Buckeyes golfer, Masters debutant Neal Shipley set for 'special' experience at Augusta National

Spencer-Holbrookby:Spencer Holbrook04/09/24


COLUMBUS — Neal Shipley is no stranger to incredible golf courses. He’s been around.

The 23-year-old Ohio State golfer and runner-up at the US Amateur last August has played his way through some of the iconic venues the country has to offer.

Start local and work your way out. He caddied at Oakmont near his home in Western Pennsylvania. Inverness in Toledo? He played there in his first appearance for the Buckeyes 18 months ago. Galloway National in New Jersey, Seaside on the coast of Georgia, even the iconic Cherry Hills, where he nearly beat now-pro Nick Dunlap at the US Am. Shipley’s been there, done that.

But Augusta National will make a stranger out of you, whether you’re the debutant or the seasoned veteran driving down Magnolia Lane for the umpteenth time.

So there was Neal Shipley, pulling up to the most famous drive in all of golf, maybe in all of sports, ready to be wowed. What he didn’t realize is that the ‘wow’ came — and then the hilarious confusion followed. He took a right off Washington Road and onto Magnolia Lane. Shipley was greeted by a guard and was permitted onto the premises. First thing he was floored by? The security pillars blocking the roadway.

Even the freaking traffic bollards will make a first-timer at Augusta fall in love with every aspect of the grounds.

“The security guard clicks a button on his belt and the pillars go into the ground,” Shipley told Lettermen Row ahead of his debut appearance at the Masters. “It’s like the coolest thing ever. It’s like you’re entering the Federal Reserve or something. And then you drive through — Magnolia Lane’s awesome. Drove pretty slowly down it that first time. But then I realized, like, I got down to the end of the roundabout or to the roundabout and I realized: I don’t know what exit to take. So actually did like a little like 360 around the roundabout once or twice until someone came out and pointed us to the right direction. That was a pretty funny way to enter Magnolia Lane for the first time.”

Consider it a rookie mistake. He now understands the lay of the hallowed land.

By the time the 23-year-old Shipley tees off on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. in a group that includes 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir, he’ll have played on the grounds at Augusta five times — more than 120 holes, some with no signage, scoreboards, tents or grandstands up and some with the full decor of the tournament — and went through the Par 3 contest. He’ll have already had a night’s sleep in the Crow’s Nest. Names such as Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and even Ohio State alum Jack Nicklaus are among the players who have stayed there as amateurs before going on to win the green jacket during their careers.

He’ll have eaten dinner Monday night with the other amateurs, those he’ll be competing against for a Sunday spot in Butler Cabin with legendary CBS announcer Jim Nantz, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, 2023 Masters winner Jon Rahm and the next green jacket recipient. Shipley will already be settled in at both houses his team has booked for the week; one of them is for those involved with the actual golf he’ll play — the other, of course, is the party house for his family and friends.

(© Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)

And he’ll already have let it sink in that he’s playing in the 88th Masters.

“The opportunity to play Augusta National is really special, especially given the circumstances that I’ll be playing it under,” he said. “And, you know, I think everyone who grows up playing golf competitively, or you know, at any level, kind of dreams about playing at Augusta or competing in the Masters, so it’s certainly living out one of my childhood dreams. I’ve heard so much about the week and how special it is.

“I’m just really excited to experience it, experience the Masters and everything that it represents for our game.”

Shipley can pinpoint when he fell in love with major championship golf. He remembers watching the TV as 2000 Masters champion Vijay Singh won the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straights. Shipley was three. But that didn’t stop him from tipping his dad’s golf bag over and trying to swing his club just a day after watching Singh win his third and final major. Shipley credits that moment — and Singh — for introducing him to the game of golf.

When Shipley makes his Masters debut Thursday, Singh will be in the group just behind him, teeing it up for his 31st time at Augusta.

Shipley, of course, is making his first start. Nerves will be, well, duh. But he’s not too worried about the pressure that comes with the moments ahead this weekend.

“There’s obviously a lot of added pressure, and you can add a lot of pressure to yourself,” Shipley said. “And those are certain things that can creep in your mind when you’re on the golf course or just in a heated competition, your mind wanders, you’ve got a lot of time out there. I mean, it’s probably four-and-a-half, five-hour rounds most of the time. You can’t stay focused on golf solely for all that time. So I think the biggest thing for me and what I’ve tried to focus on during competition when you have added pressure, because of outside factors, is just kind of zone in back on and acknowledge those thoughts, but then kind of turn your focus back to what’s happening in the moment, just focus on the golf shot at hand and kind of really get zoned in on that.

“Because at the end of the day, if you can hit every shot out there really committed to your process, there’s going to be no regrets on the result just because of that commitment. Then you’re bound to play better golf.”

Shipley has clearly played good enough golf to be in this moment, especially last season at Ohio State. In his first season with the Buckeyes, the graduate transfer from James Madison had five top-20 finishes and one top-10. He shot a first-round 70, a second-round 68 and a third-round 67 to help the Buckeyes make the 54-hole cut at the NCAA Championship.

(Courtesy: Ohio State athletics)

And of course, he finished runner-up at the US Amateur in August to qualify for the Masters — and the upcoming U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 later this summer. In that thrilling run at the US Am, Shipley won his semifinal match 2-and-1 over John Marshall Butler, and that victory came with fireworks. He had 93 yards to the 17th hole at Cherry Hills, wedge in hand, and fired a shot that cleared the cup, landed on the green and immediately began feeding back toward the flagstick. By the time it came to a rest, Shipley had a tap-in birdie putt to clinch the match — and the ticket to Augusta.

He didn’t win the US Amateur. Nick Dunlap did, beating Shipley 4 and 3 on his way to the title. Dunlap has since gone on to punch his way into the Masters a second way — by winning the American Express Championship in January. After that win, Dunlap left Alabama and accepted his PGA Tour card.

Shipley knows he’s good enough to compete against Dunlap, one of the young stars of the PGA Tour season so far. And that knowledge gives Shipley the perfect jolt of confidence to understand that he can compete this weekend.

“It gives me a ton of confidence,” he said, “especially moving forward in my professional career, knowing that when I’m playing good golf, I can beat pretty much anyone out there in the world. And, you know, a lot of it in the professional ranks is about just kind of timing it up, just playing good at the right times like Nick did. That next step is just about staying patient but carrying that confidence with me that I can compete and definitely carrying it with me at Augusta.

“Because I know if I play well — those guys on tour, they’re not perfect, and they don’t always hit good golf shots. There’s no secret sauce. It’s just hard work and grinding it out.”

Augusta is the ultimate grind. It’s challenging and demanding. It features tricky contouring, sneaky difficulties on second shots and penalizing hazards, especially near Amen Corner as Rae’s Creek throws a wrench into a three-hole stretch that has made all-time greats put big numbers on their cards like they’re high-handicappers.

The green complexes surprised Shipley during his first practice round this spring, although now he feels like he has the hang of them. Shipley, to his credit and confidence, thinks he is a course fit at Augusta. Wouldn’t we all love to find out? He has — and firmly believes he can play well throughout the four-round weekend.

(© Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports)

“I think it fits my game really well,” he said. “It really favors a guy who hits great iron shots and is a really good driver of the golf ball. Putting is really important there. But the bottom line is you have to hit a lot of greens to score. So I think it fits my game in that way. … I feel like my game is really well-balanced, and that there’s no glaring weakness. I can work the ball both ways.

“In general, when you hit the ball well, you can go play well anywhere. I feel like my ball-striking is right up there with some of the guys on tour.”

That’ll be put to the test Thursday morning. And Friday. And potentially all weekend, assuming Shipley’s confidence translates to the scorecard during the first 36 holes. If it does, Shipley will give himself a chance to beat the other four amateurs for a seat inside Butler Cabin on Sunday evening.

From there, who knows. Maybe Shipley will help Ohio State win the Big Ten title in a couple of weeks and catapult himself into a journey toward earning his PGA Tour card. He might earn exemptions into other events, even make some money once he turns pro and find his way back into the field of future Masters tournaments.

One thing he does know before any of that can happen: Augusta National is already incredibly special to Neal Shipley, no matter the result this weekend.

All the way to the security entrance on Magnolia Lane.

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