Mind GamesApril 5, 2016

Recalling a battle of gamesmanship between two of the game's singular personalities

With all the excitement surrounding Golf Channel’s re-airing of the live broadcast of the 1986 Masters, I couldn’t resist jumping the gun. I dragged out my old DVD copies of each of the four rounds, and over the weekend ran them as pleasing background noise around my house. One part of the broadcast, I did actually see: a replay of Ken Green holing out from the left greenside bunker on the 18th hole in the first round to shoot 68 and seize a share of the early lead.

Augusta National/Getty Images

That episode brought to mind my favorite personal Masters vignette, which has nothing to do with 1986 and Jack Nicklaus and everything to do with Ken Green.

It was the 1989 Masters, one of the first I regularly attended. Every night that week, I’d drive from the Golf Digest house over to Ken Green’s rental house and get his take on his experiences. Green was one of the great golf iconoclasts ever, it was his third Masters, and the plan was to shake loose some reflections that would make a good diary for Golf Digest’s Masters preview section the following year.

Seve’s haughty, I’m-the-boss body language seemed to imply an intention to establish psychological dominance over Green, a move which happened more frequently in that rough-hewn era than now. One top player admitted to me once that after an opponent walked to the tee to hit, he sometimes would station himself on the line between the tee and his opponent’s bag, so the opponent had to walk around the player to get back to his bag after he hit.

Did Green ever deliver! Green that week had with him a bunch of his buddies from Connecticut, and together they did some crazy stuff. Every day, they’d race their rental cars from Augusta National back to their rental house, hitting speeds of 90 miles per hour north of Washington Road. Once home and fueled with beer, they hit balls through the rolled-down windows of one of the rental cars. Another day, Green, having misplaced the tournament passes he’d landed from his friends, snuck them into the grounds. They played pickup basketball in the driveway of the house into the wee hours, until the neighbors threatened to call the police. It was like sprink-break, Green leading the pack. Even the practice days were entertaining; he and his pal Mark Calcavecchia bet on everything.

Incredibly, Green contended that week. Heading into the fourth round, he was tied for fourth, only three shots behind the leader, Ben Crenshaw. It’s largely forgotten now, but Green was a terrific player, one of the best of the 1980s. He won twice in 1988 and the week prior to the 1989 Masters, won at Greensboro. Later that year he played in the Ryder Cup. Green had a superb, well-rounded game that revolved around string-straight driving and remarkable streaks with the putter. His fairway woods were especially good in a day when players hit a lot of fairway woods, and I recall many of his peers choosing him as the game’s best in that department. He also was fearless. He wasn’t quite in the elite tier, but he wasn’t scared of anybody or any situation. He had that knack of never appearing nervous, even when he might have been. Only good pros have that quality.

The final round round, Green was paired with the great Seve Ballesteros, who also was only three shots off the lead. I intended to follow the two every step of the way. That day, on the second hole was the most compelling “small” moment I ever saw at the Masters, an incident that showed what world-class competitive golf could sometimes be about.

The gallery following the two was huge. Ballesteros was on the back edge of his prime, but was a crowd favorite, still dangerous and intent on winning his third Masters. Green parred the first hole and Seve birdied, which brought a huge cheer from the gallery. I scurried ahead to the tee at No. 2 and claimed a spot close up against the ropes and only a few feet from the teeing ground and the little logs that serve as tee markers at the Masters. Green arrived at the tee before Seve. He took his driver from his caddie and planted himself within inches of the right-hand tee marker. We made eye contact, and though we’d spent many hours together already that week, there was no hint of recognition.

Instead, Green crossed his feet, leaned on his driver, froze his eyes down the second fairway, and waited for Seve.

Seve arrived at the tee and here’s where it got good. The second hole is a dogleg-left par 5. The idea is to boom the tee ball out there with a draw, so the ball bends around the corner and makes it possible to go for the green in two.

When a player plans for a draw, he almost always tees up near the left-hand tee marker, which effectively widens the amount of fairway for a right-to-left tee shot. It’s a basic teeing tactics every good player employs.

But not Seve, at this moment. Knowing that Green may very well be the man he had to beat that day, Seve pegged his ball up against the right-hand tee marker, inches from Green’s bright-green golf shoes that were his trademark. Pressing up against that marker made no sense, because Seve obviously planned to hit a big draw around the corner. Why would he tee up against the right-hand marker and not the left?

The answer, which immediately became clear in the ensuing interaction between Ballesteros and Green, was that Seve wanted Green to move. Upon teeing his ball, Seve looked at Green expectantly, with just the hint of a glare. He clearly was beseeching—demanding, without saying anything—that Green reposition himself. He wanted Green to move, to voluntarily relocate himself. It would be an act of deference on Green’s part. Seve’s haughty, I’m-the-boss body language seemed to imply an intention to establish psychological dominance over Green, a move which happened more frequently in that rough-hewn era than now. One top player admitted to me once that after an opponent walked to the tee to hit, he sometimes would station himself on the line between the tee and his opponent’s bag, so the opponent had to walk around the player to get back to his bag after he hit.

Seve knew these tricks. For him, these bits of gamesmanship—coughing on backswings, moving his feet as another player hit, etc. were normal. It was just the way he played, and everyone, then and now, knew it.

Green, instantly gleaning what Seve was up to, didn’t budge. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge the look Seve was giving him. Green looked down, saw Seve’s ball pegged 10 inches away from his shoes, stared at it for five seconds, then swiveled his head and returned his gaze to the fairway.

The look on Seve’s face changed from expectation to glaring contempt. Suddenly, it was Seve who was in a tough spot now. He couldn’t verbally ask Green to move, because asking would be an act of deference on Seve’s part. And Green, though he surely would obliged and moved had Seve asked, may have rolled his eyes at the idea of Seve teeing up by the right-hand marker. Seve had no choice but to hit. He killed the tee shot, too, bending a beautiful draw around the corner. Green followed with a nice tee ball, too. Seve ripped off five birdies on the front nine and briefly took the lead, while Green failed to get anything going. But it was not the end of the psychological war the two conducted that day. On the 10th hole, Seve requested relief from a muddy area following a poor drive. Green disputed the relief and a second official—the R & A’s Michael Bonallock –came in and quickly denied relief. Seve was practically baring his teeth at Green. I watched them all day, frequently from a distance, but didn’t once see either player nod or mouth a “good shot.” They just didn’t like each other.

The ruling at the 10th seemed to unnerve Seve. He made bogey and staggered home in 38. He finished tied for fifth, two shots out of the Nick Faldo-Scott Hoch playoff , which Faldo won. Green shot 73 and tied for 11th.

There have been huge Masters moments since then, but that incident at the second has always stayed with me. It was a rare glimpse of the great Seve employing all his reputation, gamesmanship and force of will to psychologically put a less-formidable player in his place. It also was neat insight into Ken Green, who, though nowhere close to Seve’s equal, was a proud professional and stood his ground against one of the greatest players ever.

As for the Ken Green diary, it turned out great.