June 25, 2007

A Year's Worth of Magnolias and Peach Cobbler

Cover the Masters as many times as I have — it's 52 in a row, according to family archives — and one day you look up and realize you've spent a year of your life in Augusta, Ga. Which means if you were to place end to end all the dishes of peach cobbler I've inhaled in the Augusta National clubhouse through the years, the line would most likely stretch all the way down to Amen Corner and back up to Magnolia Lane.

To say nothing of the plates of country ham and red-eye gravy and biscuits I've lapped up with the eggs over-easy each morning at a table upstairs in the grill where you can look out on the veranda and see how the wisteria vines on the big tree are coming along this year.

This isn't just about food, it's about memories. First, I must say I'm always amazed at how big the place looks. It's the Rose Bowl of golf courses. Each spring the bigness of it somehow stuns you because it visibly dwarfs every course you've ever known. Huge fairways, mammoth greens, monster bunkers, towering trees, enormous hills, steep valleys. And of course each year you tend to inspect the set decoration, the dogwood and azaleas, to see if they've survived the winter in good health. Funny how a foolish pride of ownership somehow exists for the longtime Masters goer.

Early on — for me, at least — it was all about Ben Hogan. Going every 18 with him, chain-smoking with him, hanging loose, waiting to swoop up an exclusive quote for the paper. Often he'd speak of how to play the course. Some of it seems so out of date now.

"Never go for 13 or 15 if you're leading," Hogan once said. "Too much to lose, too little to gain."

You may have heard these words of his quoted a thousand times on TV by now: "If you ever see me close to the pin on No. 11, you'll know I've missed the shot."

He said it first to a small group of us in the locker room in '54. This was after he thought he'd lost that Masters by stupidly pulling his approach into the pond at the 11th and suffering a double-bogey 6.

I still remember the '54 Masters better than I remember last year's. After Ben's sickening double, I raced over to catch up with the probable winner, Billy Joe Patton, the curious amateur, who now led by two. The fairways were yet to be roped off so severely, so I was standing quite close to Billy Joe before he hit his second shot out of the right rough at 13.

Some fans were yelling at him to go for it, others were cautioning him to play smart, lay up. I can still hear him drawling, "I didn't get where I am by playin' safe!" Whereupon he wildly hit a wood shot into the creek and took a 7.

Moments later, he made a watery 6 at 15. Thus, he went three over on the two birdie holes and missed the Hogan-Sam Snead playoff by one stroke. He might easily have won, but he rashly deprived us scribes of writing about the first amateur to win a major since Johnny Goodman in '33.

Equally vivid is the night before the final round in '59. Place: lobby of the massive Bon Air Hotel, which was once headquarters to the stars. Bob Drum and I were milling around, cocktailing. For about 40 years Drum was my partner in various journalistic and social adventures. Anyhow, we happened upon Art Wall, the eventual winner, and were chatting with him when he was suddenly besieged by a wobbly, overserved Southern bubba-gent in a screaming blazer.

"Ain't you Art Wall?" the guy said.

Art nodded politely.

"Ain't you the old boy who claims he's made all them hole-in-ones?" the guy said.

Art softly said, "Yes, I am. It's up to 34 now."

"Thirty-four!" the guy blurted out. "Son, who you tryin' to kid? Bobby didn't make but three!"

When we stopped laughing, Drum and I exchanged a look that said for each of us, "I don't care who wins tomorrow, I've got my story."

One of the most memorable messages ever posted on an Augusta National leader board came in '62, down by the 12th hole in the midst of the Arnold Palmer-Gary Player-Dow Finsterwald playoff. Only seconds after Palmer hit that great 7-iron stiff for the birdie 2 that more or less locked up a third Masters for him, these large, red letters appeared on the leader board that said, impartially, of course: GO ARNIE.

Two years later Arnold won his fourth Masters, but Augusta in '64 is best remembered by me as, well, The Year of the Immortal Quip. It came courtesy of my pal Dave Marr, prince of quipsters. Alas, Dave has joined Bob Drum in the Skipper's hospitality suite and surely grins down at me now as I speak. But in '64 he tied Jack Nicklaus for runner-up, though they finished a whopping six strokes behind the winner.

Dave was paired with Palmer in the last round, and as they stood on the 72nd tee, Arnold, jovially leading by six, teed up his ball, waggled his driver, then glanced over at Marr and said, "Anything I can do to help you here, Dave?"

To which Marr said, "Yeah, make a 12."

Then there's the slide show of Nicklaus, which lasted about, what, 24 years? From the beefy crewcut Nicklaus to the dapper goldenlocks in '86 doing that remarkable thing. Jack hitting all those historical shots in the clutch through the years, sinking all those theatrical putts in the clutch and being the most cooperative winner imaginable but maybe, more important, being the most gracious loser ever.

Of his countless remarks over the years, one of them has never left the old memory vault. Charles Coody won the '71 Masters, but it could be said Nicklaus helped him out in the last round. Jack didn't birdie 13 or 15 Sunday, and yet he finished only two strokes behind Coody, tied for second.

After his round, when I asked Jack if he had some explanation for how sloppily he'd played 13 and 15, he only shrugged and said, as if I should have known it,

"I never play well on the par 5s here."

Guess it was true. Guess it continued to be true. He only won the thing six times.

So many moments, so little space.

Ben Crenshaw's emotional victory in '95 stands out, Ben crediting the late Harvey Penick for his second Masters, weepily saying, "I had a 15th club in the bag."

One year later came Greg Norman to lose it for the third, fourth or 15th time. On the occasion of his calamitous 78 against winner Nick Faldo's closing 67, Nick gave Norman a tough-luck, sorry-pal, sportsmanlike hug on the final green — or was he performing a Heimlich maneuver?

All the rest is a mosaic of Tiger Woods. He has this catchy name — always important — to go with his monumental talent. It was fortunate his daddy gave him that name early.

Eldrick Woods couldn't have beaten Yung-Yo Hsieh.