Each year in the run up to the first full week of April, in hushed tones we hear an announcer say, “A tradition like no other, the Masters.” It’s a catchy phrase but it’s actually true. The Masters has a tradition like no other sporting event. Other events have traditions, they drink milk in Victory Lane at the Indy 500 and the winners at Wimbledon get a chance to meet royalty. But at the Masters the traditions start early and continue through the sunset Green Jacket ceremony on Sunday.
I’ve been in Augusta for the Masters each year since 1979. As a young reporter in Charleston, S.C. I was excited to get my first invitation to cover golf’s first Major of the year. I was a little surprised when I arrived at Augusta National and it was tucked into a corner on Washington Road amid fast-food restaurants and discount stores. Just a small sign amongst the trees showed the way to Magnolia Lane. Back then, the media was allowed to come in the main gate, and then directed to the side where one of the practice area was a large expanse of green in front of the clubhouse. A gravel-covered parking lot had a single post near the middle that said “media” with volunteers showing the way. A short walk to the right of the clubhouse was the “media center” a Quonset hut down two wooden stairs with a manual scoreboard in the front and the clatter of portable, manual typewriters filling the air. Tom Place, the PGA Tour’s on-site media coordinator, saw me at the back door, no doubt looking bewildered, and shepherded me through the credentialing process. Not much past my 23rd birthday, I’m sure I was the youngest “reporter” in the building. I met Furman Bisher from Atlanta and Edwin Pope from Miami. Other icons of writing at the time like Herbert Warren Wind (he named “Amen Corner”) were scattered around the “room.” Pre-internet, pre-computers, pre-cell phones, it was a place full of activity. Everything was done manually. The scoring, the announcements, everything.
Being a city kid form Baltimore, I didn’t know much about golf before I went to college and stepping onto the golf course at Augusta National was like being dropped into a dream. From the golf shop the course unfolds in front of you as an expanse of green like I’d never seen. A former nursery, Augusta National had trees and flowers of every variety that were breathtaking.
You often hear the Masters described as “this special week.” Yes the tournament provides the backdrop for that, but the “specialness” comes in the people you see every year under the oak tree at the clubhouse, returning to experience the first elements of spring and renewing old friendships. As a sports fan, there’s no place like the veranda at Augusta National. I’ve seen just about every major sports figure at one time or another, relaxed and enjoying the atmosphere. The members provide part of that, a genteel-ness that can be attributed to the Masters home in Georgia but also to the gentlemanly nature of the game of golf and the traditions the game itself holds.
I’ve smoked a cigar with Sonny Jurgensen sitting on the porch of “The National” and had breakfast with Arnold Palmer in the upstairs dining room that once had a “Gentlemen Only” sign posted at the bottom of the stairs.
At my first Masters, the television station I was working for couldn’t afford a photographer so I enlisted my Dad to point the camera when I was conducting interviews. After Fuzzy Zoeller made the winning putt on 11 in sudden death, a member brought Zoeller back toward the clubhouse in a golf cart, stopping in front of me so I could ask the newest Masters champion a few questions. As he walked toward me I could hear my Dad behind me saying, “I don’t see him, I don’t see him.” A glance over my shoulder showed the viewfinder disconnected from the camera, easily fixed with one turn of the wrist behind my back. “There he is,” my Dad said as I shook hands with Fuzzy. The story line that week was Zoeller playing so well as a rookie at Augusta National and the fact that his wife was back in Indiana about to give birth to their first child. “Are you a dad yet?” I blurted out, putting the microphone under Fuzzy’s chin. “I don’t know,” he said with a laugh, “but after that she’s probably on her way to the hospital!” As I went to ask a second question, out of the dark about twenty microphones identifying media outlets from all over the world were pointed at me as I pulled my own mic back. That’s when I first realized: this is a big deal.
It’s at Augusta National where I’ve played 18 holes with Brent Musberger and caddied for David Duval in the par three contest. It’s where I got to know Pat Summerall and Hall of Famer Frank Chirkinian, the legendary golf producer. It’s there on the patio at lunch with the then-President of CBS Sports Peter Lund where I heard him say, “You know Sam, I got it down to you and Jim (Nantz) and for the life of me I can remember why I picked Jim.” (Yes, crushing) It’s where I encouraged my friend Todd to propose to his girlfriend, saying, “Really? Amen Corner would be the perfect spot.” And it’s where Chirkinian invited me to play one Monday after the Masters and I brought my friend former NFL quarterback Matt Robinson. “What is this the Chirkinian invitational,” the pro said with a laugh followed by, “You guys go over to the 10th tee and start on the back.” A dream come true for any golfer at any level.
It’s a worldwide event that happens close to home as evidenced by the number of languages you hear spoken on the golf course among the patrons and in and around the clubhouse. Two years ago a man making the “strike a match” motion approached me under the oak tree. Once I realized he spoke no English and he recognized that my Spanish was not good, we had a laugh and I gave him a matchbook and an extra cigar I was carrying. He was part of the Argentine Golf Federation, one of dozens invited to Augusta each year to represent the game in their country. The next afternoon while headed inside, my new Argentine friend tracked me down and insisted we share some time, and one of his cigars, under the oak. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Over the years I’ve covered every aspect of the tournament allowed from the practice rounds (which used to be open to anyone for a $15 admission) to the Thursday tradition of the ceremonial starters to the final putt dropping on Sunday. Sometimes our news management has sent me there for a week, sometimes for a day, and sometimes, not at all. On those occasions I’ve thought it was important enough to get there on my own and carry on my own tradition of being at The Masters. Because as I found out early on: it’s a big deal.