Masters 2019: The Masters champion who couldn't read or write
In cool, muted April sunlight and the exhausted atmosphere of just-completed competition, four warriors in golf clothes sat amid a group of gray-haired men in green. Fifty years ago, the closing ceremony of the Masters presented an interesting tableau.
While an Augusta National muckety-muck addressed the throng, the new champ grinned a goofy grin, and the three runners-up tried and failed to look like good sports. One of them, the perfectionist, seemed close to tears. That damn bogey on 17, he thought. The second silver-medalist—the surgeon—adopted a chin-up, impassive look, the same stoic face he wore on the golf course. Should he have gone for the par 5s in two this week? No, he decided; he lost for other reasons. Between these two sat the game's dark prince, inscrutable behind his ever-present sunglasses and a smoldering cigarette.
Reveries were interrupted when the defending champion, Bob Goalby, held out a green jacket like a toreador extending a cape. Amid applause, the victor rose. And rose and rose. At 6-foot-6, 185 pounds, the tallest-ever major winner was a gangly man—“spindly,” his wife says—his body stuck in the un-athletic shape of the high school basketball player who never gets off the bench. His swing was an inartistic whir of elbows, shoulders and knees that resulted in a hook. He had great hair, but that face! Behind his back, some of his peers called him Gomer Pyle, Gomer being a sitcom doofus played on CBS by rubber-faced actor Jim Nabors.
The new champion in a 42 XL took the mic, said some words and sat back down. What was he thinking? Back then, conventional wisdom held that winning a major was worth perhaps a million dollars in endorsement income. It improved his chances of making the Ryder Cup team. And if not adulation, victory in a Big One at least resulted in the demand for many hundreds of autographs. But none of these pleasant events occurred for the gangly man.
George William Archer, age 29, the new Masters champion, was illiterate. His failure to master this most basic means of communication caused him immeasurable pain and humiliation, and, when he was a kid, thoughts of suicide. There was no help from his parents, no praise, never any reading aloud. “This is my son George,” his father would say. “He's so dumb he can't even write his own name.”
Donna Archer recalls her husband's bad old days with a sigh. “Everything was against him: his size, his upbringing, fragile health, the illiteracy,” she says. “He was constantly overcoming, always bouncing back, like one of those toy punching bags.”
Archer's eventual triumph began when he found golf—in the usual way, as a caddie. He developed an unshakeable resolve to succeed in this new game, and prodigious compensating skills. First among these was an amazing ability to putt. Archer couldn't read a book, but he could read a green as if he were listening to a song no one else could hear.
• • •
A MIX OF PERSONALITIES
It had been four days of perfect weather and one strange playing condition. The custom back then was to offer shaggy putting surfaces for Masters practice rounds, then to pull a switcheroo by triple-cutting the tall rye grass down to its roots on Wednesday afternoon, when the course was closed to practicers. But in the '69 Masters, for some reason, the greens were as slow as a Georgia drawl.
Billy Casper—the surgeon—shot 66 in the first round to lead by one. When he curled in a 30-foot birdie putt on 17, he revealed the strength of his game and the reason for his lack of a fan base. Casper's quick, wristy tap with a Ray Cook mallet got the ball in the hole with eerie consistency, but his reaction to his frequent success was usually no reaction at all. His only three peers on the tour—Palmer, Nicklaus and Player—had vivid personalities and more than a little showmanship, but Billy was boring. Resolutely so.
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Why? Because that's the way Ben Hogan played it. Casper had been enamored of the king of the stone face since he was 15, when he watched the Hawk practicing with the utmost seriousness for a mere exhibition match at San Diego Country Club. When “Follow the Sun” debuted in theaters in 1951, Casper watched Hollywood's schmaltzy depiction of Hogan's life four times.
Ben and Billy had their first game together in July 1957, and the rotund young man from Southern California made everything he looked at. “You'd be selling hot dogs on the 10th tee if you couldn't putt,” Hogan muttered. But in the locker room the next day, William Ben asked William Earl how he did it. “I went over and sat down beside my role model, the man I patterned my game after, the reason behind pretty much everything I did on the golf course,” Casper wrote in his memoir, The Big Three and Me. “I gave my idol a putting lesson.”
George Knudson, the mysterious man obscured by shades and smoke, lurked in the pack after two rounds. No less than Casper, Knudson revered Hogan, and copied him explicitly in demeanor, cardigan sweaters, dedication to practice and certain elements of his swing. Hogan hated to putt and was bad at it. So was Knudson. Hogan smoked. Knudson chain-smoked three packs a day; a light-brown sheen of tobacco stained his teeth and fingertips. Both would write well-regarded instruction books. Tutor and tyro practiced together at Seminole some years. They were pure hitters and deep thinkers. And drinkers.
Knudson “was one of the most lonesome individuals I ever knew,” recalls Rives McBee, a contemporary on the '60s tour. “He closed down more bars … ”
Archer couldn't read a book, but he could read a green as if he were listening to a song no one else could hear.
On a Saturday night in Arizona 14 months before, Miller Barber had glanced into the hotel lounge and saw the Phoenix Open leader—Knudson—hunched over a drink. When Barber returned from dinner hours later, he peeked in again: It appeared that Lonesome George had not moved a muscle. A week later, Knudson was said to have awoken in his Saturday clothes on Sunday morning on a bench in the Tucson National locker room. The Canadian maestro won Phoenix and Tucson. He hit the ball so well that when his putter was working even a little bit, he could win. But he was not a happy man out on the tour.
“I was strung out all the time,” he revealed much later. “And so used to agony, I didn't know it.”
Knudson missed the wife and kids, acutely. Casper missed getting his due from winning, eventually, 51 tour events. Tom Weiskopf seemed to lack nothing. “A hell of a talent,” Don January recalls. “The best mechanically I've ever seen.” Tall Tom, another Hogan admirer, could hit a 1-iron into the clouds, and no one except Nicklaus drove it so long and straight. Weiskopf was up and down as a putter—he didn't like to practice with the short stick—but otherwise he had the perfect game for Augusta National. After 71–71–69, Jack's heir apparent appeared to be poised to win the first of, maybe, four Masters. Instead, he would finish second four times.
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Hogan spoke of golf as a game of effective misses, but mis-hits and the vicissitudes drove Weiskopf crazy. What looked like a rather frightening brand of anger was, he said, simply extreme frustration with himself. “In the end, the game tore me up inside,” Weiskopf told Golf Digest in 2008. “Perfectionists are determined to master things, and you can never master golf.”
Weiskopf, 26, had been nearly perfect the week before the '69 Masters, losing in a playoff in Greensboro. Archer had played well, too, until a fourth-round 75. “That made for an unpleasant drive down to Augusta,” Donna recalls.
Archer got sick and spent most of Monday and Tuesday in bed. “I think he had a compromised immune system,” Donna says. “It was, ‘If you have a cold, don't tell George, or he'll get it, too.’ ” Between illnesses and injuries and surgeries to wrist, back, shoulder and hip, Big George was often out of commission.
But all was well that Saturday night. After 67–73–69, Archer would be playing in the second-to-last group the next afternoon, with Weiskopf.
• • •
GAMES AT LINCOLN PARK
Archer began his life in golf as a caddie at age 13, at Donald Ross-designed Peninsula Golf & Country Club in San Mateo, a southern suburb of San Francisco. After three tries at second grade, and later getting a highly suspect diploma from San Mateo High, George removed himself from the toxic atmosphere at home. Grandma's apartment at 1505 Gough Street in San Francisco was a short bus ride to his new HQ, rough-and-tumble Lincoln Park, a frequently fogbound muny. The course had tall trees, weedy fairways, tiny greens and great views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I kept getting in money games,” the gangly man recalled, “because I looked like someone you could beat.”
The newlywed Archers—she was 18, he was 22—rented a $70-a-month apartment at 3515 Clement, across the street and up the hill from Lincoln Park. During the day, George, giving shots, would try to win a buck or two from whatever plumber or cop or fireman would play him. After dinner, he'd get out his mallet putter and walk down the hill to a rectangle of bentgrass and Poa annua next to the Lincoln Park parking lot that was lit by a street light and car headlights. Sometimes the putting matches went until midnight.
A man named Ben—not Hogan—came into Archer's life at this time. “I don't remember his last name,” Donna says, “but I remember that he couldn't putt.” Some nights, George's favorite pigeon lost enough to fund dinner for the new bride and groom at a place called The Ranch House. Fifteen bucks covered prime rib for two.
Archer won six significant amateur tournaments in '63, made the semis in the U.S. Am and was low amateur in San Francisco's tour event. Tournament sponsor Eugene Selvage, the proud brewer of Lucky Lager beer, took a liking to the Archers. Be an honor to sponsor you on the tour, George, he said. And why don't you kids move to one of my ranches? They took the one an hour and twenty south of San Francisco, in Gilroy, The Garlic Capital of the World.
A few months after settling into a trailer on their 5,000-acre home on the range, the Archers rolled down the coast in a Chrysler Newport station wagon for George's first tournament as a pro.
OK, they hit the road—but how? How does an illiterate itinerant golf professional make his way in the wide world? First of all, the state of California had lately allowed an oral test, so George had a driver license, and he had an infallible sense of direction, so they never got lost.
With a menu in his hands, Archer would search for the few words whose shape meant something to him: “hot dog,” “hamburger” “shrimp”—or bluff by asking the waiter, “What's good?” When he needed money, and Donna wasn't there, he'd write a check for cash by carefully copying a template she had made for him. But if presented with a bill for a random amount, he was lost. Ditto personalized inscriptions for autograph seekers. Ditto anything in writing, such as a contract to continue using Wilson clubs and balls for another year. He got by, in other words.
Although she played a crucial part in her husband's journey, and her blithe spirit complemented George's shy personality perfectly, Donna Archer deflects the credit. “If you marry someone who doesn't have an arm,” she says, “they've already adjusted.”
Lacking a Donna, other illiterates in sports didn't do as well. Two come to mind: When White Sox leftfielder Joseph Jefferson Jackson was suspected of being in on the plot to throw the 1919 World Series, he was inveigled to sign a document he couldn't read, because he couldn't read. Shoeless Joe had inadvertently given up his right to appeal. Football's Dexter Manley, a defensive end in the 1980s, led a tortured life. His shame at being placed in the “dummy class” manifested as violence, such as when he stuck a sharpened pencil into another student's neck, and one incident of arson. Granted social promotions at Yates High School in Houston and at Oklahoma State, he moved on to the NFL, where he'd bring the Wall Street Journal into the locker room and pretend to study it. The playbook held no meaning; a coach told him he had “the IQ of a grapefruit.” Asked to read in Sunday school, he'd say he'd forgotten his glasses. After four positive tests for banned drugs, he was out of the league.
Manley eventually overcame his reading problem. Archer did not. He almost certainly had dyslexia, the umbrella term for all kinds of reading disorders. Picasso, Da Vinci, Einstein, Edison, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise were or are dyslexic. It's not a disease or syndrome indicating a lack of intellect; often, it's the opposite. Kathleen Dickerson, a third-grade teacher in Ohio for 30 years, says every dyslexic she taught was above average in intelligence, and almost all were boys. While most of us were learning our ABCs, and looking down on slow readers, the Picassos were exploring an alphabet we couldn't even see.
“Tasks which require the ability to visualize something in a creative or different way are often simple for [them],” Joan M. Smith writes in the Introduction to the book The Gift of Dyslexia.
Dyslexics often think in pictures instead of words, in other words. Maybe that was how Archer came up with his stupefying pitch and putt on 15 that Sunday 50 years ago.
Casper shot a shaky 40 on the front nine, then bogeyed 10, bringing the other guys back in the game. Charles Coody eagled 13 and led by one. Archer, one back, hit his 4-iron second shot into the right side of the pond in front of 15. The pin was front left. An untenable position. Fourth down and 20. But Archer did not punt. “I had 15 feet for eagle, and it looked like I was going to gain three strokes on him,” Weiskopf recalls. “But then George played the most incredible shot: a bump-and-run into the bank.”
The shockingly low, precisely judged shot trickled on to about 12 feet. Weiskopf's putt lipped out, and he tapped in for 4. George assumed the position. His steep bend from the waist made his body look like a question mark, or like a stork with a stick, and his high-water pants crept up his shins. But of all history's great putters, only Bob Charles' stroke rivaled Archer's for its precise, mechanical beauty. Archer's arms rocked back and forth, tick tock, his scrunched-up body immobile as a brick house, and the ball fell in for an amazing par.
Coody finished with three bogeys and was done. Knudson birdied 15 and 16, Weiskopf bogeyed 17, and Casper made a late comeback. The surgeon, the perfectionist and the mystery man all trailed by a shot, and all desperately wanted to hit it close on 18. None did.
Instead it was the leader, Archer, who came up big with the Masters on the line. He hit his best full shot of the day, a low, hooking 7-iron to the front pin to about eight feet. He two-putted to win by one.
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• • •
REVEALING THE SECRET
Casper ('70) and Coody ('71) found redemption by winning subsequent Masters. Knudson found happiness by quitting the tour. He taught golf near his home in Toronto and wrote The Natural Golf Swing. He died, from lung cancer, in 1989. Weiskopf would win the '73 Open Championship at Troon, 16 events on tour, then had a career as a course architect and TV commentator.
Archer made less of a mark on the popular mind than he might have.
The so-called Gilroy Cowboy would go on to win six more tour events for a total of 13, and he won 19 times on the senior tour. He set a record for fewest putts—94, at Harbour Town, in 1980. But from shyness and disdain for agents, few endorsement deals came his way. Nor did he monetize his incredible short-game skill with a book or a video.
Shyness? Sure, Donna Archer says, “but the undercurrent was that if he spread his tentacles too far, he'd get busted. He never came out. None of our friends knew. Only our daughters and a few others knew about his illiteracy.”
Despite repeated efforts to re-train his brain, Archer never really learned to read or write. But in 2005, when the 65-year old Zen master of the putter lay dying from lymphatic cancer, he gave Donna permission to reveal his secret. George died, and the George Archer Memorial Foundation for Literacy was born. The primary fundraiser is a pro-am at Peninsula. After check-in, the first order of business is a putting contest.