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April 6, 2016

Augusta, Ga. – Imagine if Virginia football quarterback Matt Johns had the opportunity to leave his team mid-season and play in the Super Bowl.

What if Cavalier catcher Matt Thaiss could take a week off and play in the World Series or first-team All-American guard Malcolm Brogdon went straight from the NCAA basketball tournament to playing in the NBA Finals.

That’s the type of otherworldly experience UVA junior golfer Derek Bard (New Hartford, N.Y.) is having this week.

Thursday morning at 8:31 a.m. he will step to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Course and compete in The Masters, one of golf’s major tournaments. One of the biggest and most watched sporting events … in the world.

Since earning an invitation to The Masters as the runner-up at last summer’s U.S. Amateur Championship, that life-changing moment has never been far from his thoughts.

Bard’s Masters experience started last fall when he was able to come to Augusta to play a practice round. He returned during his spring break in March to play again. Since last Friday, he has been a permanent fixture at the sprawling golf complex and has compiled a treasure trove of memories that will last him a lifetime.

He said it all sank in over the weekend when he spent the night at the Crow’s Nest, a room that tops the Augusta National Golf Club clubhouse, which is available for the tournament’s amateur players as a residence if they choose.

“My wow I’m at the Masters moment came Sunday night when I stayed in the Crow’s Nest,” Bard said while conducting interviews under the fabled Oak Tree just outside of the Augusta National Clubhouse, just paces away from the first tee. “I was up there by myself, the only amateur staying there that night. I had the whole thing to myself. I laid down to go to sleep that night and I started thinking, `Wow, I’m staying in the Crow’s Nest, I’m staying where all the great amateurs in the history of the game have stayed when they played the Masters.’ That’s so cool.”

This week, Bard has attended the Amateurs Dinner where he and the five other non-professional players in the field were treated to dinner and heard speeches from Curtis Strange and the presidents of the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.

He’s played practice rounds with Larry Mize, Billy Horschel and V.J. Singh. He took the opportunity to gain as much knowledge of the course as possible and found his peers to be happy to help.

“He (Larry Mize) was extremely nice, extremely open with me,” Bard said of the 1987 Masters champion who won with a dramatic chip from off the green at the 11th hole to win a playoff. “I even asked him about his historic chip-in on the 11th green. He showed me a lot of different things, like where to miss, where to be on some of those greens, and around them. What pins to go at, what pins not to go at.”

Wednesday afternoon he participated in the Par 3 Contest and played with former Masters champion Zach Johnson and LSU grad Smylie Kaufman. They toured the nine-hole circuit that was jam packed with thousands of fans, playing behind a trio that included golf royalty — Gary Player, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

“You sign up for your times on Saturday and when I registered the only name down front was Tom Watson, so I figured playing behind Tom Watson would be cool,” Bard said. “It ended up being Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. That was crazy. I couldn’t believe it. They had all the fans following them, and I think one of them, Player, had a hole in one on seven.”

While on the driving range Wednesday afternoon, former United States Amateur and British Amateur Champion Vinny Giles, a Richmond resident and UVA Law School graduate, made a point to seek Bard out and wish him luck. Giles has played in the Masters nine times, making the cut three times. It was a fantastic scene of sportsmanship.

Bard has shared the putting green and practice areas with his golf idols. He hoped to see Phil Mickelson. What he got was Mickelson coming over and wishing him well this week.

It has been a crazy, hectic and surreal week for Bard. While talking to the media Wednesday, he watched on as Zach Johnson donned his green Masters champion jacket, hoisted the British Open Claret Jug in one arm and posed for photos with his kids like he was at a family picnic.

“That’s not something I expected to see while I was here,” Bard said in amazement.

What Bard does expect, and has prepared for since earning his invitation, has been to play well on one of golf’s greatest stages. He knows he will have butterflies and his nerves might get the best of him at the start, but he feels he’s ready.

“I think I’m ok,” he said. “I felt pretty good in both practice rounds, feel that I’m hitting the ball real well. It’s a matter of just keeping it in play, playing smart and making putts. If my putter could heat up a little bit and if I can roll in a few putts, especially early tomorrow, I think I’m in a good spot.”

Bard has worked hard on the mental part of his game. UVA volunteer coach Bob Rotella is one of the top sports psychologists in the world and he’s worked with numerous players in the field. He and Bard have met on-and-off during the past few months and Rotella took time to counsel him Wednesday morning on the practice green.

“My putting hasn’t felt great and he told me to just relax a little bit because I was getting tense over getting too result oriented,” Bard said. “I was worrying too much about if I was going to make or miss it. He told me I was putting too much pressure on myself and to just get up there and hit the ball.

“That half hour really helped to calm me down and relax me and help me get back to where I usually am with putting. He’s been great. Every time I get a little nervous or get a little too tense I kind of go back to what he says about staying loose and staying cool. Hopefully I can go back to doing that tomorrow.”

Also helping Bard is a support network of 17 friends and family who are all staying with him in a rented house about 11 miles from the course. His younger brother, Alec, will be on his bag, just like he was at the U.S. Amateur. Alec will be a freshman golfer at Penn State next fall.

Bard invited his younger sister, Sydney, to carry his bag during the Par 3 Contest as his parents, Dawn and David, walked inside the ropes with him.

Thursday and Friday everyone except the competitors will be outside the ropes. It will just be Derek Bard against the golf course as he attempts to play well enough to make the cut and play during the weekend’s final two rounds.

“When I step on the first tee tomorrow it is all going to be about golf,” Bard said. “If I start worrying about other things outside of that, then I’m really in trouble. I just have to keep focused on what’s ahead of me.”

That would be Augusta National, The Masters, childhood dreams and the chance of a lifetime.

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