It was a Masters for a lot of guys who can lay claim to being the world's best golfer, either because they have the classy swings or the major championships or the bank accounts to prove it. But it was also a Masters that all but one of them would leave on the greens, in the bunkers, in the trees—the usual places—by suffering attacks of what the pros call a rush of grits to the heart. The Masters does this to a man because it happens to have become almost as important an object of worship as a flag in the window or Mom in the kitchen. Thus, nobody wins a Masters anymore. Somebody accepts it, as Gene Littler says, "by scraping it the goodliest." But this year Littler's goodliest wasn't good enough, and it was Billy Casper (see cover) whose scrapings won their 18-hole playoff and the championship.
For four unreasonable, suspense-filled days last week the Masters of 1970 was alternately scraped and blown into the pines and bunkers—and a few holes of burrowing animals—by all sorts of people who can swing a golf club for you like Laurence Olivier recites Hamlet. Jack Nicklaus, who may be the world's best player if you want to count big titles, spent most of his time breaking flag-sticks in half with the shots he flew into the greens. But he spent the rest of his time missing short putts and looking for one particular shot that he never found, the ball having disappeared into an animal digging, the animal no doubt wearing a green jacket.
What a Nicklaus rush or a Palmer charge would have meant, of course, is that they would have been right there in the middle of all the Sunday traffic, coming down the stretch with all of those Gene Littlers, Billy Caspers, Gary Players and Bert Yanceys who were swinging so sweetly and turning this Masters into one of the more exciting dramas since Bette Davis invented chain-smoking. Everybody knows, of course, that when Nicklaus is close, it shakes the earth, not to mention the Caspers, Players, Littlers and Yanceys.
But it really wasn't a dimension the tournament needed. Before the Masters turned into that country stroll for a couple of quiet Californians, we seem to remember there were these four marvels out there, gasping to stand up under the pressure. All of them could qualify as legends of one kind or another. There was Gary Player, who drops in every now and then from South Africa to say "hi there" to a few thousand dollars. Gary was the hottest thing going and consumed with confidence. He was, like Nicklaus, a man who had won all four of the major cups. But he had taken Greensboro the week before Augusta, which was more important than history, and with his game warm he had everyone a little frightened. As they say of Player, nobody tries harder, although many hit more talented shots.
April 20, 1970
"He doesn't drink, which is worth two shots," is the way Bob Rosburg put it. "He's religious, and that's worth another shot," said Dave Marr.
So that ties him with Billy Casper at the start, right?
What sent Player into those final agonizing holes was neither his religion nor his drinking habits. It was a couple of 68s that overcame a starting 74 and kept him within striking distance of Casper, who led after 54 holes, and Littler, who was only a stroke behind.
The credentials for Yancey were a little less impressive because he was younger. Yancey has one of the better swings on the tour, but he is also a Masters nut. He is overwhelmed by the treasures that lie in wait for him at Augusta, which is why he has constructed models of all the holes to study, why he always stays in a home owned by Mr. J. B. (naturally) Masters and why, one must suppose, he has the best stroke average for his four tries of anyone who has competed there ever. Yancey is so entranced by Augusta that his pals on the tour call him Fog, that being what he stays in. Before the final round, in fact, Yancey sat in the locker room and listened to a writer try to get him to explain his attitude.
"Bert," the journalist said, "are you sometimes forgetful and in a trance because you keep going over your shots out there? I mean, do you really relive every stroke of every Masters?"
Bert looked at the man and asked, "What did you say?"
The credentials that Casper and Littler took into the last 18 were pretty much alike. They were young /old pros who had been great players with uncomplicated swings for a long time. They were old chums from the same town of San Diego who had won thousands of dollars and dens full of trophies. They were men who had known how to win big ones, Casper having taken two U.S. Opens and Littler having captured a U.S. Open and a U.S. Amateur with the best, slowest and most graceful swing anyone had seen since Ben Hogan.
But they had never won a Masters, and this fact was among the things that would make their playoff all the more interesting. It would be the second time the tournament would have two men from the same town in a playoff. Hogan and Byron Nelson had tied in 1942, a circumstance that got everybody in Fort Worth in a swivet. The Masters, however, had not seen many playoffs for all of its suspense through the years. There had only been five until last Monday. There had been Gene Sarazen beating Craig Wood in 1935, Nelson edging Hogan, then Sam Snead defeating Hogan in 1954, then Arnold Palmer whipping Player and Dow Finsterwald in 1962 and finally Nicklaus winning over Gay Brewer and Tommy Jacobs in 1966. It was probably time for another, and whoever won it—Casper or Littler—certainly deserved to be placed in the fairly exalted category of those who had won before him. Which is to say that a man doesn't always go around joining a club that includes only Sarazen, Nelson, Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus.
For a while on Sunday it seemed as if so many guys would get into it they might have to play off in two foursomes. At one point there were seven players within two strokes of each other—in addition to Casper, Littler, Player and Yancey, there were Dave Hill, Dave Stockton and Tommy Aaron. And with Nicklaus ever present just in case they all got the rush of grits at the same time, Monday was looking more and more interesting.
Here, then, is how the 1970 Masters squeezed itself down to just the two Californians. With the last nine holes to play, Casper, Littler and Yancey were tied for the lead, and Player was one shot back. They played the 10th in a slow procession, Littler and Yancey up ahead and Player and Billy in the last twosome, and nothing changed. Casper then bogeyed the 11th when he got a water lock on his approach and left it way out to the right, chipped back poorly and two-putted. Now only Littler and Yancey were tied. This was Casper's second mistake of the day. His first was a bunkered drive on the 8th, resulting in a double-bogey 7, and only a long putt for a birdie at the 9th had kept him, in all probability, from the same kind of disaster that overtook him a year ago. Then he had led after three rounds, went into shock and saw George Archer pick up a Masters no one seemed to want.
Player began to move at the 12th, the par-3 over Rae's Creek that has settled many a tournament. Gary holed a 20-footer there for a birdie, moving him into a three-way tie with Littler and Yancey. He then birdied the 13th with two putts, which kept him in a tie with Littler, who also birdied there—but in the old-fashioned way, by laying up short of the creek and wedging into the pin the way Hogan used to do it. Yancey missed the birdie there that the others got, including Casper, so now with five holes to play it was Littler and Player tied, with Billy and Bert a stroke behind. Swell. Let's hear it for exercise, no drinking and faith.
Player bogeyed the 14th with a three-putt from off the surface, and about this time Littler chipped beautifully to a birdie at the 15th to go 10 under for the tournament. For a brief moment Littler held a two-stroke lead, but only because Casper had yet to play the 15th, which, of course, he birdied from out of a bunker.
But as Casper was birdieing 15, Littler was going into a bunker and bogeying the 16th, after which Player birdied the hole while Yancey was still making pars, and heaven help the fans who tried to see it all. The swarms of people would have liked to call time-out about now to digest everything, and if they had they would have been able to figure out that all four men were within a putt, maybe two, of winning the Masters with two holes to go. Casper, Littler and Player were tied, and Yancey was one behind in a new fog—one created when he missed a couple of three-footers.
The two men who tied, Casper after a 71 and Littler a 70, played these holes the way people do who think they would look dandy in green blazers. Both jammed approach shots right down the pins, and both had grand, makable birdie putts—championship putts—on the 17th and 18th. But none of them dropped. Littler's two putts were longer, but neither was a good effort.
"I sort of choked, you might say," Gene grinned.
Casper's last one at the final green at least got a piece of the cup, amid a groan of terrible proportions, but it wouldn't drop.
Player had rescued a par at the 17th after an awful tee shot, but he couldn't rescue a par at the 18th after an even worse approach that hooked into the front bunker. His six-foot putt, which would have made it a three-way tie, was high of the cup all the way, and no amount of body contortions could turn it. Nor could any of his bodyguards race onto the green and kick it in. Yancey's closing bogey, meanwhile, did not matter, except in regard to the amount of money he would collect. Gary had tried and failed, despite the fact that he probably had most of the crowd with him, and Yancey could go back to his fog and stay in it.
All in all, it had been one of the grippingest Sundays Augusta could remember, but it had been that kind of tournament all the way. Saturday had been a wild, special occasion, the sort for which the Masters is famed, an afternoon when the red numbers for under par went up on the big white scoreboards with the regularity of Southern whoops. For a while something heroic seemed to be happening in every clump and bottom of the premises. It was as if word had suddenly been circulated that everyone in the field had just two hours to go to collect their quota of birdies and eagles for the 1970s.
It began that day when Frank Beard zipped five under through the first six holes. Hardly anyone saw it, Frank having started early, and hardly anyone wanted to believe it when the boards tacked up a bulletin announcing it. He had gone off three over, or green three, and when the red two went up it didn't make sense. What Beard had done, however, was birdie the 1st hole, eagle the 2nd, then birdie the difficult 4th and the par-3 6th. And this was the first indication that the Augusta National course had softened and that there was no wind to carry shots off line.
About the time Beard was finishing up his front nine, along came the inscrutable Japanese, Takaaki Kono, who is about as tall as a brassie and had an interpreter to say things like "no comment" for him. Pretending that the first green was the battleship Arizona, Kono lofted a seven-iron that went into the cup for an eagle 2, and this was the second indication that it was going to be quite a day.
Moments after Kono eagled and then, incidentally, birdied the 2nd hole, here came Player to roll in an eagle on the 2nd, and then here came Littler and Bob Lunn to put their second shots within two feet of the flag on the 3rd green for birdies, and then here came Yancey to birdie the 2nd, and then here came Aaron to birdie the 1st, 3rd and 7th and then chip in for an eagle 3 at the 8th, and then here came Charlie Coody to birdie the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th in a row, striking a blow for a group he calls "us plain old Vanilla Janes."
All of this happened in about an hour and a half, with folks scurrying everywhere to catch glimpses of it. At one point there were eight players all within one stroke of each other, and it got to be more fun to just stand and watch the numbers go up on a scoreboard than to try to get close to Player or Littler or Casper, or to see another iron seeking out the flag.
The startling events of Saturday managed to obscure everything that happened on Thursday and Friday, the shadowboxing days of Augusta. Tommy Aaron led after the first round with a fine 68, a four-under round on a day when the course played tougher than it would the remainder of the week. The greens were like glass and the wind swirled, and only 10 men got below par. Littler and Yancey stayed close to him with 69s, both having played rounds that might have been lower.
The only man of any consequence who took himself out of things on opening day was Palmer. He had thought well of his chances, and he liked the idea of the course playing hard. Before teeing off, he said, "This is like the old days around here, wind and fast greens. It's going to intimidate a lot of fellows, and you'll have to like the course and know it to hold together."
Palmer did for 14 holes. He was even par and honored to be kept on the leader board, but when he got to the new 15th hole (see box) he left this Masters on the green. What Palmer did there was calmly rake his birdie putt of 25 feet clear off the green, leaving a 15-footer coming back for par, which of course he missed. Now he was one over on a hole that he was accustomed to birdieing as often as he talked about flight plans. Consumed with indifference by then, he promptly bogeyed the 17th and 18th holes for a 75, as if his intent were to show the world how badly he could really putt if he put his mind to it. He then proceeded to play out the tournament in 73-74-73 and finished up tied for 36th place.
Nicklaus took himself out of it early, too, on Friday afternoon, when he shot a triple-bogey 8 on No. 8—which is three over par on one hole and roughly equivalent to offsides, holding and a fumble all on one play. The disastrous hole sent his round that day up to 75 and spoiled the fact that he had shot 71 the first day and would close with matching 69s.
What happened on No. 8 was, he hit a three-wood second shot at the hole but pulled it to the left and into the pines, where a lot of other shots wind up for other players. But Jack never found his, and if anyone in the gallery did they never told him. He took the penalty stroke, played another ball short of the green, chipped and three-putted and came away from the 8th green with his triple bogey, or albatross, as it is sometimes called—a bird that does not get you into many Masters playoffs.
Not even Nicklaus could overcome the horror, although he would clout home two eagles and a flock of birdies on the 46 holes that followed his tragedy.
The second round saw Littler and Yancey again play smoothly with 70s, and assume the lead at 139, which was five under par. And it saw the first move toward the front made by Casper and Player. Their 68s tied for the day's low with Kono, who managed it despite his pairing with Sam Snead and the tracks Snead made through Kono's putting lines on the greens.
Of course, everybody should have known when Arnold began to fade, when Kono made a deuce and when Jack Nicklaus went into the animal hole that something dizzy like a San Diego city tournament was bound to take place in Augusta. Once it came to that stage, all the suspense got scraped away by Casper's putter, which warmed up enough to prompt one of his Dixie rooters to say, "If they don't hurry up and pour some water on that thing, he's gonna catch us all on fire."
Except for that, Casper and Littler both played like men trying very hard to lose the Masters. While Casper hit snipe hooks, Littler hit a shank and a high flier and some hooks of his own, but Billy's putter kept rescuing him. He dropped successive putts of four, three, 30 and four feet in the first four holes, adding a five-footer at No. 6 and a 10-footer at No. 7—six one-putt greens out of the first seven, in other words. Casper at that point was three under, leading by five strokes and well on his way to the 69 he would shoot. Littler was two over, headed for the 74 he would finish with if he really got lucky.
The second hole was the real decider. With Casper in position for a hard par or bogey, Littler picked out his wedge and hit his third like your partner does when you desperately need him to save your money. He hit what a golfer would call a half-shank, three-quarter chili dip, full look-up, halfhearted sausage quit shot that went about 10 feet to his right and into a bunker. Casper made par, Littler bogeyed, and from there Billy looked like the champion he would become, and Gene Littler just looked like the fellow you would go up to and ask where he buys all those faded shirts.