ALAN DUNBAR is in 'Wonderland' this week, playing the most beautiful and demanding course in world golf by day and climbing the ladder to sleep in Augusta National's famous Crow's Nest at night.
Dunbar, a tall, tousle-haired 22-year-old from Portrush, is one of six amateurs in the field for the Masters.
He clinched his dream ticket to Augusta by winning last summer's British Amateur Championship and plays with 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman and another South African George Coetzee in today's first round.
Dunbar, who makes his professional debut at the Ballantines in Korea in two weeks, was blown away at first sight by the golf course here. "It's fantastic," said Dunbar. "This is the place you'd want to be."
Upon arrival in Atlanta last week Dunbar beat Steven Fox 1up for the Georgia Cup, an annual match between the US and British amateur title-holders.
He then travelled to Augusta, on Sunday getting his first glimpse of the famed Magnolia Lane from the driving seat of his Mercedes courtesy car.
"I drove down that avenue very slowly the first time, making sure to take it all in," he smiled.
Dunbar played his first round with John Carr, son of Irish amateur legend Joe, and two other Augusta National members. "Alan played some wonderful shots and hit the green at the par-five 15th with a five-iron," said Carr.
"He gave a very impressive performance."
Dunbar got his first taste of the feverish atmosphere at the Masters the following morning. He'd just embarked on the back nine with US Open champion Webb Simpson and recent Honda Classic-winner Michael Thompson when the crowds came teeming-in.
"The greens are a lot more severe than I expected," said Dunbar. "They look awfully severe on TV, but once you get onto them they are even more severe than I thought they would be. But they're manageable if you keep the ball in the right place."
On Tuesday, he played 18 holes with Rathmore clubmate Graeme McDowell and Ben Curtis, then joined G-Mac and Rory McIlroy in the Masters Par-3 competition.
Tennis star Caroline Wozniacki caddied for McIlroy, while McDowell had fiancee Kristin Stape on his bag.
Dunbar and four others roomed in the cramped Crow's Nest, including Asian Amateur champion Tianlang Guan, at 14, the youngest player to play the Masters.
Three-time champion Phil Mickelson best summed-up the atmosphere on top of the clubhouse when he said: "It was awesome staying there, right above the Champions Locker-room. I remember creeping down at night, peeking in and seeing what was in there.
"When you're an amateur and when you're young, you dream about playing in the Masters and to have the chance to stay here, live those dreams and compete in this tournament is such an amazing experience."
US amateur golf legend, the late Bobby Jones, insisted on maintaining a strong link between the Masters and amateurs. Casey Wittenberg and Ryan Moore, 13th in 2004 and 2005 respectively, were best of the amateur finishers in 50 years.
Joe Carr played the Masters four times, making the cut in 1967 and '68, but since then Garth McGimpsey (1986, '87), Michael Hoey (2002) nor Brian McElhinney (2003) all failed to reach the weekend.
Asked about his own ambitions this week, Dunbar said: "Just to do well."