Getting an invitation to cover the Masters when I was at Channel 2 in Charleston in late 1978 was an unexpected and welcome surprise. I took my Dad as my cameraman since it was a one-man sports department at the time. We rented a room through the Augusta Housing Bureau and were both amazed the first time we walked on the grounds.
Beautiful and manicured beyond belief “The National” as locals know it, exceeded expectations. The southern hospitality there is no myth: Everybody is unfailingly polite.
I must have looked lost standing outside the Quonset hut that served as the pressroom because PGA Tour media director Tom Place walked out and asked, “Do you need help Sam?” Seeing so many titans of sports journalism in one place was a bit stunning for a young reporter.
After Fuzzy Zoeller’s playoff win, an Augusta National member had him in a cart bringing him up from the 11th green. It was pretty dark but I was standing there by the 18th green with my father holding the camera and the member brought Fuzzy right to me, much to my surprise.
“I don’t see him, I don’t see him,” I could hear my Dad saying behind me. While running a camera in those days was pretty simple, the viewfinder and the camera were separate, connected by a hinge. My Dad was looking straight ahead through the viewfinder but the camera had drooped off the front and was pointing at the ground. As Zoeller walked up to me, I reached back and grabbed the camera and pointed it at the new Masters winner. “There he is,” my Dad said as I told him to hit the “record” button.
I asked Fuzzy a question about winning with his wife expecting their first child and he gave a standard Fuzzy Zoeller answer that included a joke. As I brought the microphone back to my face to ask a second question, out of the darkness what seemed to be a hundred microphones pointed at me in our little circle of light. The most prominent was from a network in Australia. My first thought was “Man, this is a big deal.”
We used to stand in the gravel parking lot under a sign that said “Media” to do our live shots during the Masters. One year we took the satellite truck and Bob Maupin, our engineer, found a dogwood tree down Washington Road in a public park that was pretty accessible. We lit the tree and did a week’s worth of shows there, honestly saying “Live from Augusta.” The media committee once wired a connection for local media from the parking lot to the edge of the ropes surrounding the famous oak tree outside the clubhouse and we went live from there. Greg Norman heckled me from the porch that year and we had a good laugh about it afterwards. Most recently our live broadcasts were from behind the big scoreboard along the first fairway, looking out on the expanse of green that makes up the golf course. Each time we’d pop up from there, Anchorman Tom Wills would say, “It’s just breathtaking.” (I took Tom to Augusta as my cameraman in 1983!)
I’ve created lifelong relationships at Augusta. My friendship with Pat Summerall grew there. I got to know Ken Venturi and Ben Wright. I did some golf with Verne Lundquist in the infancy of cable television and we’ve stayed friends ever since. Every year I’d renew my friendship with Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer, (from my days as a bartender in DC) smoking a cigar and having a cocktail with them on the veranda at the back of the clubhouse.
There’s a picture of me in the 1981 Masters yearbook waiting to interview, Tom Watson, that year’s winner. When I see it I’m reminded of the intimacy that Augusta National had then for players, fans and media. There’s always a reverence for the game, the course and the traditions. Smokers won’t even throw their cigarette butts on the ground. I’ve seen patrons put them out and stick them in their pocket.
Even with all of the changes that have happened in the last 40 years, that intimacy remains when you step on the grounds.
People remain unfailingly polite. There’s no running. No cell phones on the property. No selfies or other social media cataloging every second. Just a reunion or a rebirth of sorts every year.
A lot more than just golf when you say the words, “The Masters.”