Tag Archive for: The Masters

You’ve Covered Half of The Masters?

It sounded funny to hear it out loud, even though the words had come out of my mouth.

“I’ve covered half of these you know,” I said with a chuckle to my colleague as we sat for a chat about my memories of The Masters Tournament.

“Now you’re going for the second half,” he laughed.

And it’s true, but still hard to believe. It was my forty fourth time at Augusta to cover the 88th Masters Tournament. The number would be forty-six except I was in Europe riding my bike one year and couldn’t get back in time and early on, my eldest daughter was born Masters week. (I’m not sure my wife appreciated her doctor and I bringing a small black and white TV into the room next to her “waiting room” so we could watch. Between contractions.)

When a letter with the return address “Augusta National Golf Club” arrived at my desk at Channel 2 in Charleston in January of 1979, I opened it not knowing it was the first step that helped define my career over nearly the next five decades. The letter was from Martha Wallace, the media coordinator for Augusta National, inviting me to apply for a credential to cover the upcoming Masters Tournament.

As a sports fan, I had followed the Masters, knew a lot of the history. I had watched on television as Gary Player made a downhill 10-footer for birdie on 18 the year before. And I remembered seeing Hubert Green miss a short putt on the same hole, also for birdie, to force a playoff.

Starting at Channel 2 in June of ’78, I had just missed the Masters and the Heritage golf tournament, a Charleston staple, that spring. I was familiar with the Heritage though, regularly attending pre-tournament events in Hilton Head promoting the Heritage.

But an invitation to The Masters was something totally different.

Over the years it’s funny to me that my memories of Augusta National and the tournament come in snippets, short stories, and videos of different parts of the experience, but all revolve around one thing: relationships. Relationships with staffers, players, patrons, and members all define my memories about my visits there.

Getting to know Coach and then his son behind the bar in the Grill Room was something I looked forward to every year. And over the past two decades or so, Vince in the same spot has become a daily staple each day I’m at the Masters.

Standing under the Oak Tree, away from the crowd, smoking a cigar and just observing became one of my own personal traditions. But sharing that time, and a cigar, with a visiting official from Argentina, made it even better. With my Spanish at an all-time low, and him just learning English, it was a half-hour of a non-verbal conversation about how good we had it I’ll always remember.

“How did covering The Masters impact your career away from the tournament,” my colleague asked. It was a good question, and something I hadn’t thought about. But quickly, I recognized that my experiences at Augusta had set the tone for how I worked the rest of the year.

Nobody’s ever in a hurry at Augusta, but everything about the tournament runs on time and is very efficient. I realized I’d adopted that philosophy in the other parts of my career. Be quick, be efficient, but don’t be in a hurry.

Being 6’3” and 240 lbs. was very helpful in an NFL locker room getting interviews post-game. I never needed that skill or tactic at Augusta. It’s organized and efficient and they’re doing everything they can to help you do the best job possible.

That’s different from so many other places where the media is held at arm’s length and is considered almost an adversary. At Augusta, you’ve always felt included as a part of the event. You can draw a direct line from Clifford Roberts’ cultivation of a relationship with Grantland Rice and OB Keeler to originally elevate the Masters profile in its early years to the continuing inclusive nature of the media’s role at Augusta.

That hasn’t exempted the club, nor the tournament from criticism throughout its history. But true to form, never in a hurry, they do the right thing.

I’ve always been amused with people saying The Masters and Augusta National are overly “romanticized.” Not true. They are that romantic when the definition of the word is an “idealized view.”

Former Chairman Billy Payne once told me it was important for the Masters and Augusta National to “be the best.” That’s what you find there, and not in an arrogant or dismissive way.

“I’d present three different solutions to the Chairman,” one former staffer recalled. “They’d vary in scope and cost and without exception, he would always choose option number one, the best. ‘Why wouldn’t we do it the best way we can?’ was always his attitude.”

That was an attitude I easily adopted. “Why wouldn’t we try and be the best we can be,” was a philosophy that occasionally put me at odds with my employers. I had a hard time accepting they were willing to do a job that was “fine” when I knew we could do better. Often at the same expense.

I’ve written here in the past of my first time walking into the Quonset hut serving as the media center for the Masters Tournament. As a young reporter, (I had just turned 24) I was quite star struck at the array of journalistic talent seated now right in front of me. Dan Jenkins, Bob Green, Furman Bisher, Hubert Mizell, all writers I’d read but never met, all icons in the business, were diligently working away at their manual Smith-Corona’s.

I’ve recalled the number of microphones coming toward me out of the gloaming as I asked Fuzzy Zoeller some inane question (I’m sure) shortly after his winning putt in the playoff on number eleven. I’d never been in that situation before at a major event. Recognizing the logos from Channel 9 in Australia, the BBC, the American networks, and others from around the world, I distinctly remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is a big deal.”

I’ve recounted “The Walk” I take every year when I first arrive at Augusta, heeding the words Jack Nicklaus told me early on. “Go walk the golf course,” he told a fresh faced me, the first time I spoke to him at The Masters. “When you get here, go see it for yourself. The changes, what it feels like while you’re out there. You’ll learn a lot.”

And I’ve described “The Walk” in the fall of 2020 when I arrived at Amen Corner only to be surprised to be the only person there. No players, no staff, concessionaires, members, or officials around. I was lucky enough to recognize how special, and unique that was, and took time to just take in the experience and be in the moment.

So, when my colleague asked, “After all that, what advice would you give to a young reporter coming to their first Masters this year?” I realized I hadn’t thought of that, but the answer came easily.

“Go for a walk, I’d tell them. See the golf course for yourself. Notice the changes and how different it looks in person from what you’ve experienced on television,” I said. “And open your mind to learn. Pay attention to how some of your experienced colleagues are doing their job. You’re not going to make a name for yourself by being some flash in the pan at Augusta. But you’ll legitimize yourself and your career by just being here.”

Sam Kouvaris Receives Masters Major Achievement Award

The Masters Never Disappoints

For golf fans and sports fans alike, the 2023 Masters finish wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was memorable. John Rahm played nearly flawless golf as Brooks Koepka faltered to win his second Major and his first Green Jacket as Masters Champion. In doing so, Rahm becomes the first European player to ever win the US Open and the Masters during his career and the third international player to accomplish that feat. (Gary Player and Angel Cabrerra are the first two.)

Starting Sunday with thirty holes to play, Rahm was four shots behind Koepka as they returned to the seventh green to continue their third round. A made birdie putt by Rahm and a missed par putt by Koepka instantly cut that lead in half. From there, steady play by the Spaniard and a series of weird occurrences surrounding Brooks led to a cruise around the back nine and victory on Sunday afternoon, April 9th, what would have been Seve Ballesteros’ 66th birthday.

When Koepka said, “I didn’t get any breaks” it didn’t sound like a complaint, just a statement of fact. A weird, air-mailed seven iron on the sixth hole led to a bogey. The ball staying on the hill at the ninth green seemed almost impossible, as did how his second shot hung up behind the thirteenth right next to the bunker. While there is trouble lurking on every hole at Augusta National, Rahm navigated the back nine with the lead with a cautious confidence that led to victory.

Plenty of “We play seventy-two holes here,” jokes were going around in reference to Koepka’s exit to the LIV tour last year, but that was just low hanging fruit. LIV players Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, and Koepka were competitive and sharp, despite many in the media’s claim that they’d have enough rust in their games to falter up against The National’s tough conditions. In fact, two-thirds of the LIV players invited to the Masters made the cut.

It was great having the best players in the world compete against each other, but it was a bit strange how CBS downplayed the LIV players accomplishments as almost an afterthought. Mickelson’s 65 on Sunday is one of the all-time great accomplishments in golf and certainly Masters history. But it seemed underplayed by the network who has a business deal with the PGA Tour. Even Jim Nantz’s reference to “Koepka is on the CW,” which he immediately explained meant “crosswalk” seemed out of place. (LIV golf has a TV agreement with the CW network.)

I agree with Fred Couples assessment of the schism in professional golf. He said he doesn’t mind players going wherever they want to play but “When they start to criticize and run down the Tour where I’ve played and made a living for the past forty-three years, I’m going to push back.” He’s right. Go play wherever you want, but you don’t have to degrade your former employer in the process. The Athletic’s profile of Harold Varner III was solid and instructive, with Varner explaining that he went to the LIV tour because they offered “generational wealth.” That might have been the case for some others as well. And they are professional golfers. For some, it’s about the money.

While I thought PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan’s immediate adversarial stance towards LIV was the wrong tact to take, some see it the other way, saying as a businessman, he had to protect his product right away. Nonetheless, the 2023 Masters showed us that seeing the best golfers in the world playing against each other is great theater and can be riveting sports television.

The PGA Tour has responded with “designated” and “elevated” events, a move, if done five years earlier, might have negated the seed for a LIV Tour altogether. There’s always been money in professional golf, now there’s big money in professional golf at the highest level. John Rahm won $3.2M for his Masters victory out of an $18M purse. Scottie Scheffler took home $4.5M for winning the players out of the $25M the PGA Tour put up for its championship.

In my four-decades plus career as a reporter, I’ve had a chance to cover just about everything. From the Olympics to the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, NCAA Championships, you name it. The Masters is the best run sporting event in the world. Hands down. When former Chairman Billy Payne once told me, “It’s The Masters, we need to be the best,” he wasn’t bragging, just giving an assessment of their philosophy on how to approach their club and their tournament. When presented with three options to solve a problem, Augusta National and The Masters always choose the best. Look at their web site at Masters.com. Incomparable. The press facility at the end of the practice range at The National? Nobody’s a close second.

It would be easy to say that they have the money to do those things. But it’s their philosophy and pride in getting it right that drives the decisions. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then look no further than the PGA Tour’s crown jewel event, The Players. While Augusta has green everywhere, including the sandwich wrappers, the Tour has adopted a dark Navy blue as their color, covering everything from TV stands to on-course bathrooms. The Players is expertly and efficiently run, beautifully executed. A different competition for sure, but a noble runner-up.

If you’ve ever attended The Masters, you know there’s a politeness and a calm that is pervasive throughout the club and the tournament. Everybody, from security guards to staff to patrons, is unfailingly polite. No running is allowed, and no cell phones on the golf course. Everybody has time, time to do whatever: Watch golf, people watch, have a cocktail overlooking the first tee, it doesn’t matter. There’s a chorus of “Good Morning’s,” Good Afternoon’s” and “Have a nice evening’s” that you look forward to each day.

As a yearly event, The Masters is also a reunion of sorts. I see people there, once a year, and we greet each other as old friends. The Super Bowl is a de facto convention for the sports media world as well, but with a much more peripatetic pace.

No matter the weather, or the competition, Augusta National, and The Masters, never disappoint.

Was I There? - The Masters

Was I There?

I’d told the story so many times I thought I might have made it up.

Was I There? - The MastersIn the first year of The Players at The Stadium Course, Jerry Pate promised to throw course designer Pete Dye in the lake next to the 18th green if he won. Walking down the 18th fairway, Pate doubled-down on his promise and after the final putt was made (with an orange ball), he grabbed Dye by the arm and threw him in the water. At the time, the PGA Tour allowed the local affiliates to gather near the green to get immediate reaction from the winner. When Pate was done with his round, we walked out on the green, only to witness his antics, first-hand.

I hate to use the phrase “it was a simpler time,” but it was, and in 1982, before cable and satellite and streaming services and cell phones and social media, local affiliates were a real source of information and our access was second only to the network paying to broadcast the event. (In that year, it was CBS, so we were the affiliate on site.) Consequently, we were standing right there when all of this was going on.

Pate grabbing the Commissioner, Deane Beman, was a spontaneous gesture. He happened to see Deane standing there and figured he’d throw him in the water as well. And then with the grace of an experienced diver, the US Open and now Players Champion executed a beautiful swan dive off the bulkhead and into the lake.

There are famous pictures of the event with Pate in full-flight and Deane and Pete in the water. CBS Golf Producer Frank Chirkinian cut between an alligator swimming in the lake (actually back on 17) and the three guys in the water for dramatic effect. It was funny, playful, and certainly newsworthy.

Pre-Tiger Woods, the PGA Tour was looking for all of the exposure it could get, so this was a scene played over and over by news organizations and affiliates all over the world. The nearly perfect cap to the opening of the controversial Stadium Course, the Players own championship and the PGA Tour’s foray into golf course design and building.

All of that seems routine now, but Beman had gotten a lot of push back about the Tour’s intention to build a network of courses from players like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Raymond Floyd, who’s intention to continue to build their own course design businesses would be in direct competition with the Tour.

I was standing maybe fifteen feet from Pate when he jumped in the water. Microphone in hand, attached to photographer Ramon Hernandez, we had a front row seat to a little slice of golf history.

The best picture of the event was taken from across the lake, on the hill that separated nine and eighteen at the time. (There’s a hospitality club there now). It’s a great shot with Jerry in the air and the other two already in the water. Standing on the green are a few people, a Red Coat (Volunteer Tournament Chairman) a radio reporter, a TV photographer and a couple of others. And I was right there, but the picture and subsequent mural in the TPC at Sawgrass clubhouse lobby CROPPED ME OUT!

I had told that story so many times I thought I might have created my own reality. But a few years ago Golf Magazine printed a picture taken from the CBS tower behind the 18th green looking down the fairway. And sure enough, I was standing right there.

“How do you know that’s you,” my wife Linda asked when I showed her the picture.

“Because I know exactly what I was wearing. A blue and yellow horizontal striped Wild Dunes shirt,” I answered.

“Are you wearing jeans,” she continued, looking close at the picture.

“Actually, what did everybody in Charleston wear to golf tournaments when we lived there?” I asked.

“Of course, seersucker,” she said with a laugh.

“And penny loafers,” I said as we shared a funny memory.

I’m at my 43rd Masters this week, so a few more golf memories to come as the week progresses.

2022 Masters Tournament

A Big Week at The Masters

Sam Kouvaris At The Masters 2022“You’ve had a big week,” my long-time friend “The Ghost” texted me on Sunday of this year’s Masters Tournament.

And he was right.

After a two-year delay, Augusta National and the Masters celebrated my more than four decades as a reporter at the tournament, presenting me with the Masters Major Achievement Award. I’m very grateful to the Augusta membership and the Tournament’s Media Committee and staff for taking the time to recognize my work. It’s the best sporting event in the world and they value tradition, loyalty, and good work like no other.

As part of the Award, they invited my entire family to Augusta for a banquet on Wednesday night and a chance to experience The Masters in person all week. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me and how wonderful it was to have them there for the week. It’s always great to see people’s reaction to their first time at Augusta National. But after years of me working nights and traveling, and them putting up with that, to see them experience what I’ve had the privilege of being a part of in my career was so gratifying, it’s hard to describe. For that, Augusta National and The Masters will have my unending gratitude.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of highlights for me at Augusta, topped by this week. But here are a few others, starting at the beginning

It’s been forty-three years since I covered my first Masters. In January of 1979, an invitation from Augusta National to apply for a credential to cover that year’s Masters Tournament came to my desk at Channel 2 in Charleston, South Carolina. I was shocked, and thrilled. As a new reporter in my first job as the Sports Director there, I was 23 years old and was just learning about the big events and what it was like to be involved.

When I arrived at Augusta National in April, I’m sure I looked lost because Tom Place, the regular PGA Tour media director, saw me outside the Quonset hut that served as the press room clearly bewildered.

“Sam, you look lost,” he said kindly.

“Because I am Tom!” I told him.

Place showed me around the press facility, and as a 23-year-old I was amazed to see legendary writers and broadcasters I had only read about. Herbert Warren Wind, Furman Bisher, Dan Jenkins, Edwin Pope, and others were the titans of the industry I was lucky enough be a part of at that moment. Here they were, right in front of me, and doing their jobs.

Whenever I walked through the front door of the Press Building, I always instinctively walked to the right. Because in my first experience there, the left side of the press room had a table with a bunch of liquor bottles on it, clearly a post-round ritual for those seasoned at their profession. I knew I hadn’t earned that and stuck to the right side for the rest of my time there.

That first year I was working as a one-man sports department, so I asked Martha Wallace, the credential coordinator for the Masters if I could bring my dad as my photographer. She said yes, and I was excited to teach my father how to run the little industrial camera we were using in back then.

We stayed in a house listed by the Masters Housing Bureau. In 1979, there were only a couple of hotels in Augusta, so residents rented rooms, or their entire home for the week of the tournament.

I think of that often, as my father was 46 years old, twenty years younger than I am now. And as the son of immigrants from the streets of Baltimore, he was awestruck by the beauty of Augusta National. So awestruck in fact, I occasionally had to reel him in to do his job!

When Fuzzy Zoeller won that year in a playoff at eleven, the member taking him to the press room stopped and delivered Zoeller right to me standing behind the first tee. It was dark, and I remember asking Fuzzy a question and seeing a dozen or so microphones come out of the darkness and pointing at me to continue the interview. “Whoa, this is a big deal,” I remember thinking.

Before I asked the first question, I could hear my Dad saying, “I can’t see him, I can’t see him” as I turned on the light. I glanced back, and noticed the viewfinder was pointed at Zoeller but the camera had hinged toward the ground. I grabbed it with one hand and maneuvered it at Fuzzy, only to hear my dad say, “Oh, there he is.”

The following year I was able to secure a ticket to the tournament for my new wife, Linda. We were walking up the left side of the first fairway, chatting, when a security guard stepped in front of us with his arm held out from his side. He didn’t say a word but when I glanced to my right, Seve Ballesteros was crouched down in between some trees, not three feet from us looking at a small, window-like opening between some branches for his second shot. We literally had almost stepped on him! In what became typical Seve style, he executed a six-iron from the woods onto the green and made birdie on his way to his first green jacket.

In 1981, Tom Watson won his second title at Augusta National and a picture of me was included in the Masters Yearbook. In what looks like a historical time capsule image now, I’m standing next to the clubhouse, waiting my turn in the dark to interview Watson. Little did I know that the following week I’d be in Jacksonville interviewing for a new job.

I was working in Jacksonville in April of 1982, and I missed the Masters Tournament that week. My daughter Austin was born that week. Linda’s labor was long, so our OBGYN, Dr, Richard “Dickie” Meyers and I brought a small black and white television into the room to keep up with the tournament. I’m not sure what Linda thought about that. She claims to not remember!

Operating a small sports department at the television station in Jacksonville, I wrote, anchored, produced, and edited all the on-air shows, not unusual at the time. I also acted as my own cameraman/photographer. Occasionally, The Masters would offer me a photographer’s credential, and in 1985, Tom Wills, our anchorman, came along to Augusta to fill that role. We were down on Amen Corner when Curtis Strange made par on 12 to grab a three-stroke lead with six holes to play. We decided to pack up and leave, figuring the tournament was over. Little did we know that Strange would find the water on both 13 and 15 to let everybody back in the tournament. Bernhard Langer birdied four of the last seven holes to win the first of his two Masters titles. Tom and I still laugh about that to this day.

Anybody who’s been around The Masters for a while references Jack Nicklaus’ win in 1986 as a highlight. I was standing right behind the 18th green when Nicklaus completed his round. Everybody talks about the birdie on 17 but Jack’s two-putt on 18 was equally impressive. From the front of the green to a back-right pin placement, Nicklaus calmly finished out a back nine 30 with what, on paper, looks like a routine par at the finishing hole. It was anything but. Jack said later that he knew the putt well, having been asked by Augusta National, in his role as a golf course builder, to reshape the 18th green a bit.

He made the slope from front to back shallower and had hit that putt “a thousand times” while working on the hole. Greg Norman famously missed the green to the right and failed to get up and down for par to finish a shot back. Tom Kite hit a magnificent shot to ten feet and had a chance to tie for the lead, only to lip out his put and tie for second. I walked with Nicklaus over to Butler cabin after he came out of the scoring tent behind the 18th green (at the time). There were patrons everywhere and it would be an understatement to say they were “excited.”

Covering about ten professional golf tournaments each year, I got to know many of the players of that era. I was friendly with Greg Norman in his heyday and went through the gamut of emotions with him after each close call at Augusta. Fred Couples and I knew each other well, and he was friends with my brother Gust, so it was exciting to see him put on the Green Jacket in 1992.

You might remember Couples’ shot on twelve stopped on the bank in front of the green and helped propel him to victory. Standing on that tee playing the hole a year later, I mentioned that shot to my caddie.

“Haven’t seen a ball stop there ever before or ever since,” he said shaking his head.

With Tiger’s victory in 1997, the whole golf world changed. He went on to be the most dominating player of the next twenty-five years and brought a whole new group of fans to the game. That was important in my position as the Sports Director of a television station in Jacksonville Florida.

A little more than thirty percent of Jacksonville’s population is Black, and golf was not a very big, or oftentimes not generally accepted sport in the Black community. Many leaders in the Black community let me know that in my first twenty years in Charleston and North Florida, telling me I covered too much golf for their liking. I would explain that I thought it was important to cover golf because North Florida was home to the PGA Tour’s headquarters and we had a very significant golf championship in our back yard, then known as the “TPC.”

Their disappointment in my choice of coverage never abated until Tiger’s Masters win. His victory, and domination of the golf world changed all of that, even in my small world of local television coverage.

Over the next decade, Tiger and Phil Mickelson won six of the next ten Masters titles but David Duval of Jacksonville also emerged as a top-flight competitor and ascended to the number one player in the world. His near misses at Augusta are part of the tournament’s lore. He invited me to caddie for him at the Par 3 Tournament one year in that stretch and it was a fun as it looks. Dressed in the white jump suit with “Duval” affixed to my back, David’s only instructions were “keep up and don’t lean on the putter.” When his bag fell over as I was delivering a sand wedge two him on the second hole, I was mortified but David lightly gave me the needle saying, “You had one job,” with a laugh.

As we walked the short fairways and tight tee boxes, there wasn’t much room because of the number of patrons lining every step of the way. When we got to the eighth hole, David was mildly in contention and asked what club I thought he should hit. “It’s wedge,” I said, drawing on what I had seen him do over the first seven holes. “I think it’s nine iron,” he deadpanned. “There’s a bit of wind behind us and it’s severely downhill. It’s a solid wedge,” I repeated.

Duval calmly pulled the nine iron from his bag, and without a glance, hit a beautiful, high, arching shot right at the hole. And it landed five feet past the flagstick, checked, and rolled off the back, into the water. He gave me a “don’t say a word” look, and we walked down the hill. In retrospect, I’m not sure David didn’t do that on purpose. A birdie there might have given him the title, and no player has ever won the par 3 and the Masters in the same year. So maybe he wasn’t going to tempt fate.

After a nice shot to eight feet across the lake at nine, we were standing on the green when David handed me his putter and said, “Now it’s your turn.” I gave him one of my “Really?” answers and promptly missed the putt on the right. “I told you it went left,” David said with a laugh as we walked on the back of the green to the kind of applause that only happens at Augusta.

Wins by Bubba Watson, Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, and Sergio Garcia over the next ten years were fun and make me smile when I recall wins for players who passionately competed for the title of “Masters Champion” and finally achieve that goal. Despite trying to maintain journalistic integrity, I always find myself trying to will certain players I like to victory. That was especially true with Scott and Spieth.

The win by Tiger in 2019 rivals Nicklaus’ victory in ’86. Watching Brooks Koepka and Francesco Molinari hit it in Rae’s Creek playing the twelfth, seemingly victims of the “golf gods,” the “Tiger effect,” and their lack of experience playing Amen Corner holding the lead. Woods’ calmly hitting the ball to the center of the green and waiting as they played their shots from the drop area showed Tiger’s experience and steely nerve and was one of the best photographs of the year.

My 40th Masters was the only one played in November of 2020. Because of the pandemic, the tournament had been postponed until the fall of that year. To paraphrase my friend Jim Nantz, that was an “experience like no other.” I wrote about it here: https://www.samsportsline.com/a-walk-at-the-masters/ That’ll be a “memory like no other” for sure. Being alone on Amen Corner might be the most serene spot I’ve ever experienced.

And this week will not only be one of my most special memories of Augusta, but also one of the great weeks of my life. To have my family around, and to see and hear from so many friends who offered heartfelt congratulations was humbling and yes, fulfilling as well.

GolfWeek wrote about the award ( https://www.samsportsline.com/sam-kouvaris-receives-masters-major-achievement-award/ ). Thanks to Adam Shupak for his kindness and accuracy in reporting. The “cigar” story is true and makes me laugh every time.

If you every are at Augusta and see me on my “walk,” please stop and say hi. I’m sure we’ll both enjoy it.

Sam Kouvaris Receives Masters Major Achievement Award

Sam Kouvaris Receives Masters Major Achievement Award

Adam Schupak – GolfWeek
AUGUSTA, Ga. – The wait is over for Sam Kouvaris to be honored at the Masters.

Sam Kouvaris Masters Major Achievement AwardIn early 2020, Kouvaris received a letter in the mail from Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Fred Ridley congratulating him on his upcoming coverage of his 40th Masters and notifying him that he would be honored with the Masters Major Achievement Award in April. But then the global pandemic postponed the Masters until November and canceled the Golf Writers Association of America Annual Awards Dinner, where the award is traditionally presented, for not one but two years.

On Wednesday evening at the Savannah Rapids Pavilion, Kouvaris, 66, was one of five honored with a plaque for reaching this milestone achieved by just 31 members of the press corps.

“Your vivid descriptions, accurate reporting and heartfelt love of golf and the individuals who play the game will serve as an inspiration for all time. These accounts from Augusta National have helped make the Masters one of the great sporting traditions in the world,” are the words inscribed on a permanent plaque in the Masters media center with a roll call of this exclusive club.

2022 Masters Tournament

Kouvaris also received his own parking spot in the press lot at Augusta National.

“A friend of mine texted me a picture of my sign on Sunday and told me I’m in the front row,” he said.

Kouvaris covered his first Masters in 1979 at age 23 when he was working for Channel 2 in Charleston, South Carolina, and his credential followed him to Jacksonville when he joined WJXT-Channel 4. He missed the tournament once in 1982, but for good reason – his oldest daughter was born during the final round. Instead, Kouvaris watched the broadcast on a small black-and-white TV in the hospital. He covered his 40th Masters in 2020 for the Florida Times Union.

“The first one was pretty special,” Kouvaris said of seeing first-time participant Fuzzy Zoeller win in a playoff. “I was standing behind the green at 18 when Jack Nicklaus won in 1986. One year I was standing with a friend at 13 and he asked me, ‘Where should I propose to my fiancée?’ I said, ‘Right here.’ He brought her over and dropped to one knee and proposed to her right there. It turned out to be David Duval’s sister.”

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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.

A Walk at The Masters

I took a walk today. That’s not unusual and this particular walk is one I’ve made perhaps two hundred times before. But this was a special version of that walk. Whenever I get to Augusta National, I take part of the first day I’m there to walk the back nine. And it’s the same walk every time.

Starting just behind the scoreboard to the right of the first fairway, I walk up the hill toward the first tee and just on the outskirts of the famous oak tree that sits behind the clubhouse. The walk starts here each year because that’s where the press room used to be. A Quonset hut full of the legends of sports journalism before the explosion of media, that press room had a manual scoreboard at the front. It was replaced by the first permanent Press Building, but on the same spot. And now, the golf cart shuttle from the magnificent new Press Building drops you in that same spot.

The hill walking up next to the golf shop is usually worn with patron pedestrian traffic. But on this walk it was lush and green. And I was the only person there. The first fairway was open, no ropes, just small dark green dashes on the ground, a reminder of where to, and where not to walk. The walkway was marked by a couple of stakes on the ground but only a few maintenance cart tire tracks had passed that way.

Each time I walk by the golf shop, I have the same thought, about a story Jack Nicklaus told me. Chatting during construction of The King and The Bear course at World Golf Village, we were talking about the changes at Augusta in the era before they announced what they were doing to the golf course in the off season. Jack said after one of his wins, the following year he walked out of the golf shop, headed to the first tee. As with most courses of that era, the first tee was right outside the door. Jack’s play had made the game longer as Bobby Jones said, “he plays a game I’m not familiar with.” Nicklaus held his hands out in front of him, palms facing each other and in a very animated voice said, “But it wasn’t there, it was up there,” as he gestured and looked to his left. Going by the shop, I glanced to my right, looking for any hint of a former tee, but none to be found.

At the top of the hill, I was struck by how still it was. Just some security standing around, nothing going on under the oak tree, the first tee open without any restrictions. I walked around the back of the tee and marveled at how close it was to the practice green that sits outside the clubhouse. That used to be a huge meeting place for patrons. The lengthening of the first hole has made that just a walkway.

This walk always turns right and heads down the right side of the tenth hole. The tenth tee was open, a few players were finishing on eighteen to my right. I stopped as one of them prepared to play a shot out of the right bunker on eighteen. It occurred to me that side of the hill is usually full of fans in a ‘sitting only’ area. Stopping during a practice round on this walk usually isn’t necessary. Patrons are usually streaming to and from the back nine. But I was the only spectator there. The only person not a part of the game. So, stopping just seemed the right golf etiquette. A nearly perfect bunker shot ensued, settling about two feet from the back-pin position.

One of the things television can’t convey from Augusta National is the elevation changes on the golf course. Walking down next to the tenth fairway, you could almost call it steep. Ten is so directly downhill, that as a par four, it’s actually longer in yardage than the par five thirteenth. Halfway down the hill I had a bit of a wry smile, thinking I might not have been able to make this walk if the tournament was held as scheduled in April. Left hip replacement last November has been very successful but I’m still working on regaining the muscle strength in my left leg. I still struggle a bit downhill, but I’m not sure I’d have gotten even this far eight months ago.

By now, I was virtually alone. I glanced to my right as a passed by the spot Bubba Watson hit that hook out of the woods to win in a playoff. A few hole monitors were just about to gather their things and finish their days work. We exchanged hellos and I stopped for a second when one asked me how I was doing. “Couldn’t be better,” I said. “I’m here.” “That’s true,” he answered, “Couldn’t be better.” I heard tee shots being hit in the distance on fifteen.

A couple of carts went by me as I crested the hill to the right of ten green and just to the side of the fifteenth tee. When I take this walk with somebody attending the Masters for the first time, at this point I usually take them around the back of ten and back up the little hill behind the eleventh tee. They’ve moved that tee back in the last ten years, adding yardage to the hole. It’s a demanding tee shot out of that chute, especially since they added the trees to the right of the fairway. That’s one of my favorite spots in practice rounds or during the tournament. There aren’t many people back there, and the players walk right up and occasionally have to wait on their tee shots. Sometimes they’ll chat up the fans, it’s a little bit of a relaxed moment in an otherwise focused eighteen holes. In the era of persimmon head drivers, the echo through the tall pines of the crack of the club hitting the ball is the most unique, and satisfying golf sound I’ve ever heard.

When the TV station I worked for was the CBS affiliate, I used to scoot to the other side of the eleventh tee and take the short walk up the tree-lined cinder roadway to the television compound. I knew most of the CBS production crew and the announcers, mainly thanks to my friendship with Pat Summerall. I’d spend time in Frank Chirkinian’s office listening to golf stories, mostly told by his “do everything” producer Chuck Will.

But not today.

Heading down right of the eleventh fairway I was very aware that I was alone. Nobody in sight. Nobody playing number eleven. Nobody on fifteen tee. Nobody on fourteen green. No players, no officials, no workers. I walked around the closed concession stand to Amen Corner, by myself, noticing there were no stands erected there, and still, nobody in sight.

Earlier in the week, Dottie Pepper, part of the CBS announce crew said she walked down to Amen Corner on Monday and was struck by how quiet it was. Jim Nantz takes that same walk every Wednesday afternoon when the Par 3 tournament is going on to immerse himself in the moment before his broadcast duties begin. Standing there, I thought about what Jim had said Monday, explaining the gratitude he feels every time he takes that walk.

In that setting, I’m not sure I can exactly describe what was running through my mind. A few birds were chirping. I could hear the soft whine of a water pump behind the eleventh green. The distant staccato of mowers cutting grass at Augusta Country Club behind the thirteenth tee was faint in the background. The occasional passenger and private jet executed their climb out just east of The National, only noticeable against the silence.

I thought about walking off a few times, but there, by myself, I looked around in a circle, cataloguing some of my experiences in that spot. Up the hill is where one of the first photographers I worked with, Ramon Hernandez and I watched a lot of golf early in my career. My wife Linda and I walked all eighteen holes a few years ago and I’m pretty sure right where I was standing was her favorite spot. Just down the hill a few steps is where my colleague Tom Wills and I watched action on the twelfth green at the 1985 tournament. Rob Kearney and I always position ourselves in front of the stands, as we’re just tall enough to see over the patrons and onto the twelfth tee. Matt Robinson and I had a head-shaking, eyebrow raising chuckle standing on the twelfth tee the year we played there together. One of those, “How’d we get here?” silent laughs.

Over toward the thirteenth fairway is where my friend Todd Galley got down on one knee and proposed to his now wife Dierdre. My long-time producer, photographer, friend and confidant Matt Kingston liked this spot the best. And I smiled thinking of all the times I stood in this spot with Kevin Talley, my most-often companion at Augusta National and the Masters. I met Kevin at the Masters while he was working with Warren Peper at Channel 5 in Charleston and hired him to come to Jacksonville in 1990. As a professional television producer and photographer, we traveled the US (and the UK), working together with a close friendship, but I never saw him happier than when we were standing in that spot at Augusta National. We’d get there, he’d pull out a cigarette and say, “It’s time for a smoke.” I’d tell him every year it was sacrilegious to smoke in that spot, until I realized it was one of his traditions at The Masters. And in my first trip to The Masters in 1979, I took my Dad as my photographer (there was no such person at the station I worked for that year in Charleston) and we smoked a cigar together in that spot. Still alone, the occasional light breeze going by, I felt that sense of gratitude that comes from remembering shared experiences with people you’re close to.

Walking up the right of the thirteenth fairway I paused to look at the green in the distance. Normally framed by a splash of azaleas, some of the deciduous trees in the background had begun to change color, adding a hint of autumn to the scene.

To the right is where my brother Gust and I waited for Fred Couples beside the fourteenth fairway before he hit his second shot in a practice round. I know Freddie pretty well, but he and my brother are actual friends. It was fun to see he and his then-caddie Joey LaCava light up and come over to chat when they heard my brother’s voice.

Crossing the fourteenth fairway on an unused walkway, I paused in the middle to see the golfer’s perspective of that hole. I’ve been fortunate to play Augusta National a few times and I thought about the mix of emotions I’ve had every time I’ve teed it up there. Excitement and fear with a healthy dose of humility, knowing I can’t replicate the shots I’ve seen there by the best players in the world.

Up to the fifteenth fairway and still alone, I looked down at the amphitheater formed by the fifteenth green, the sixteenth, and the seventeenth tee. With nobody there.

Around the seventh green, the eighth tee and behind the seventeenth green, I walked over to see the tee shot on eighteen. Intimidating to say the least, it would be hard to capture in any medium how narrow the chute is on the tee shot is trying to carve it up the hill on the finishing hole. Freddie always says, “Aim down the middle with a little cut on it and hit it hard.”

Back down to the right of the eighth tee, the walk up the left of eighteen doesn’t flatten out until you get to the clubhouse. I stood by the fairway bunkers in the eighteenth fairway and didn’t recognize the trees that were beyond the bunkers, left of the fairway. Were they new? They look like they’d been there a hundred years. Hitting it over or left of the bunkers now will be no picnic for the second shot.

By now there was a soft rain falling and a few umbrellas were opening at the top of the hill. A half-dozen greenskeepers were putting the finishing touches on the ninth green in the fading light

Back around the first tee, another feature of The Masters was still intact. As I passed each security guard, they greeted me with a polite hello or gesture of recognition. I’ve always liked that. . Call it Southern Hospitality if you like, but it always seems right to me.

Only members and officials are allowed in the clubhouse this year, so one of my personal favorite Masters traditions will have to wait. At this point in the walk, I usually head into the clubhouse grill and walk to the end of the bar. For thirty years, “Coach” was on station there, and unfailingly would remember, “Vodka, lemonade?” when I’d ask how he’d been. When he retired, his son was there for a few years and we followed the same routine.

Lingering under the oak tree after the walk I’d renew old acquaintances each year, see some of the celebrities in attendance and generally watch the world go by. Occasionally, I’d smoke a cigar, away from the crowd, people watching. About five years ago a gentleman politely came and stood next to me, also a casual observer. I said hello, and he nodded, eyeing my cigar. I asked if he’d like one, (don’t ever smoke in public without an extra in your pocket) and realized quickly we had a language barrier. Looking at his badge, he was a representative of the Argentina Golf Federation and was here as a guest of the tournament. Miguel spoke no English and I only have a version of ‘restaurant Spanish’ I can muster but somehow, we figured out how to have a whole conversation, without saying much, around two cigars and golf. The next year, I was standing in the same spot, not smoking, people watching, when I had a tap on my shoulder. Miguel was standing beside me, two cigars in hand, smiling.

Only at The Masters.