The Masters

Masters Memories Last

Most of golf’s memories seem to come from The Masters. The other majors have had their drama. The Open Championship has the famous “Duel in the Sun” between Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson and Van de Velde’s meltdown at Carnoustie. The U.S. Open has Ben Hogan’s one-iron at Merion, Arnold Palmer driving the green at Cherry Hills in 1960 and Watson’s chip in at seventeen at Pebble Beach. Golf aficionados all have their favorites.

But even the casual golf fan has their favorite Masters memories. Perhaps it’s because the tournament is the only Major played over the same venue for the past eighty-five editions, or maybe it’s the beautiful setting Augusta National presents for some of the toughest competition each year. No matter. Even non-sports fans can tell you something about The Masters.

“The azaleas’ in bloom,” my favorite non-sports fan said. “That shot on TV they show with the triple-arch bridge and the azaleas in the background. That’s really pretty.”

“Pimento cheese sandwiches,” was another favorite among the ‘non-golf’ crowd. That was a surprise. At what other event does something at the concession stand available for $1.50 make the ‘memories’ list? Hot Dogs at the Super Bowl? Beer at Daytona? Cracker Jack at the World Series? Hardly.

This weekend’s Masters’ broadcasts will be the highest rated golf telecasts of the year, by far. You could call it a rite of spring, especially for those who are in the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Mid-West where they’re more likely to see snow out the window than green grass.

“That’s for sure,” my friend ‘Keeter,’ who still lives up north told me. “When you see that green grass at Augusta, you know it’s the first week of April and The Masters.”

Among the sports crowd, and especially golf fans, there’s a definite split in their favorite Masters moment. For the plus fifty-five crowd, without exception they say, “Nicklaus in ’86.” Jack’s birdie putt on seventeen, punctuated by Verne Lundquist’s “Yes, sir!” call is a memory they can conjure up instantly.

For the under fifty-five crowd there’s a generational shift, as you might expect.

“Tiger in ’97,” is the answer my forty-nine-year-old friend ‘Pineapple’ instantly said when asked about his favorite Masters memory. “I was on my honeymoon in Hawaii with my first wife watching that. It really had a big effect on me. She wasn’t happy that I spent time watching TV.”

He mentioned later that might have been a hint why she was his first wife.

Checking with most of my over-55 friends, they can recite where they were when Jack made his charge and won in ’86. All had different moments that made a mark on their memory bank after that.

“I really liked it when Jordan Spieth won,” ‘Big Beef’ said recalling Spieth’s win in 2015 after a runner up finish the previous year. “Just the way he handled himself.”

Big Beef is a big sports fan and although he doesn’t play any longer, thoroughly enjoys watching golf. A player’s demeanor, winning or losing, makes a difference.

“He played the right way, did the right things,” he added. “He really confirmed to me what a gentleman I think he is. His dedication to his sister and his family, that really sticks in my mind.”

The “BQ” still plays a lot of golf, better than ever with a new knee. He quickly rattled off Jack’s victory in ’86 but followed that quickly with Larry Mize’s win in 1987.

“I happened to be at The Masters that year with you,” he recalled. “And the tension coming down the stretch with everybody there was amazing.”

Often forgotten about the ’87 finish is the fact that Mize had tied with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros at -3 after seventy-two holes. Ballesteros missed a short putt on the first playoff hole to be eliminated in the sudden death playoff. Norman looked to have the advantage after he and Mize hit their approach shots on eleven. Then Mize famously chipped in from off the right of the green to take the Green Jacket.

“We didn’t walk down to ten or eleven for the playoff, so we saw Seve walking back up ten and knew he was out,” BQ explained. “We went over to the clubhouse and looked in the window to watch what happened on eleven. When Mize chipped in, the place erupted.”

Then he added, “But what was most memorable was that evening I got invited to play Augusta the next morning. And that’s a whole other story.”

My friend “Ghost of Chuck” and I also have attended The Masters a few times together. Ghost picked Tiger’s win in 1997 as his most memorable, but for a very different reason.

“April 14th is my wife’s birthday, and we were in Big Sur to celebrate that year,” he began. “We stopped in a little bar on the road to get something to eat and asked the bartender if we could watch The Masters. Turns out she was from England, moved to Haight-Ashbury in the sixties and was still a self-proclaimed ‘hippie’ now working in a bar. She said to us, “The Masters? What’s that?”

“I explained about the golf tournament and Tiger and she turned it on and really got into it. Then all of the sudden the power in the whole bar went out. And the bartender said, ‘We need to finish watching, come with me.’”

The three of them went outside, the bartender getting in, how Ghost described it, her ‘Magic Bus’ and said, ‘Follow me!’

“We started driving and my wife looked at me and asked, ‘What are we doing?’ I just said, ‘We’re going to watch The Masters!’ And we ended up at some guys’ house down the road and watched Tiger’s historic win. And that was different.”
I’ve been covering The Masters since 1979, missing only 1982 when my oldest daughter was born that weekend. Thirty-nine years ago, yesterday. I’ve got plenty of memories over those forty-two years and every one of them great. The most special are the times I’ve had the chance to take my family and friends to see Augusta National and The Masters as a place and a golf tournament. It’s a time, I hope, if they’re like me, they’ll never forget.

Past and Present on Display at The Masters

It was always former PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman’s idea that The Players Championship would be the first “significant” golf tournament of the year. Playing the tournament in March in Florida would kick off the golf season and eventually The Players would be the “first major” on the calendar.

Although it is showcased as the first big test of the best players in the world, The Players hasn’t received “Major” status. The TPC Stadium Course at Sawgrass showed magnificently just three weeks ago with a fitting champion in Justin Thomas but it’s still not considered a Major.

The “First Major” title still belongs to The Masters.

Because of the pandemic, The Masters was the last Major played in 2020 and will be the first played in 2021. Less than five months separate last year’s tournament from this week’s competition at Augusta National. Dustin Johnson has reigned as the current Masters champion for the shortest period in the tournament’s history. Compare that to The (British) Open Championship, where Shane Lowry will have been known as the “Champion Golfer of the Year” for two full years because of last year’s cancellation.

Johnson and Lowry are among the ninety players invited for the Masters, although it’s unclear how many will actually tee it up on Thursday. Johnson won the tournament in November with a record 20-under finish. The conditions this week most likely won’t allow this year’s winner to approach that number.

“Yeah, I think it will be back to feeling like a normal Masters. Obviously last year, there was nothing normal about last year, for the whole year, really,” Johnson said. “I think this year in April, the Masters will feel like it’s back, and it will feel the same. I’m definitely looking forward to that.”

Fans will be back at The Masters in a limited capacity this year. The par-three tournament will be back on Wednesday with patrons. Masks required.

And while there are protests scheduled for outside the gates of Augusta National, eighty-six year old Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in The Masters will join former champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting a ceremonial initial shot at the first tee Thursday opening the tournament.

The 85th installment of The Masters will mark the 60th anniversary of Gary Player’s first Green Jacket in 1961. Player competed in fifty-two Masters, the most ever, finishing his competitive rounds at Augusta in 2009.

That’s why watching The Masters each April can be so interesting on two fronts. There aren’t any other sporting events where the prize is so coveted but the past is still on display.

Arnold Palmer played in fifty Masters, the most consecutive ever. Palmer had said he’d play Augusta National “As long as I can hit fifteen in two.” He stopped in 2004. Jack Nicklaus stopped the next year after forty-five appearances and six Green Jackets.

I remember walking with Sam Snead from the 18th green to the clubhouse in 1983 when he said, “I think that’s it for me.” And with that he was done after 44 appearances and three victories at Augusta National. I was dumbfounded.

Media coverage was very different then and especially for golf, pre-Tiger. No big announcement, Snead just said to three or four of us walking with him, “I’m done.”

“I can still play this golf course,” 1992 champion Fred Couples told me during a practice round with Tiger Woods and Adam Scott last November.

Standing on the tenth tee, Scott and Woods hit three-woods down the hill on the long, 495 yard, par four.
Couples, who’s length off the tee contributed to his “Boom Boom” nickname, hit driver.

“The key is to hit the right clubs into these greens,” he explained. “I’m long enough that I can still do that. Some guys can’t.”
Fred uses the 18th hole as a prime example of his ability to still play Augusta National. How he plays that hole will determine how long he’ll continue to compete at the Masters every April.

“I used to hit driver and a short iron in there,” he said of the 465-yard uphill par 4 known as “Holly.” “Even though it’s longer now, I can still hit a short iron in there with how long I still hit it,’ alluding to the distance gained through new equipment technology. “Once guys start having to hit hybrid into that green, they don’t have much of a chance.”

Adding length to the golf course has made a test for players in the modern game, but for others, it’s eliminated them as actual competitors. As an example, Augusta National played at 6,925 yards in 1994. This year it will be 550 yards longer.

And confounding that theory, Bernhard Langer made the cut last year at 63-years old, the oldest player to ever do so.
“I am hitting a lot of 2- and 3-hybrids on holes where the younger guys are hitting 8- and 9-irons into the greens,” Langer told Golf Digest. “So, it’s a big challenge for me.”

Langer admitted to hitting 3-wood into the par four fifth hole each day last November. No matter. Paired with Bryson DeChambeau, the longest hitter in the game, Langer bested him by two strokes in the final round.

“There’s a definite advantage from playing that course 100 times or more,” Langer explained. Sometimes it is better to be 20 yards short than three feet long. When I was paired with Bryson he missed in the wrong places. It often comes down to a matter of inches. He’d almost hit a good shot, but it wasn’t.”

Figuring out how to play Augusta National under tournament conditions is nothing new. Dustin Johnson carrying a 7-wood in his bag in November was much discussed as a key to his victory. Years earlier, Raymond Floyd famously carried a 5-wood during his 1976 victory, putting the club in play for that week to try and tame the par-5’s.

It’s one of the things that makes The Masters so compelling. The history of the game is often written there. Or is it because it happened at The Masters, it becomes part of history?

Tiger Woods’ famous chip in on sixteen in 2005 on his way to victory is one of the most celebrated golf shots ever. Barely anybody remembers Davis Love III making almost the exact same shot three years earlier on sixteen. Because he didn’t go on to win. And he’s not Tiger.

Is Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle in the 1935 Masters on fifteen bigger than Harris English’s same score on eleven at last year’s Players? We have only O.B. Keeler’s newspaper account of Sarazen’s feat, written in the daily paper while there’s very clear video of English and his two.

Of course it is. Sarazen went on to win.

And it happened at The Masters.