The Masters Its Ownself
This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
At the 1984 British Open won by Seve Ballesteros, the legendary Dan Jenkins was 55 years old and at war with the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, who was a know-nothing knucklehead who didn’t appreciate golf, Dan or, for that matter, the English language. Perhaps to punish his boss, it’s been said Dan maybe didn’t give the game story his best effort, which led to a parting of the ways after more than 20 years of Dan being SI’s most important staff writer. He picked up the phone and called Nick Seitz, who was the editorial director of a group of sports magazines owned by The New York Times Co., which included Golf Digest. Seitz asked the editor of Golf Digest at the time if he were interested in hiring Jenkins and was told, “No, he’s over the hill.”
A couple of months later, I was named the new editor of the magazine, and Nick asked me to join him for lunch with Jenkins at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan owned by Dan’s wife, June, and a couple of her friends. I grew up idolizing Dan—his writing made me want to get into golf journalism—and my bible was his book Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate. Fifty-five sounded incredibly old to me—I was about half his age at the time—but what the heck! I walked out of Juanita’s restaurant with my first hire, and it was the best decision I ever made at the magazine. Besides being a magnet for talent, he produced some of his best writing over the next 35 years for Golf Digest (until his death at 90 in March 2019).
Jenkins’ first article (below) appeared in the April 1985 issue—a tour de force introducing the cast of characters he hung out with on the Masters veranda. He said he didn’t cover tournaments anymore; like Dorothy Kilgallen going to murder trials, he presided over them. At this point in his career, he had covered 34 Masters. Switching teams to Golf Digest allowed Jenkins to extend his record to 232 majors—68 Masters, 63 U.S. Opens, 56 PGAs and 45 Open Championships. At the end of each major week, on Sunday night, he would roll a piece of paper into the carriage of his Olympia typewriter (in the 1990s, he switched to word-processing) and tap out a hilarious summary of the week that would become required reading about 30 days later when it appeared in subscribers’ mailboxes. Jenkins was so good and so fast, he sometimes would have completed his 2,000-word article before the winner had finished his press conference. On page 2, he’d leave a blank inch or two and say to me on the way out of the press-room door, “Insert an appropriate quote. See ya’ for dinner.”
I was his editor for about the next 10 years, and Mike O’Malley took over after that. The most memorable Sunday night for me was April 13, 1986, when Jack Nicklaus miraculously won his sixth green jacket. I remember standing in the back of the Quonset hut that was the Masters press building and seeing Dan pause from his typewriter and slowly look around the room. All his fellow scribes, in full-throttle writers’ block, had pained expressions on their faces, trying to summon up the words to describe this most historic of Masters. Dan was smiling. —Jerry Tarde
Something mystical seems to happen to every writer who goes to the Masters for the first time, some sort of emotional experience that usually results in a search party being dispatched to recover his typewriter from a clump of azaleas. The writer first becomes hypnotized by the “cathedral of pines,” down around the 10th hole normally, then he genuflects at the Sarazen Bridge on the 15th, and eventually he takes up a position on the August National veranda, there to wait for an aging wisteria vine to crawl up his sleeve and caress his priceless clubhouse badge. It is a peculiar state of mind, a sort of sporting Heaven in which the writer feels that if Bobby Jones could only waggle a hickory shaft once more, it would reverse the ribbon on his Olivetti. My own problem is that I still feel this way after 34 consecutive years of being on—or around—the Masters veranda.
Where has the time gone? Yesterday it was 1951, and I was a college sophomore (but a working journalist as well), following Ben Hogan every step of the way to report the color of Ben’s slacks and the content of his wife Valerie’s thermos to the readers of the now-deceased Fort Worth Press. Then suddenly it was 1984, and I was struggling to be coherent for Sports Illustrated after the trauma of rooting Ben Crenshaw safely home with his first major. Sportswriters needn’t be as objective as courthouse reporters, by the way, and the best ones never were, never are, but I think we’ve all been a little out of control when it comes to Crenshaw. If so, it’s only because he’s such a friendly and personable young man, with such a deep-rooted sense of golf history that we’ve suffered abnormally for him as he lost so many big championships he seemed to have in his grasp. For me, it hasn’t hurt anything that he’s a Texan.
Last year at Augusta, Ben took us down the same road again, only this time he finally won—and this added a new dimension to my own particular state of exhaustion. On Sunday night, I still had to write about it. So there I was, hunched over my typewriter in the Masters press building, clacking away with all of the other deadline guys. And in the middle of a troublesome paragraph, I realized a person’s eyes were on me.
I looked up to find Iva Green, the wife and assistant of Bob Green, a man who covers the PGA Tour regularly for the Associated Press. Good friends, the Greens.
“What is it?” I said to Iva quickly, not bothering to hide the irritability that can often be found in a writer’s voice when he’s on a deadline.
“I just wanted to see if you could do it,” Iva said with a sly grin. We both laughed. She then put a fresh cup of coffee in front of me and left.
Thinking back on all of the Masters Tournaments to which I’ve been assigned, I’m sure that my affection for the event has something to do with the fact that of the 34 I’ve covered, such folklore characters as Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ray Floyd, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Ben Crenshaw have had the wisdom and moral fiber to win exactly 23 of them for me.
I’m reminded that the closest I ever came to being sentenced to a penal colony was in 1971 at Augusta when I committed the heinous crime of Charles Coody, and again in 1973 when I was guilty of the Tommy Aaron atrocity.
It’s only human (some sportswriters are human) and even built into the craft that the words come easier, more quickly, and often more engagingly if the winner is already accepted by the world as a certified immortal or celebrity. Names make news, to be sure, and names have absolutely made the Masters. It wasn’t Gene Kunes who holed out that shot for a double eagle, it was Gene Sarazen. And if there’s anybody who likes a name more than a sportswriter, it’s his boss, the sports editor. This is the guy back in the office who can be relied upon to create more space for your gifted prose and fatten the headline if the Masters winner is a familiar personality. Early in my years at Sports Illustrated, I worked for a managing editor who was a great man in most ways, except that he tended to hold me personally responsible when Palmer or Nicklaus failed to win the Masters—or any other major, for that matter. I’m reminded that the closest I ever came to being sentenced to a penal colony was in 1971 at Augusta when I committed the heinous crime of Charles Coody, and again in 1973 when I was guilty of the Tommy Aaron atrocity.
There is, of course, something else that helps shape the Masters into this very special event, a week to which many of us have become so devoted we cannot even tolerate the thought of not being there to occupy our favorite chair in the upstairs grill or stake out our patch of turf on the veranda. It’s the set decoration, which is another way of saying it’s the atmosphere.
The atmosphere surrounds you in two ways at the Augusta National. First of all, there’s the ever-present awareness of the beauty of the course—its hills, valleys, forests, ponds, flowerbeds—even when you aren’t especially looking at any of it. And then there are all of the old friends and associates with whom you congregate each spring over a five- or six-day period for no other purpose than to eat, drink, watch and listen to golf.
Listening to golf becomes as important as anything if you’re a writer. Much of it involves listening to the tales one hears in the locker rooms, bars, grillrooms and dining rooms, although you generally can’t print must of these tales without causing wholesale divorces, suspensions, firings and transplants. But there’s also outdoor listening, to the roars from out on the course. You learn to interpret the roars.
Let’s say, for example, that it’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon, that you know Nicklaus teed off at 12:24, and you hear a roar from down in the valley. That qualifies the seasoned vet to turn immediately to someone on the veranda and calmly say, “Jack birdied 2.”
Most often, you’ll be right. Minutes later the fact will be substantiated when a number goes up on the gigantic leader board that confronts the veranda from an age-old spot between the 18th and 10th fairways.
Learning to interpret roars over the years allows you to make other observations, such as:
“Watson eagled 13.”
“How could Seve birdie 10 after that drive?”
“Arnold must have hitched up his pants.”
It seems to me that the old roars were more revealing, if not more fun. The loudest and most passionate roars were always those for Palmer, whereas the longest and most approving were always for Hogan. Sam Snead’s roars, as I recall, never equaled Hogan’s, just as the roars for Nicklaus when he was at his best never quite matched Arnold’s when he was at his best.
Today’s roars have a boring kind of sameness to them, I think. This could be a statement about the current demographics of the Masters galleries. While the crowds are still mannerly—a guy doesn’t want to lose his badge, after all—they might not be as knowledgeable as they once were. I don’t miss the old roars as much as I am simply suspect of the new ones. I mean, it could be Jerry Pate, Gary McCord—anybody—who made that eagle, right?
I remember something else about the crowds from the early 1950s, from my first few years in Augusta. They were more discerning in regard to the players they followed, sometimes to the point of insult to the tournament leader. The fairways weren’t entirely barricaded until 1950, and this enabled the more nimble among the spectators to get close to their heroes, to all but go stride for stride through a corridor of pines with a Hogan or a Snead. Now, Ben and Sam would not win another Masters after 1954, but throughout the latter half of that decade, the multitudes were evenly split among them. I should point out that although Palmer first won at Augusta in 1958, he didn’t really become the Arnold Palmer of whoo-ha, go get ’em Arnie until he won for a second time, in 1960, with the birdie-birdie finish that almost put the clubhouse leader, Ken Venturi, in a psycho ward. So it was more than curious for five years, from ’55 through ’59, to watch the hordes scurry after Hogan and Snead as if they were positive either Ben or Sam was going to get another green jacket, regardless of what a Doug Ford or a Jackie Burke might shoot.
Back then, every player of any interest lockered upstairs in what is still the grillroom. They sat on banquettes around the walls and used footlockers beneath them. In the center of the room were dining tables, sofas and chairs. Hogan always sat here, Snead across the room. The stand-up bar is where it always was, connecting the grillroom to a back room that is now private, reserved for past Masters winners. Outside the grillroom is the wraparound balcony overlooking the veranda on one side and Magnolia Lane on the other. In the years before I got there, the earliest years before World War II, part of the balcony served as an open-air pressroom for Grantland Rice and the boys. This whole area, the upstairs grill and the balcony, is my favorite hangout at the Masters, and not just because of my own memories. The truth is, I happen to suffer an acute nostalgia for things I never knew, situations I was never in. I would dearly love to have stood out on that balcony and had a cocktail with Granny Rice and Bob Jones. As it is, I make do with an assortment of rogues: golfers, ex-pro football players, TV folks, poets and other privileged souls. I am accused of having done a record amount of time in the upstairs grill and on the balcony. It’s true, perhaps, but I can only tell you that eggs, country ham, biscuits, a pot of coffee, a morning paper, a table by the window overlooking the veranda and putting green, listening to the idle chitchat of competitors, authors, wits and philosophers, hasn’t exactly been a torturous way to begin each day of the Masters all these years.
That room, the upstairs grill, was once the interview area, so designated by those writers who wished to include quotes in their stories. Strangely enough, not every writer wanted quotes in his story 30 years ago. Many believed that their own observations were all their readers deserved. I was always a quote guy, trained by Blackie Sherrod, my mentor, a Texas sportswriting legend, to pick up the good quote, not just any old quote. So trained were a few other writers, such as my old friend, Bob Drum, now with CBS, then with the Pittsburgh Press.
In those early 1950s, we would ordinarily have the daily leaders all to ourselves upstairs at the completion of their rounds. Then more quote guys began coming out of the dogwoods as the press corps of the Masters started to double, triple and upward. And suddenly one year, Hogan and Snead found themselves being smothered on separate sofas while journalists stood, knelt and shouted, “What’d you hit to the sixth?” … “How long was the putt on 12?” … “Where was the pin on 15?” They practically swung from chandeliers.
This was the first time I heard Ben use a line he would rely on again in the future. He said, “One of these days a deaf mute is going to win a golf tournament, and you guys won’t be able to write a story.”
Cliff Roberts, the Masters chairman, observed this scene one day, saw things were getting out of hand, and ordered an interview room installed in the press building, which used to be a tent and then a Quonset hut before it became a structure to accommodate the largest number of journalists who attend any of the four majors. The problem these days with the interview area, despite the continuing expansion, is that the interviews have become so orchestrated by Masters edict that the interview area is quite possibly the worst place in Augusta, Ga., to look for any news. Locker rooms and grillrooms are still the best places to find out things you don’t know, at the Masters or any other tournament.
I probably remember the 1954 Masters more vividly than any of the others. No doubt it’s because of Hogan and Snead and what they had already meant to the game’s history, and also because it was only my fourth impressionable year on the scene.
I’m not willing to argue that the ’54 event was the most thrilling of them all. The competition is too stiff. There was 1960, for instance, the tournament where Palmer stabbed Venturi in the heart. There was 1962, for another instance, the one where Palmer birdied two of the last three hole to tie Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald, and then dusted them off in an 18-hole playoff during which the scoreboard operators, showing no sign of favoritism whatsoever, posted the slogan, “Go, Arnie” all around the course. And I couldn’t overlook 1975, the year a trim, now-beloved Jack Nicklaus waged Sunday birdie war with Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller and survived by a stroke.
But 1954 was extra special. It was important and exciting, important because Hogan and Snead, the two great players of the era, were in it all the way and wound up in a tie that forced a playoff. Even then, some of us knew it would be the only time these two storybook figures would go at it in a playoff for a major title. And the tournament proper was all the more exciting because of Billy Joe Patton, an unknown amateur from North Carolina who very nearly won and undoubtedly would have won if he’d had the slightest idea of how to play safe at the 13th and 15th holes in the final round.
Drum, a large man who was even larger then, had a guttural, Irish voice that has often been compared with the percussion section of the Ohio State band.
The last round began with Hogan in the lead by three strokes over Snead. Keep in mind that this was a Ben Hogan who had merely scored a Triple Crown the year before by capturing the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open, and this was a Sam Snead who had merely won the Masters twice and the PGA twice in the four previous years. We’re talking legends here.
Meanwhile, there was Billy Joe Patton, who had never won anything. Which I largely attributed to his fast backswing. Nevertheless, Billy Joe had stolen the hearts of the huge crowds, not to forget the press, by taking every conceivable risk on the course and babbling about it with everybody in the gallery. Billy Joe had surprisingly led through 18 and 36, but now he trailed by five—only not for long that Sunday.
My friend Bob Drum and I, being quote guys, went out early with Billy Joe. Ben and Sam—and the tournament—would come along later. At the sixth hole, a par 3 with an enormous hump in the green (a mound that was once known as “the hill where they buried the elephant”), it will be to my everlasting embarrassment that I left Drum in the crowd behind the green and went to a nearby concession stand only seconds before Billy Joe struck his tee shot. The roar was deafening, similar to the kind we would hear for Palmer in later years, only this one trailed off in irregular Rebel whoops. Billy Joe had made a hole-in-one.
“What did it look like?” I said, having rushed back to Drum.
“It looked like a hole-in-one, whaddaya think it looked like?”
Drum, a large man who was even larger then, had a guttural, Irish voice that has often been compared with the percussion section of the Ohio State band.
“Did it go in on the fly, bounce in, roll in or what?” I wondered.
“It looked like a 1!” said Drum, a man not known for his patience, a writer who cared little for detail in those days. “Here’s the club and here’s the ball. The ball did this. That’s a 1!”
He scribbled something on a pairing sheet.
“Here, this is what a 2 looks like,” he said. “That’s not as good as a 1, OK? Let’s go before Mush Mouth’s gallery tramples us.”
Mush Mouth was every golfer or writer Drum ever knew who came from the Old South.
I suppose I should interject that Drum and I became friends in the first place when we had been seated next to each other in the press emporium at my first Masters. Who could resist striking up a friendship with a man who would lean back and laugh so raucously, so often, at his own copy? I confess that he would catch me doing the same on occasion. We were to joke in future years that if Arnold Palmer had ever actually spoken the lines we dolled up for him, he could have had his own lounge act in Vegas.
But back to ’54 and Billy Joe. The amateur reclaimed the Masters lead that Sunday after he birdied the eighth and ninth holes, and by the time he reached the par-5 13th, the Masters was his to win or lose.
We were standing within a few feet of Billy Joe at the 13th after his drive had come to rest in an awkward lie in the upper-right-hand rough. He pulled a spoon out of the bag, and Drum and I looked at each other. A wood from a bad lie in the rough to a green guarded by water? When you’re leading the Masters? On Sunday? When maybe you can be the last amateur ever to win a major? When you’ve probably got Hogan and Snead beaten—and we’ve got Pulitzers riding on it?
Billy Joe only grinned at us, and the crowd, and said, “I didn’t get where I am by playin’ safe!”
“Great!” Drum said to me. “Where does this guy want his body shipped?”
Billy Joe didn’t hear my pal, not that it would have mattered. All week long, Billy Joe had heard nothing but his own muse. And he was too far away to hear his shot when it splashed in the creek. He made a 7. Minutes later, at the 15th he did it again—went for the green on his second. He found the water again, made a 6. History books record that Billy Joe Patton played those two holes in three over par that Sunday, holes he could easily have parred by laying up, and he missed tying Hogan and Snead by only one stroke. With those pars, he would have won the Masters by two.
Even touring pros are sometimes aware of historic importance. Many in the field stayed over on Monday to watch the Hogan-Snead playoff. Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts rode along in a golf car. From tee to green, it was a clinic, but neither player could make a putt on those old scratchy but lightning rye greens. They used to say you could actually hear the ball rolling across the barren rye. Snead won with a two-under 70 to Hogan’s 71, and the difference was a 30-foot chip shot that Sam holed from just off the 10th green.
I lost $100 to Drum on the playoff, a $100 that neither of us had. Knowing he admired Hogan’s game as much as I did, I later asked him why he had wanted to bet on Snead.
“It ain’t the Open,” he had said, having outsmarted me again.
While it’s true that I missed seeing Billy Joe’s ace, I wasn’t always in the wrong place at Augusta. On the night before Art Wall Jr. birdied five of the last six holes to win the 1959 Masters, I ran into him in the lobby of the ancient Bon Air Hotel, once the only place to stay before it became a retirement home. The Bon Air was headquarters for everyone, just as the old Town Tavern in downtown Augusta used to be the only place to stand in line and try to bribe your way in for dinner.
Art and I were making small talk that evening when he was recognized by one of your typical Augusta fans: a red-faced, over-beveraged Southerner in an ill-fitting blazer.
“Hey!” the man said. “Ain’t you Art Wall?”
Art smiled, nodded.
“Ain’t you the fellow who’s supposed to make all them hole-in-ones?”
“That’s him,” I said.
“Thirty or 40 of them suckers? Something like that?”
“It’s up to 34 now,” said Art, politely.
“Thirty-four?” the man frowned. “Boy, who you tryin’ to kid? Bobby didn’t make but three!”
At a more recent Masters, I was lolling around on the veranda with Mike Lupica, a columnist for the New York Daily News. He’s considerably younger—this was maybe his second Masters—and I guess I momentarily forgot that Mike is noted for his mouth. He was thumbing through the Green Book, the press guide, looking for lore items, when he said, “Your first year was ’51?”
He started to count something.
Then he said, “Do you realize your first year was only the 15th Masters they’d ever played?”
I’d never thought of it that way.
“I’ll be damned,” I said.
And he said, “So how ’bout it, old-timer? Were the greens really that fast in those days?”
I almost made the mistake of seriously answering him. Happily, a wisteria vine grabbed me around the neck and prevented it.