AUGUSTA, Ga. -- An empty chair was placed on Augusta National’s first tee on Thursday, a symbolic remembrance of Arnold Palmer. But somewhere on the club’s grounds was another unused seat by a man who predates Palmer at the Masters by more than two decades.
Dan Yates isn’t at this year’s tournament, but that doesn’t mean he won’t show up again. Until 2015, the 98-year-old Augusta National member had seen every Masters tournament. It took getting pneumonia to snap his remarkable streak of 78 consecutive events.
“He loves this place and this tournament more than anyone,” said Yates’ son, Danny, a two-time Masters participant and former U.S. Walker Cup captain who has been at every playing of the event since 1962.
When reached by phone in his Atlanta condo, the elder Yates, who is recovering after recently undergoing an aortic-valve replacement, said what he missed most about not being in Augusta this week is “meeting up with my old friends.” His old friends, including a two-time green jacket winner, miss seeing him, too.
“He’s missed because he’s been a fixture here forever,” said Ben Crenshaw, Masters champ in 1984 and 1995. “People used to always gain information just by talking with him. Those types of friendships and recollections are special.”
Dan, who turns 99 in December, said he hopes to return next year. And Danny would like nothing more.
“I wish he was here, but I just think he’s more comfortable at home,” added Danny about his dad, who still comes into his office to work at Yates Insurance Agency in Atlanta when he can. “Coming here probably puts pressure on him that he doesn’t need.”
Yates became an ANGC member in 1960, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Charlie, who played in 11 Masters, including the inaugural event in 1934. Dan never quite reached that level as a player—although he was the captain of the Georgia Tech golf team and won the 1939 Georgia State Amateur—but he was an active part of the event, serving on the tournament’s rules and press committees for decades. He got to know many golfers through the years with Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Crenshaw being three of his favorites.
In fact, as a father too nervous to watch his own son after he birdied the first hole at the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, Yates followed Crenshaw, who Danny was rooming with that week, instead.
“He would always be there when I finished my rounds at the Masters,” Danny said of his dad. “I’d say, ‘Did you see that birdie on 17?’ and he’d say no, and I’d go, ‘Really?!’ ”
There’s a sense of wonder when Yates’ name comes up around Crenshaw. Even though the World Golf Hall of Famer has slipped on the green jacket twice as the tournament’s winner, how many people can say they were at the trophy ceremony in 1934? Or that they’ve had a brother and a son play in the Masters? Or that they played golf with Bobby Jones?
“It’s sad to say, but the guys who are the bridges to Bobby Jones are dwindling,” Crenshaw said. “They’ve seen it all. They’ve seen it all.”
Or heard it. Yates remembers the roars from the patrons when Gene Sarazen holed out for double eagle on the 15th in 1935. Yates was on the 18th hole at the time, but sound traveled through Augusta National’s pines as well then as it does now.
In recent years, Yates has spent most of his time watching on TV in one of Augusta National’s cabins, but he says the 15th and 16th are his two favorite spots on the course to see the action. Since he didn’t actually witness Sarazen’s “shot heard ’round the world,” Yates says the craziest thing he ever saw at the tournament was when Ben Hogan three-putted from close range on the final hole in 1946 to lose to Herman Keiser.
Yates was involved in a weird incident of his own years later when he lost control of a golf cart, crashed into a Pinkerton and broke the guard’s leg. That earned him a scolding from Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts, but it didn’t keep Yates from missing his favorite annual event. And you can be sure he’ll be following the tournament closely this week.
The man who still vividly recalls sharing a Coke with Bobby Jones for the first time as a kid will enjoy a few sodas as he watches the Masters on TV from a couple hours away. Yates will be rooting for Jordan Spieth to win another green jacket—while many others on the grounds are pulling for him to make it back for (at least) another year.
There will be a seat waiting for him if he does.