
This year, the O’Briens got lucky. But they almost lost their tickets before retrieving them from an envelope on their lawn.
T.J. said the envelope – some practice round tickets this week reportedly sold for more than $1,000 through ticket brokers – must have dropped out of Blake’s arms the day before when he collected the mail.
While waiting for a reply from the tournament, T.J. said he had worried about the possibility of losing the tickets between the mailbox and his house.
“It was almost surreal,” he said. “I had never been selected. Then we almost lost the tickets.
“I was pulling out of the driveway and saw an envelope in the grass. I thought to myself, ‘How much do you want to bet that’s from the Masters?’ And it was. My heart sank. But the tickets were still there.”
The O’Briens have a long tradition of mingling with the stars at the Masters. When T.J. was a student at North Myrtle Beach High, his mother, Lorrie, drove him and other members of the Chiefs golf team to Augusta every year to watch a Masters practice round.
Lorrie, who taught Spanish, often talked with Spanish players, including Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal in their native language.
“She once had a five-minute conversation with [Ballesteros],” said T.J.
As for the family’s souvenir, T.J. said it would be displayed proudly.
“That ball will be put in a case in something with pictures and a collage,” he said. “We’ll write something to put with it to explain the moment. Sharing this experience with my family was exciting. Hopefully, this will become a yearly thing for us.”