Looking back on the recent Masters Tournament, the first thought that crosses one's mind is that not since Sherman has there been so much strife over Georgia real estate. In particular, there was practically a nonstop dialectic about two new bunkers that appeared on the Augusta National course, to which was added a strident obbligato of complaints about the condition of the fairways.
Even allowing for the fact that the headline makers at the Masters are under persistent pressure to produce newsworthy quotes on almost anything, including the local flora and fauna, it was a little disconcerting to hear Augusta National receive so much verbal abuse. For more than 30 years and through countless alterations, golfers have tended to regard it as one of the superb courses of the world, perfectly groomed, lovely to look at and a privilege to play.
The new bunkers were in the driving areas of the fairways on the 2nd and 18th holes. They had been under consideration for several years, and they were finally installed for this year's championship under the supervision of Architect George W. Cobb. A month before the tournament, Chairman Clifford Roberts issued a press release describing the bunkers and suggesting that if they did not work out quite right they might very well be changed. Well, no sooner had the vanguard of contestants from the previous week's Greensboro Open played their first practice rounds on Monday than a howl went up, primarily about the 2nd hole.
"The one on the 2nd hole is a trap, the one on the 18th is a bunker," said Ben Hogan. That was at the traditional Tuesday night dinner for past champions that is held at the club each year. It is the kind of function where old Masters are not loath to speak their minds. Of the former champions present, only Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and possibly Gary Player were apt to be seriously bothered by the bunker at No. 2, but the way the oldtimers talked you might have thought the course had been defiled by vandals. When it was finally suggested that Palmer, the tournament's only four-time winner, make a few comments, he took the pragmatic line. "Well, it's there," he said, "so what are you going to do? As far as I'm concerned, I'm either going to go around it or over it or under it or through it or beat it into the ground," which is exactly the way Palmer has been dealing with golf courses for the last 10 years.
At the Masters it is axiomatic that the place to get your birdies is on the four rather short par-5s. Of these, the 555-yard 2nd is the longest, but it is downhill all the way, and last year it yielded more birdies to the leading players than any but the 13th. The trick was to get the drive over the crest where the fairway takes a downhill turn to the left. The shorter and chancier route was to flirt with the large pines guarding the left side of the fairway, and that is still the only way to get to the green in two. The safer play was to drive into the wide-open spaces on the right and hit the second shot short of the bunkers fronting the green.
But into this safe-driving area went the new bunker, a deep gouge of sand with a towering white face. Of all the golfers at the Masters, it is doubtful if any but Nicklaus could fly a drive over this bunker under normal conditions—a carry of better than 265 yards. Everyone else now had the choice of risking the narrow lane between the bunker and the trees on the left or playing short. Once again the cry was heard that Augusta National was being tailored to help Nicklaus and Palmer. But this did not prove to be the case. The bunker was equally troublesome for all. Because it extends across the entire right half of the fairway, it may leave too narrow a passageway to the left, but it certainly serves its purpose. Henceforth, birdies at No. 2 will be rarer.
The change at 18 is even more stimulating. It may have come about because the sight of Nicklaus—on national TV at that—driving far to the left of the fairway in previous years and coming safely into the 18th green from that unexpected angle was more than Masters officials could bear.
The new bunker—it is really two bunkers, although Roberts regards it as a "huge two-sectioned bunker"—is a splendid addition to one of the better finishing holes in golf. The hole is an uphill dogleg par-4 of 420 yards. Along the right side of the fairway where it bends to the right some 230 yards from the tee, there is a thick stand of Georgia pine.
The well-placed drive to the middle of the fairway leaves anything from a five-to a seven-iron shot into the green. The left side of the fairway, and the well-trampled rough adjoining it, was a hazard-free target, and this was destroying the hole, which was designed to make the golfers keep to the right near the trees.
It was at the very landing area of the drives on the left fairway that the new bunkers were carved. The first is an innocuous flat slab of sand, but the second, a few yards farther along, is somewhat deeper with a sharply rising face. From the first bunker any capable golfer who hits the ball properly can reach the green with a five-or six-iron. From the deeper forward bunker, one can still reach the green if the ball is not too close to the face. Such shots were successfully performed a number of times during the four days of the Masters. But the bunker took its toll, in part by forcing the golfers toward the woods on the right. At one point on Friday, four of the leaders came rolling happily into 18 looking for a nice pleasant par to end the day and got an unsettling bogey instead.
Except for some gusty winds that might have been a bit treacherous in a regatta, it would have been difficult to find a better four days for golf than those at this year's Masters. On Thursday the sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature midsummerish. Yet there were only five scores under par—a pair of 71s, a pair of 70s and Bert Yancey's brilliant 67. Jack Nicklaus began the defense of his title with an even-par 72 that did not disturb him especially, but he was far from happy over the condition of the course. "The fairway grass is simply too long," he said. "I had some good lies, but a lot of times the ball would just jump off the club from a flying lie. It was hard to tell what the ball would do. The fairways would be perfect if they'd just stop watering them and cut them."
The next day Gary Player, who had opened with 75, brought in a three-under-par 69, but he came off the course in something of a pique after bogeys on the last two holes had robbed him of a really spectacular round. He thereupon launched into even stronger protests about the course. "These are the longest fairways I've ever played on in a major championship," he said. "It's like playing out of the rough."
Fairway grass has always been a problem at Augusta in early April. The thick Bermuda base is still dormant, and when the weather is good you can almost see the winter grass growing. Jones and Roberts reduced this year's starting field to 83 players solely because time was needed to crosscut the fairways with two mowings before the first pairings were underway in the morning. The mowers were set at half an inch, but when the mumblings and grumblings reached Roberts he ordered the mowers changed to three-eighths of an inch, the lowest ever at Augusta. "None of us have ever heard of fairway grass being mowed quite so close on any course," he said. And the next day Ben Hogan proved the course was playable enough by shooting his memorable 36-30—66.
Aside from assessing the role played by new bunkers and long grass, the most interesting aspect of the 1967 Masters is what happened to the three men who consistently dominate play there: Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.
It has become so commonplace for Palmer and Nicklaus to win (six of the previous seven) that their failure to do so attracted almost as much attention as Gay Brewer's refreshing victory.
There was nothing shameful about Palmer's fourth-place finish, except in Arnold's mind. To him, victory is everything and everything short of victory is nothing. As the tournament was about to start, he seemed toned for an enormous effort. He was feisty and fretful, like a fighter approaching a championship bout. He had a new mallet-head putter that he seemed to like, although he thought the shaft was just a bit "soft." He had the new aluminum shafts on his clubs that he had been using since winning the Los Angeles Open in January, and he had said several times recently how much confidence he had in them.
Ever since the Ryder Cup matches in Britain in the fall of 1965, Palmer has been playing the most consistently excellent golf of his career—driving perhaps 20 to 30 yards shorter but much more accurately and hitting far better irons. Only his short pitches and chips from just off the green have seemed erratic, and the long putts don't fall the way they used to, but whose do?
Yet something of the Palmer of recent months was missing at Augusta. Save for a couple of abortive "charges," he was not striking the ball with that crisp, vicious determination that characterizes his winning days. He began looking at his aluminum shafts as if he had never seen them before, and after the first day he changed putters, going back to one of the flange models that he has done so much to popularize. On each of his first three rounds he hit his second shot into the creek on the 13th, a hole that has been an almost automatic birdie for him in the past. On Thursday and Friday he made only one birdie each round. And, as he said after his opening 73, "You have to make birdies here. I never mind making bogeys, but you have to make birdies." On the par-5s alone, he was four or five strokes above what he would consider normal. It was one of his least-inspired performances in a major tournament since 1965, and the fact that he finished fourth says all that need be said about Palmer as a competitor.
Nicklaus' dismal showing—the first time he has missed a 36-hole cut in three years—was less of a surprise because Jack has not played a good tournament since he joined the tour in Miami in early March. In fact, there are indications that while Palmer has been putting some middle-aged polish on his game, Nicklaus' golf has been coasting along on a plateau somewhat below the peak he attained with his record-breaking 271 in the 1965 Masters and the extraordinary season of golf that followed. He then seemed on his way to becoming a golfer of such strength and skill that he could win every time he really wanted to. Nicklaus does have interests besides his golf just as his friend Gary Player does. Both have won every major championship available to them (Palmer has yet to win the PGA), and when they sit down to chat as they did a month ago in Florida just after Gary's arrival in the U.S., they are apt to spend just as much time talking about their hobbies and their families and the number of children they expect to raise as they do about golf. When they do talk golf, it is not about the week-to-week trials and tribulations that make up 90% of the other golfers' conversation. Feeling no further compulsion to prove their everyday abilities, they concern themselves with loftier golfing achievements, while it is left to Palmer to agonize over the weekly struggle like a rookie.
When the major championships arrive, however, Nicklaus and Player have shown the ability to shift into a higher gear, which makes it all the stranger that neither was able to do so at Augusta. Jack Grout, the former pro at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio who started teaching Nicklaus when he was 9 years old, blames Jack's troubles on a lack of balance and footwork. "He's got to work on balance and work on it and work on it," says Grout.
Nicklaus has a slightly different view of the difficulty, and the day after he left Augusta he began to make what would amount to a significant change in his game. As an amateur and a young pro, he had always faded the ball, depending on his tremendous strength to make up for the loss of overspin that one gets from a hooked shot. But after he had been on the pro tour for a while, where faders are not in fashion, he began to hook the ball. He once jokingly said, "You don't feel like you are part of it out here if you don't hook." It is the hook that has contributed to his wild-ness, and Jack is now telling himself he never wants to hit another one. He is working to regain his fade and was hitting the ball to the right last week in the Tournament of Champions at Las Vegas.
When Nicklaus began this year with a win at the Crosby he had hopes this would be the truly big season—perhaps even the Grand Slam year—that he has shown he is capable of. Now it has become more of a rebuilding year, but there is little doubt that he will manage to get his swing grooved again.
Player is yet another case. He has flatly decided on a very limited tournament schedule, even though he knows that competition is the answer for what is wrong with his game. "My family is too important to me," he said one night during the Masters. "I don't want my children to grow up through years in which I have always been away. Right now I am playing a lot better than some people think I am, but I am not scoring well because of my chipping. There are not many courses where you can practice chip shots, and you need competition to keep them sharp. When you don't play enough, that is where it shows." And it did show at Augusta, where Player repeatedly failed to save pars when he had missed greens. But none of this is going to change his plans.
"I have proved what I can do," Gary said. "I know what you have to do to be on top. But you have to keep doing it. You can be famous this year, have the gallery with you, but if you don't keep winning you won't have the same thing two years from now. You have to keep performing in golf, keep winning, and the only way to do this is to blot everything else out of your life.
"What I really hope is that I can keep doing things as I am now. I hope that a year or two from now I'm not going to suddenly think, 'Gary, you could still be the best, and you've got to prove it. You've got to get out there and play 30 tournaments and be the leading money winner again just to show them how good you are.' I really hope I don't decide to do that."
In retrospect, the final noteworthy thing about the Masters was something that has been thoroughly analyzed already but still must be mentioned—the courage of Gay Brewer. It was splendid to see and fitting, too, considering the unfortunate lapse that cost him the Masters on the 18th green the year before. But more than that, it proved that Brewer is a golfer who is now quite ready to win any tournament. Part of Brewer's success is that he struggled for a long time with a hook and has since become a fader. He has stuck with the fade, even on courses like Augusta, which appear to give the right-to-left golfer a big advantage. He has also made another decision: to become an aggressive golfer. After a number of lackluster years, of which he says, "I had an inferiority complex," he read Dr. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and two or three other psychology books. Somewhere they must have contained the message that a man with a loop in his backswing can succeed on the pro tour. There is no doubt that Brewer was both aggressive and nerveless on the last nine at Augusta. Nothing short of that would have sufficed to hold off runner-up Bobby Nichols, who also happens to be an old friend of Brewer's.
"Well, how about that?" said Nichols, when told last week about Brewer and Dr. Peale. "I didn't think Gay had ever read a book in his life."