EDITORS' NOTE: In the August issue of Golf Digest, we published Ken Green's searing account of sexual abuse suffered as a child, from his new book Hunter of Hope: A Life Lived Inside, Outside and On the Ropes. In the September issue, we publish Part 2, where Green details his laughs and controversies at the Masters.
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Through the years it seems that many have been left with the impression I was not a fan of the Masters. That’s dead wrong. I loved playing Augusta. What I did hate, however, were the powers in charge and their attitudes.
My first Masters was 1986. I rented a house and invited many of my friends to come enjoy the week. I loved having them all there. The idea that I could give something back to my friends was special to me, and through the years we might play three-on-three hoops until 3 a.m., when someone would threaten to call the police. That week in ’86 I was hitting the ball worse than a pig with persimmon, but in this game you just go out and see what happens. And so, in the first round, I had the greatest putting round in the history of the Masters. In one day, I made a total of 300 feet of putts, an average of almost 17 feet per hole. I made four putts from 50 feet that should’ve been a total of 10 putts, and I made four 20-footers for par. I had a share of the lead with a 68.
When I returned to the place I was renting, a neighbor had hung a huge banner across the street, 60 feet wide, that read, “CONGRATULATIONS KEN GREEN, FIRST-ROUND LEADER, THE MASTERS.” The guy must have owned a sign-printing business, because the thing was worth about two grand. I’m totally worth a $2,000 sign, but it wasn’t something that I could imagine your average fan going to Kinko’s to have made.
I was a big hit in the media center because I’m a talker and my sister, Shelley, was on the bag—one of the first female caddies at Augusta, which made me the first feminist on the PGA Tour. Bruce Berlet, a writer from Hartford, Conn., told me I was handling things perfectly until the question: “As this is your first Masters, can you tell us your impressions of Magnolia Lane?” They were speaking of the long, tree-lined entrance to the club.
I gave an honest answer: “It’s not that impressive, really. There are a thousand roads and Sunday drives in Connecticut that are much prettier.”
Now, call me crazy (and many do), but if you want to ask me a question with the expectation that I’m going to lie to you, then why ask your question? To this day I don’t understand people who get upset when people are honest with them. If someone tells me to come see their baby and they say, “Isn’t he just the most precious baby you’ve ever seen?” I might say, “Oh, yeah,” but I’m equally liable to say, “Nope.” If I tell you the truth, and you get upset, that says more about you than it does me. One of the reporters managed to ask me how I would handle the pressure of leading after the first round of my first Masters. Again, honesty prevailed: “I’m playing like a toilet plunger, and I have no chance.”
What I really wanted to say was that I was going to hold back so Jack Nicklaus could win a sixth Masters, but that would have sent Augusta National into a green-blazered meltdown, so I refrained. It turns out, Jack didn’t need my help, winning his 18th pro major in an incredible come-from-behind round of 65 on Sunday that included a nice little 30 on the back nine. I was delighted that my hero had won the tournament I had led on Day 1.
One year, Ellen (my wife at the time) and I had our kids, Brad and Brooke, caddie for me in the Par-3 Contest, which really meant they each just held a couple of clubs as we strolled the Par-3 Course that Wednesday. They were 6 and 4. They loved it, and the crowd did, too.
The next day I arrived at my locker for the first round and found a letter inside. I opened it and saw it was from Hord Hardin, then the chairman of Augusta National and the Masters. The letter told me in no uncertain terms not to allow the kids to caddie again. Poor Hord wasn’t aware that if he wanted me to obey his wishes, he probably should have worded the letter a little differently. The next year I did it again, and of course I got another letter. But that was the beginning of the Masters tradition of having players’ kids caddie for them at the Par-3 Contest, something that is very much encouraged at the Masters today. In fact, they even have little Masters caddie overalls made for each of the tykes. I have to believe that when I meet Hord again he’ll be greeting me at the Pearly Gates with another letter.
Augusta’s 16th hole is a famous par 3. From Jack draining his 40-footer in 1975 to Tiger’s incredible slow-roll chip-in from 2005 that is replayed about every six minutes on Golf Channel, the hole has been a centerpiece of the Masters. Standing on the tee, there is water in front and to the left of the green. It’s a perfect opportunity to skip shots off the water. I convinced my pal Mark Calcavecchia to hit them on that hole—if either of us skipped the ball once and landed it on the green, we owed the other guy $100. If you skipped it twice and landed on the green, it was $200. Once again the crowd loved it, and it brought some unique fun to the day. I got a letter in my locker for that, too, but I never stopped doing it. Today, if a player doesn’t try to skip it up to 16 during the practice rounds, they’re booed. So those traditions you now see at Augusta, you can blame your friend Ken (Locker Letters) Green.
Though I never intentionally tried to piss Hord off, I had a knack for it. Another year at the tournament, my name popped up on the leader board in the clubhouse. CBS golf analyst Peter Kostis was having lunch right next to Hord when Hord turned to him, not knowing Peter was a close friend and my teacher, and said, “That Green is a pain in my ass.”
For the 1989 Masters, the plan was for Ellen to come to Augusta on Tuesday with the kids. The Masters had sent family tickets to the house, which Ellen was going to bring with her when she flew down from Connecticut. I was going to buy another eight, which was the max you could get, when I arrived. Ellen and I had some disagreement—we later went through a bitter divorce—and she decided she wasn’t going to come to the tournament or overnight the tickets.
Now it’s Wednesday, and we’re short of the tickets we need for one of the most high-profile sporting events in the country. So I came up with a genius idea. I decide that instead of making up some b.s. story about lost or damaged tickets, I’m going to go to Hord’s office and tell him the truth. I laid out my story, thinking I had done a masterful job of explaining my predicament. His answer was as shocking as it was simple: “You need to get better control of your wife. There are no more tickets for you.”
Oops. That didn’t go over like I’d hoped. So the only thing we could do was try to sneak people in and hope no one got caught.
I was able to get the two cars through the main gate, and at that point our group jumped out and dissolved into the crowd.
The next morning, I dropped everybody off near the gate and then slowly drove back and forth bringing everyone in. I didn’t give it too much thought until I got back from playing and found out that two of Ellen’s brothers had been caught. One had panicked and told them he was there with Ken Green, so they knew I was sneaking them into the damn Masters.
The next day, we tried the same trick. This time, on the way in, despite the fact that I waved my special Masters player’s pass, they stopped the car like we were crossing into East Berlin in 1973. They wanted to see the badges of each of the people in the car. They made notes as to who was in the car, their names and badge numbers. As they were doing human inventory, I’m sitting there wondering how we were going to sneak the others in who were still outside.
I dropped off Round One and went to get those still waiting outside. Then we headed back in. This time, we’re hiding people everywhere—some are snuggling with my clubs in the trunk of the nice, big Cadillac courtesy car. It was like an underground railroad into Augusta National. We managed to pull off this stunt, but they even stopped and inventoried Calc’s car, knowing he and I were best friends. “I’m sorry,” the guard told him, “but I have to check because of the Ken Green Rule.”
Before the final round, I knew it would be harder to sneak in, so I gave the guard, a guy about 70 years old, the old How ya’ doin’? trick, just waved and flew past him. What was he going to do, chase after us?
Through it all I still had a job to do—and I had my best Masters, finishing tied for 11th. Hord won a battle or two, but in the end, Greeny won the war.
A beer with The King
My last Masters was in 1997, and once again I had a ton of friends fly down for the tournament. The night before the first round, a bunch of them were outside the rental home playing hoops when I walked out to observe the talentless crew. At some point between the rainbow airballs, triple-dribbles and diabetes/asthma-inhaler timeouts, the ball rolled under a car in the driveway, so of course I just reached out to grab it for them. My Connecticut buddy Doug Ramey, who was just walking out of the house, kiddingly gave me a bump on the ass. Little did he know I was just then reaching for the ball, and the contact broke my thumb.
The next day I played awful and shot 87.
I was going to withdraw because it was pointless to try to play a pro golf event with a bum hand. Then I found out that I was paired with The King, Arnold Palmer, for the second round. Arnold was a hero of mine, and this was the only time I would ever play with him. There was no way I was quitting now.
The next day, Arnold was a joy to play with. He told me stories that were just classics, and so funny. I gave him my word I wouldn’t tell anyone. Never let it be said that I can’t be discreet!
When we were on the 14th hole, I realized I’d probably never have another chance to have a beer with The King. As I walked up the 14th, I sent my friend Ertz to the concession to buy a beer, which he gave me as we teed off on 15. I then walked up to Arnie and said, “Arnie, this has been an absolute blast, and I’ll never have a better chance to have a beer with you, so I salute you.” He looked at me and said, “You should’ve brought me one!”
For that I was initially fined by the tour, but I had my buddy write a letter claiming the beer was nonalcoholic, and the fine was rescinded. I can attest today, however, there was nothing alcohol-free about that beer. I was like, How could you honestly believe that was the truth?
The media, knowing I would certainly have something to say after the round, was all over us when we finished. I told them how much fun I’d had and that I even had a chance to have a beer with The King. I told them my Masters had been a delight. They soaked it all in and thought it was a wonderful story. I then mentioned how lucky I was that it seemed like every time I played with a superstar, something weird happened. They asked me to explain, so I expounded.
In 1989, I was paired with Seve Ballesteros in the final round at Augusta. We were semi in the hunt, and Seve played a masterful front nine, making five birdies. It was a brilliant nine, and he was now tied for the lead. The 10th is a hard hole that requires a nice draw to get the maximum roll for a closer approach shot. Seve over-cooked his tee shot, hooking it along the tree line on the left side. When we arrived at our balls, I was curious to see if he was going to have a shot, so I casually strolled over to take a peek. I got to his ball and saw he was in a little rut where he would have no chance to get a 2- or 3-iron up quickly enough, and I continued to my ball.
Standing by my ball, waiting for him to pitch out, I was shocked to see him asking for a drop. I’m like, What the hell is that all about? I hustled my skinny tuchas back up that steep-ass hill in record time. I got there and asked the tournament official why Seve was getting a free drop (meaning he was allowed to pick up his ball and remove it from the rut with no penalty). This particular official explained to me, “We have a local rule where if we feel your lie is being affected by crowd damage, you get a free drop.”
I was keenly aware of this rule because on the par-5 second hole, I’d hit my second shot 20 yards right of the green into the “patrons,” as they’re called. The day before it had poured rain, so the area was basically all mud with heel prints all over the place. My ball was in one of those ruts when I was told that the heel print my ball was sitting in was not “crowd damage.” I’m assuming even the birds at Augusta are well-heeled patrons who wear shoes and boots.
Seve had a pure hardpan lie with zero crowd damage. I insisted on a second opinion. Keep in mind that golf is a game where the players are expected to self-police. However, it’s incumbent on the playing partner(s) to stand up for the rest of the field. It was my job to guard the integrity of the scores out there, and that’s what I did. At this point we have an army following us because Seve is tied for the lead. We’re just standing there waiting for another official when Seve says something like, “You can go hit your shot if you want. I promise you I won’t drop my ball.”
Without missing a beat, I turned to him and said, “I’m not sure about that Seve. I’ll wait.”
The crowd oohed and aahed. There was silence between us until the second official, Michael Bonallack of the R&A, arrived. Before he even got to within 10 feet of the ball, Bonallack refused to give relief.
Seve was just being Seve: pure intimidation served with heaps of Spanish charisma. Seve was a phenomenal golfer, but he just couldn’t help playing games on the course. I’m guessing it was a throwback to hustling in his early days, and though I did the same when I played with friends, I would never play head games with my peers. He would use intimidation to get favorable rulings that other players would have blanched at. He would often move when his playing partner was preparing to hit. He also tended to develop a sudden cough, and change-jingling was routine for him. I’m sure he was a great friend off the course.
As it turned out, Seve and I both faded, and neither of us won that Masters. Looking back, I’m honored to have played the Masters, and I’m even more psyched that I started two traditions. I’m waiting to see my Ken Green logo on all the kids’ caddie bibs, but I especially can’t wait to see a plaque in my honor right next to the skip zone on 16.
BOOK ADAPTATION Adapted with permission from the new book, Hunter of Hope: A Life Lived Inside, Outside and On the Ropes. Copyright © 2019 by Ken Green, with Drew Nederpelt, 202 pages, $24.95. Published by Newberry Funding, LLC. Available at kengreengolf.com.