So this sportswriter walks into a press room ...
That sounds like the start of a joke, right? But it isn't. At this writing, it has been my job to spend one year and four months of my life in Augusta, Ga., covering the Masters for 68 consecutive years.
That's a Masters record for journalists that stretches from the Augusta National veranda to a public course in Istanbul. Each day I go to the mailbox to see if the prize money has arrived yet. No luck so far.
But it's been a great gig.
I started in the old press tent in 1951. It overflowed with grown men in fedoras bumping into each other, or their folding chairs and Smith-Coronas. A few 40-watt bulbs dangled from the ceiling. There was a din of phones ringing and bells pinging on wire machines. The place was dense with cigarette smoke. I knew this was where I belonged.
Western Union operators were clacking on their whining contraptions in a cramped alcove sending out urgent pieces about Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, the only two golfers of interest in those days. Sports editors back in the offices in New York, Chicago, even Fort Worth, took a dim view of their writers filing stories on golfers they'd never heard of.
The tent was open at two ends—we could catch the breezes. Augusta used to offer a buffet of weather in one week—ideal, hot, windy, warm, rainy, freezing.
The writers were still dressing in coats and ties at golf tournaments. I suppose it was because Grantland Rice did. I was excited to see the nattily attired Rice at my first Masters. This saintly gent in a shirt, tie, sweater, checkered jacket and light-gray hat. I saw him across the crowded tent. But I was too shy to introduce myself to the gentleman who, along with bringing dignity to my profession, had given the Masters its name. Three years later, he passed away.
In 1953, we scribes were delighted to find that the tent had been replaced by a Quonset hut. Although it was as poorly lit as the tent, it was larger and roomier. There was more elbow space and aisles in which to move about without knocking a colleague's Pulitzer effort sideways.
I was privileged to meet Bobby Jones back then. He used to invite two or three writers to lunch with him in his cottage most days of Masters Week. I was fortunate to be invited to one session. My relationship with Hogan had something to do with it.
Jones couldn't have been more gracious. Except when I wanted to talk about Bobby Jones, he wanted to talk about Ben Hogan.
Another brush with him came on the Augusta National course before the 1954 Masters. Writers were welcome to play the course for free if they showed up on the previous weekend. I was standing on the 15th tee with two other writers when a cart pulled up behind us. Sitting in the cart were Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
They both smiled at me. Cliff Roberts also associated me with Hogan. He said, "We came out to see how the new mound is playing on this hole. Don't let us bother you."
Bother me? Why would it bother me? I only had to hit a drive with Bobby Jones watching. Happily, my soaring hook didn't hit anything but a pine tree.
Within the Quonset hut there slowly emerged an interview area. Daily leaders were brought in, and on Sunday night the losers and the winner appeared. It was standing-room only, and the questions were mostly hollered out by those writers who fancied the sound of their voices.
“The place was dense with cigarette smoke. I knew this was where I belonged.”
The interview area saved us the trouble of tracking down the competitors elsewhere, but it took away part of the fun in that exercise. The field was smaller, and every competitor lockered upstairs in the main clubhouse, which is now exclusively a dining room. Hogan on this side of the room, Snead on that side. Tables, chairs and sofas in between.
It developed into a competition for those of us on strenuous deadlines. It involved climbing over fellow typists and corners of furniture to obtain a quote from an immortal. Not that I enjoy a scrum. But I was young then.
The Quonset hut expanded to include an upstairs loft for writers as the coverage grew, and an indoor area turned up for the traditional pimento-cheese and egg-salad sandwiches, two favorites of Chairman Roberts. I should have bought stock in them. They exist to this day, as much of a Masters fixture as Magnolia Lane.
In the early '90s, we arrived to find ourselves in an enormous facility that could pass for a lecture hall. It came with a dining room on the top level above the dreaded stairs that took you to and from the row where your assigned seat was located. The lecture hall provided a daily buffet, TV sets and a view of the world's largest indoor scoreboard.
With that improvement, the Augusta National made the USGA and R&A look like slumlords with their crowded press tents. Along with the Masters today, only the PGA of America at its major constantly strives to enhance our quality of life and typing.
Looking back on it, I recall that I wrote about Hogan and Snead in the old tent, about Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the Quonset hut, and about Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the lecture hall.
Trudging forward amid talk of a new facility, I was eager to see what the latest Augusta National pressroom had in store for us. It was rumored to be decadent. When I arrived for the 2017 Masters, the press building's stunning exterior all at once brought to mind Windsor Castle, Versailles, the Biltmore Estates, Twelve Oaks and Tara.
There it stood in the midst of a grove of beautiful trees and manicured lawns, all of which looked as if they'd been there forever when in fact they'd been planted, placed and groomed practically overnight.
After entering and touring the inside, I swooned at the comfort and convenience. Comfortable working spaces were provided for 450 journalists—I remembered how there used to be only 30 or 40 of us—with huge TV sets on walls and smaller ones at each desk where you sat in swiveling leather armchairs. Through a huge glass vista you could look out at the practice range. There existed a lavish snack bar predictably stocked with the pimento-cheese and egg-salad sandwiches but with other treats added, and down the hall a real restaurant with smiling servers and sumptuous cuisine.
When I'd first entered and was pointed toward the elevator in the lobby that would lift me to the second-floor working and dining area, I almost shouted, "Look, no more stairs—I'll live to type another day!"
If a palace guard had been around anywhere, I would have asked him if my bedroom suite was on the same floor as Marie Antoinette's or Scarlett O'Hara's.
On the morning of the first day of the tournament, I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that I alone had achieved the Grand Slam of working in all four Masters press facilities. And it had taken only seven decades.