How a golf fan took the road trip of a lifetime during the pandemic.

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golfers and limited spectators at the 2021 masters tournament
Credit: Courtesy of The Masters Tournament

Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

Life has certainly been different over the past year, but among the constants — in terms of travel — have been road trips and golf, mainly for their inherent qualities of maintaining social distance while getting out for fresh air and a change of scenery. I just returned from a magnificent combination of golf and a scenic drive, although this time I didn't touch a club.

I was one of the estimated 7,000 to 12,000 people, players and staff included, to attend the 2021 Masters Tournament. (That's about 25 percent of estimated attendance pre-pandemic.)

I attended with Mercedes-Benz, a global sponsor of the event since 2013. Like many travelers this year, I began my adventure with a road trip.

Starting in Manhattan, our journey (my husband came along too) began with the words, "Hey Mercedes," and the 2021 GLS600 Maybach we were driving pretty much took care of the rest. That greeting awakens the vehicle's MBUX infotainment system, including navigation, so we were on our way. With clear driving directions as well as occasional reminders to stop and rest, we were able to relax and enjoy the springtime scenery along the way.

Mercedes-Benz also invited several essential frontline workers to recognize their contributions over the past year. The staff members at Atlanta's Piedmont HealthCare received their surprise invitations from PGA professionals Jon Rahm and Ian Poulter in a video message displaying their names on golf balls. 

Ian Poulter in a Mercedes Benz Masters 2021
Credit: Courtesy of The Masters Tournament

Each guest was required to take a pre-departure COVID test as well as daily tests before setting out for any activities. When negative test results were confirmed, a wristband was attached, a different color for each day. Arrivals had to be by vehicle rather than by air — hence our drive from New York.

Augusta National also had strict guidelines requiring face coverings, social distancing, and only a limited number of spectators. Payment for merchandise, food, and beverages was by credit card only. Golf fans will recall that the 2020 Masters tournament was delayed until November, and no patrons were permitted on the course for that event. Limitations on this April event were considered carefully in view of new COVID guidelines.

Golfer swings at the masters 2021
Credit: Courtesy of The Masters Tournament

Fortunately, many beloved Masters traditions were still evident. The camellias, magnolias, dogwood trees, and azaleas ranging from white and pale pink to lavender and fuschia were in bloom, and the colors were breathtaking. As always, the landscaping was impeccable, and the efficient workers at the Merchandise Store, concessions, and restrooms were as friendly as ever. We ate pimento cheese sandwiches and egg salad sandwiches, still priced at just $1.50, served up in their green paper wrappers.

On our previous visit to Augusta National for the Masters, we arrived with the throngs of patrons walking along curved pathways happily wearing lanyards with our prized badges (tickets to the Masters are called "badges"). We had the honor of entering along Magnolia Lane, a 330-yard drive between massive magnolia trees, a privilege reserved for members, professionals, and invited guests. 

We were also given access to the Firethorn Cabin steps from the 10th fairway, where breakfast, lunch, snacks, and cocktails were served, including the signature "Azalea," and TV screens on nearly every wall followed the action on the golf course. Across from the front door of the cabin, a putting green, identical to the one on Augusta's 18th hole, gave my husband an opportunity to experience the same challenges as the pros and to get some advice from a local golf professional. 

We stayed nearby in River Island, a picturesque neighborhood in Evans, Georgia, along the Savannah River. Evening dinners at the clubhouse were accompanied by pastel sunsets and entertainment programs which included football great Joe Montana, country star Jason Aldean, and singer-songwriter Kelley James.

It was a thrill to see the pros just a few feet away from us, where we could watch both astonishing golf shots and, now and then, humbling misses. I couldn't help but notice golf fashions that ranged from Phil Michelson's dark, monochromatic outfits to Ian Poulter's vivid trousers in lime green, pink plaid, and pastels. As Jon Rahm walked down a long fairway, I had a chance to shout out congratulations on the birth of his son, born just days before the tournament. 

It was also exciting at the airport to spot Bernhard Langer, who had just competed at Augusta National for the 38th time, a two-time winner at the Masters and the oldest player in the tournament's history to make the cut. A Mercedes-Benz brand ambassador, Langer said he prefers to drive his Mercedes-Benz GLS on his own: "It calms me down and helps to provide a relaxing start to the day." 

The GLS600 Maybach SUV we drove from New York to Augusta was a dream, with soft leather seats, refrigerator box in the rear cabin, heated and ventilated seats with massage capability, and an expansive panorama roof. Classical music on surround sound, clear visuals on the navigation screen, and lush springtime scenery made the miles pass quickly. I enjoyed our Maybach SUV, but fell totally in love with a two-tone sedan model displayed at River Island. The new Mercedes-Benz EQS electric car was also there, hidden under wraps to be revealed later.

I appreciated so many things about the unique opportunity, including the chance to drive through East Coast states I hadn't seen since relocating to California. As we gradually emerge from the pandemic's restrictions, I'm feeling that the new appreciation for vacations on the open road will continue. 

If you're inspired to combine a golf tournament with a drive along the East Coast, consider the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, North Carolina from May 6-9 or the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, South Carolina later in May. If you're in the west, think about a scenic drive along Southern California's coast to the June 17-20 U.S. Open to be held at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

Whatever destination is at the end of the drive, a ride along the country's freeways, highways, and backroads just might be the best part of the trip.