This year marks my 30th Masters as a golf writer. My first was in 1986, when the media center (née press room) was still a corrugated steel Quonset hut where the clatter of the odd manual typewriter reverberated. I didn’t attend the tournament in 1987, but have had the privilege of being at every one since.
I’ll confess the Masters has never quite been the ultimate golf event for me, as it is for many others. I’ve always been a little partial to the U.S. Open, the phrase “ultimate examination” holding sway in my brain. Probably the British Open is my favorite to attend, the annual series of pilgrimages (which can include chances to play other mystically ancient grounds before the 10:30 p.m. sunsets) connect you to a game that, especially in its original form, must have so obviously mirrored life.
Meanwhile, being the most carefully constructed and controlled “institution” in golf makes the Masters both the best-run tournament in the world and, at times, the most autocratic and claustrophobic.
Of course, though, the Masters is special. In part it’s because it is held at the same site. Even more, it’s because it emanates from the mind of the best blend of player, thinker and writer the game has ever seen—Bobby Jones—whose vision has driven the leaders of the Augusta National to steadily define and refine the tournament’s best practices. The result is a stage built to produce more consistent drama than any other major. Of course Augusta National requires careful strategy, but ever since the redesign that is more than a decade old, it still rewards the creative and fun-to-watch golf that encourages the greatest players to do extreme things to a golf ball.
I’ve loved the reporting on each Masters, although I’ve always missed being able to get inside the ropes, as golf writers are allowed to do at all other events. Still, as time goes by, my memories tend to center more on people and situations than the tournament proper.
In 1986, I remember Wednesday evening walking alone down the 11th fairway and seeing Amen Corner open up like a time-lapse recording of a giant blossoming flower. It was the first time I met giants like Dan Jenkins, Bob Drum and Frank Chirkinian, all at the bar of the Surrey Tavern. On the Monday after the final round, I walked with Seve Ballesteros through the Augusta airport—no security checkpoints—all the way to his gate. “I should have swung hard at a 5-iron,” he said about the fat 4-iron shot he dunked on the 15th hole the previous day.
Mention 1988, and I can see Mark Calcavecchia emerging from Butler Cabin with tears in his eyes after Sandy Lyle stole victory with a birdie on 18. The next year a group was in the media center in front of a television as Scott Hoch lingered too long over a two-footer on the second hole of sudden death, when Ben Crenshaw, also watching, suddenly blurted, “Step away!”
In 1992, on the 14th hole of the last round, Raymond Floyd hit the greatest short-game shot I have ever seen. With the hole only 10 feet beyond a four-foot tall bank in the green, Floyd, two strokes behind Fred Couples, closed down his 60-degree wedge and lined his shot hard into the bank only some 20 feet in front of him. He watched the ball pop up high, land with spin, take two hopes and dive into the hole. The highest risk, the highest reward, the highest skill.
The next year Bernhard Langer won. Giving his attractive wife Vicki a tour of the new media center late on Sunday, Langer sensed some leering among the remaining writers and barely turning, said slowly, “Look, but don’t touch.” And smiled.
Tiger Woods’ first Masters was 1995, and the reaction to the 19-year-old amateur remains the greatest of any new player ever. Woods’ practice-round partners included Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd and Fred Couples, with Couples being the guy who made him feel most comfortable. After making the cut, Woods put on a clinic at nearby Forest Hills public course for a group that included several black caddies who had once been regular loopers at the Masters. Woods had hired one of them, Tommy (Burnt Biscuits) Bennett, who said, “Tiger swings so pure … sometimes I felt like there just wasn’t enough golf course out there for him.”
Two years later, with Woods holding a double-digit lead on the back nine late on Sunday, Bennett’s and everyone else’s vision was validated. On his way to his car, Ben Crenshaw stopped and assessed the eerie silence and said poetically, “It’s like a passing.”
In 1998, I was fortunate to bring my father to his first Masters. He loved listening to the older sportswriters tell stories, especially the one by legendary Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope that ends, “That summer I was a woodchoppin’ Jesse.”
During the final round in 2005, I decided that rather than struggle to get a glimpse of Woods’ chip left of the 16th green, I’d jam myself on the 17th tee for a good view of the next drive. Consequently, my real-time memory of arguably the most famous shot in Masters history is a minute that proceeds from a collective “uumm” to “ooOHHH!” before culminating in a prolonged “….AAHHHHH!!!!” and a sudden splash of beer on my neck.
In 2008, I shared three straight breakfasts with Tom Brokaw in the primary Golf Digest rental house, listening raptly to the ultimate newsman make recent and living history sound so believably human.
Last year, after having dinner at an Augusta restaurant with another golf writer on Friday night, each of us got a wedge and a ball out of our trunks. In a weed-strewn field adjoining the shopping center’s lighted parking, we hit shots back and forth, talking as we walked about golf and its people until 2 a.m.
It was probably illegal and in some ways so anti-Masters. But in ways Jones would have understood, the spirit was right.
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the April 4 issue of Golf World.