124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

The Loop

Reflections on covering 50(!) Masters: You might say the place has changed a bit

April 06, 2016

Augusta National/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The footpath into the working press Quonset hut was loose gravel spread on dirt running a little downhill. After a woman named Martha Gay handed me a press credential for my first Masters, she asked if I needed anything.

“Just one question,” I said. “Where does Red Smith sit?”

“That’s him there,” she said. She pointed to a white-haired man two chairs from the right end of the third row from the back of the biggest working press room I had ever seen, maybe 125 chairs set at wooden tables. The old man used both hands, trembling, to feed a piece of paper into the roller of his typewriter.

Quonset hut? Typewriter? A dirty, dusty footpath at Augusta National Golf Club? Red Smith?

It was 50 Aprils ago.

Once, if you lived too close by, you could not see the Masters; now, if you have the slightest interest, it is impossible to not see it on your TV, on your PC, on your choice of mobile devices, and, coming soon, I’m sure, on the back of your eyelids.

In 1967 Lyndon Johnson was president. Green Bay won the first Super Bowl, though we didn’t yet call it the Super Bowl. Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, Elvis married Priscilla, and Ronald Reagan became governor of California. At the Augusta National practice range, I watched Ben Hogan hit 5-irons to a caddie who caught the balls in a shag bag on the first bounce.

In golf, the Masters was a big deal from its start in 1934. In America, not so much. Through the tournament’s early years, co-founder Clifford Roberts gave tickets to Augusta schoolteachers who put them on their desks with signs reading, “Masters Tickets: Please Help Support Our Town. “ A $5 bill at the main gate on Washington Road bought you a day’s ticket. Soldiers at nearby Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon) got in free if they came in uniform, a gallery-padding tactic that in the late 1950s had the unintended but happy consequence of creating the khaki-clad “Arnie’s Army.” For a while, Roberts imposed a 250-mile television blackout to encourage people to drive into town rather than sit on the couch. The week I returned from my first Masters, Roberts asked for clips of my stuff, not because he had any reason to admire the work but because he wanted to be assured that I had, after asking for a credential, actually worked.

Now the Masters is a global phenomenon. The Quonset hut, with its curved metal roof (always fun in thunderstorms), is gone; in its place a multi-million dollar building with an ampitheater seating 500 representatives of all kinds of media from all over the world. There are also separate television facilities for CBS, ESPN, and Golf Channel. Once, if you lived too close by, you could not see the Masters; now, if you have the slightest interest, it is impossible to not see it on your TV, on your PC, on your choice of mobile devices, and, coming soon, I’m sure, on the back of your eyelids.

In 1967 I wanted to see Red Smith and Ben Hogan work, and on Saturday that week Hogan, 54 years old, limped up the hill to the 18th green needing to make a treacherous 20-footer downhill for a round of 36-30—66. Seemingly frozen over the putt – the yips bit him more often than he liked – Hogan finally tapped it. I watched from an elevated press stand alongside the green. (That stand is gone now, of course, replaced by a TV camera tower, of course.) The ball fell in, and maybe a dozen sportswriters – no more, maybe fewer – followed Hogan into the players’ locker room.

Hogan was happy. It had been 14 years since he had won a major championship. Now he sat two shots off the lead going to a Masters Sunday. Sunlight came through a lace curtain behind him. He seemed to be wrapped in a halo. He said, “I’m aching, fellas, and I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I’ll give it all I have.” His Sunday 77 left him in 10th place, beaten by 10 shots.

The Hogan moment comes first in memories. … 1968: Roberto deVicenzo, seen from that same press stand, head in his hands, later to say, “What a stupid I am.” … 1984: Charlie Crenshaw, in the gallery, walking alone, following his son, Ben, to the victory of their dreams. … 1987: Larry Mize, the local boy, chips a dagger into Greg Norman’s heart. . . 1992: Fred Couples’s ball sticks on the bank at the 12th. … 1996: Norman, alive again, six shots up with a day to play, becomes dead again when he backs a shot off the 9th green on Sunday. …1997: Tiger lets the world know it is his world, four days of the best golf anyone will ever play. … 2012: Bubba Watson from the dark forest shadows of the 10th hole causes a wedge shot to make a sweeping right-hand turn to immortality.

Aprils to remember, and one more: 1986. My son made the mistake of getting married on April 13, 1986. That day, after the reception, I turned on the television. It was 8 o’clock. The first words I heard were, “Jack Nicklaus today shot 65 to win . . . “ And I said, “Oh, sh%t,” for Nicklaus was an old man, then 46, six years removed from his last major championship, doing what Hogan hadn’t done, win one more time.

So I missed that Masters, and I soon advised my son, “The next time you get married, don’t do it in April.” Nicklaus, being Nicklaus, was kind enough to send me a letter saying I had my priorities in order, family first, and the great man added, “If you want to know anything about the 1986 Masters, I do remember some of the details.”

By the way, my son did marry a second time.

In December.