More than in any other golf championship, the competitive tensions of a Masters tournament are heightened by the rich tapestry of its backdrop. Visually and psychologically, the Augusta National course can be hypnotic and distracting. The landscape draws the eye to bright flashes of dogwood and azalea and redbud and then upward along the slender, swaying trunks of tall, gracefully crowned Georgia pines that frame the lush fairways, creating what seems a single, lightly traveled pathway. It is a theater of golf. Indeed, many a player has felt like tiptoeing to a green so as not to disturb the setting. Here Gene Sarazen double-eagled the 15th in 1935; here Byron Nelson defeated Ben Hogan in an epic struggle in 1942; here Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus prevailed so often. That sense of spirits reconvening, every Masters offers this, yet each year has an individual stamp. This week's renewal will surely have its own theme. But what one remembers will not necessarily be the winner. The agony of a near-winner can be what endures.
The 1979 Masters will be remembered as the one that Ed Sneed failed to win, for the memory of his losing struggle on the final three holes is more poignant and wrenching than the sudden burst of sub-par golf that Fuzzy Zoeller, ultimately the winner, played to come into contention.
Sneed was tied for the lead after two rounds; after three rounds he had put five strokes between himself and the field. And with only three holes remaining, he held a three-stroke lead over Tom Watson, four over Zoeller. Not until the final hole of regulation play did he relinquish the last bit of his advantage. A bogey on the 18th hole, his third in succession, dropped him into a deadlock with Watson and Zoeller, and the tie was broken by the first sudden-death playoff in the 43-year history of the Masters.
All things considered, Zoeller's victory was almost serendipitous. It was his first appearance in the Masters and he had hoped only to play well. "Any time I finish second I feel like I've won," Zoeller had once remarked. In winning at Augusta, he did not have to hit a single shot while in the lead. For Sneed, who had never before challenged for a major championship, the disappointment of losing was compounded by the leader's burden he had shouldered for two days, and the deep feeling he speaks of having for the Masters:
"There is no tournament I would rather win than the Masters. A British Open at St. Andrews or a U.S. Open at Merion or Pebble Beach might come close, but Augusta is the most special place in golf for me.
"After winning the 1973 Kaiser Open I was sent an invitation to play in the 1974 Masters. Bobby Jones died in 1971 and I have regretted that I never competed in the Masters while he was alive. He may have been the greatest champion in golf, and I would have treasured meeting him.
"Since I had never seen, much less played, Augusta National, I decided to practice there a couple of times before playing in the Greensboro Open the week before the Masters. I arrived late on Sunday afternoon and, after introducing myself and inquiring if I could take a look at the course, I walked out on the veranda toward the 9th and 18th greens. Standing there for about 15 minutes, I was mesmerized by the beauty, imagining I could hear the roars of the Augusta galleries.
"I suddenly realized it was getting dark, but I wanted to see the holes in the lower part of the course, in Amen Corner. I started running down the 18th fairway at full stride. None of our Olympic 800-meter runners need worry, but it's about half a mile to the 11th green and that evening it took me only about two minutes to get there. Passing the 18th tee I saw two members walking off the 17th green and I wondered if they would report me to Security. After all, this wasn't a 12-year-old kid but a 29-year-old man sprinting across staid Augusta National.
"I crossed Rae's Creek to the 12th green, and walked up 13, then cut over to 15 and 16. There was electricity in the air, but I wasn't prepared for the flood of emotion that welled up. No television picture or storybook can convey the spirit of Augusta. Each time I play that part of the course I am reminded of that evening walk when I saw it for the first time.
"By the time I got to 16 it was almost dark and I began walking back toward the clubhouse. I could see lights on in the dining room and in one of the cottages behind the 10th tee. There was no one outside, and as I walked by the 18th green I felt a little lonely."
Sneed finished 43rd in his first Masters, in 1974, and in two subsequent appearances missed the 36-hole cut and tied for 18th, although he always felt that his game and his attitude were better suited to Augusta than was reflected in those performances.
Sneed is a stylish golfer, with an elegant, supple swing. It has puzzled many people, including himself, that he has won only three tour events in his 10-year career. A consistent player, floating between 25th and 50th on the money list, Sneed has measurably improved his game in the last few years under the watchful eye of teaching pro George Fazio. Among his peers he is known for his engaging wit and playful sense of humor. He is one of only a handful of PGA players who do not list fishing as a "special interest" in the tour press guide, preferring instead the more cerebral challenges of bridge, chess, backgammon and billiards. To the public, he is a handsome figure—boyish, sandy-haired and, at 6'2" and 190 pounds, athletic-looking. He is often taken to be a relative of Sam Snead. Last fall, during a tournament in Japan, he was waiting to start a round when a commentator stepped onto the tee to conduct an interview for the gallery. "So," the man began, "in America you are known as Ed." The man put the microphone in front of Sneed.
"I wasn't sure what he meant," Sneed says. "The Japanese must think Ed is a nickname and not my real name. I told him that although my name is Sneed, I'm not related to Sam Snead, that our names are spelled differently."
The interviewer tried another question. "So, in Japan we watch your popular television program, Mr. Ed."
Sneed was momentarily nonplussed, but quickly replied, "I'm not related to him, either."
As he approached the 1979 Masters, Sneed's game started to come together in that mysterious process golfers refer to as getting "in the groove." Some intangible factor is suddenly present and the golfer is in total control, fully confident of each shot. At the Sea Pines Heritage Classic, two weeks before Augusta, Sneed had rounds of 69-69-71-66—275 on the tight and demanding Harbour Town Golf Links, and finished second, five shots behind Watson. But he beat the third finisher by four strokes. (The previous week, in the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass, Sneed had shot 76-76 and missed the cut, keeping intact his streak of never having played the final rounds of the TPC.)
He took off the week of the Greensboro tournament to relax and practice at Augusta. Early in the week he played with Ken Venturi, the 1964 U.S. Open champion, who now does commentary for CBS golf telecasts. As an amateur in 1956, Venturi had almost won the Masters, leading for three days, then shooting a last-round 80 to finish second by a stroke to Jackie Burke. Sneed reflects:
"It was a different me that came to Augusta in 1979. After playing what I considered to be one of my best tournaments ever at the Heritage, I felt prepared and ready to win. In practice I seemed able to play any shot with ease—left-to-right, right-to-left, low fades, high, soft, knockdown. Every shot I hit seemed to be within a controlled pattern. Each day my confidence rose. Never had my preparation for a single golf tournament been so complete or my confidence so high.
"Venturi and I played together on Sunday and afterward, on the practice tee, he told me, 'Ed, I really think you can win this. I've just got a feeling it's your week.'
"It was exciting to have someone see what I was feeling and, despite the anticipation of winning a major championship, I was more relaxed than ever before a competitive event. I felt a very quiet confidence, something the great players must feel when they're at the top of their games. I simply knew that I was going to win."
Thursday was warm and muggy, but alive with the kind of expectation that pervades the first round of the Masters. Paired with England's Peter Oosterhuis, Sneed teed off at 12:30 p.m. That day he shot a 68, putting him in a group with Watson, Joe Inman and Leonard Thompson, one stroke back of Bruce Lietzke.
"I began with an unspectacular but solid round. I never sank a long putt, my longest being eight feet at the 9th hole for par. But I didn't miss any short ones, and only needed 30 putts for the day. I was extremely happy with my start.
"The second day produced my best round ever in a major tournament, and maybe one of the three or four best I have ever played. I shot 67, even though I missed no fewer than 10 putts inside of 12 feet. In fact, I putted very well, but the putts just seemed to rim out and slip by the hole. The highlight of the round had to be the 45-footer I holed at 17 for birdie, coming after birdies at 13, 15 and 16. I was elated.
"Early in the round I remember seeing my name at the bottom of the leader board at the 6th hole, and I told my caddie, Bill Jackson, 'They're going to have to move my name up.' "
Sneed had played 36 holes without a bogey and without a hot putter. His playing companion the second morning was Zoeller, who marveled afterward, "I've never seen anything like it. Ed hit right at the flag all day." Zoeller shot a 71, which left him six strokes off Sneed's 135 total.
Friday had been dark and ominous from the beginning, and at 1:45, while Sneed was still being interviewed by reporters, it began to rain violently. A tornado alert was posted on the course and play was temporarily suspended. Sneed retreated to the men's grill upstairs in the clubhouse. He ate lunch, watching the streams of water that threatened to wash out the round and, with it, his good score. After a two-hour delay, play resumed with all but six groups able to finish before dark, and the round became official. Through the long wait Sneed had been relaxed.
"I was concerned but not panicked. Rounds get washed out sometimes—simple as that—though you hate to lose a 67 or any good score. If I'd been scrambling and playing all over creation I'd have been more worried. But I had played very well. I was never in trouble. I just felt I could go out and shoot another good score if I had to."
On Saturday the sky was clear. The sun bathed Augusta National and for Sneed it was a day filled with promise. He began it tied for the lead with Craig Stadler at nine under par, and steadily he put distance between himself and the field, shooting a 69 that moved him to 12 under par, five strokes ahead of Stadler and Watson, six ahead of Zoeller and Lietzke.
"My third round was much like the second, with the exception of my first and only bogey of the first three rounds, at the 5th hole, a long par 4. After a perfect drive I was a bit aggressive with my second shot. I hit a six-iron right at the hole, which was in a difficult position on the left side of the green. The ball hit strong and spun left, trickling down a slope just to the left of the hole. I chipped to within four feet and missed the putt.
"The best shot of the day came at the 18th. Using a driver, I played a fade that didn't move quite enough to the right, catching the edge of the first of the two fairway bunkers. The ball Wasn't in a bad lie, but I couldn't get it high in the air without taking the risk of hitting behind it. With about 175 yards to the hole I took a four-iron, playing a slight draw, and it came up perfectly, stopping 12 feet right of the cup. I missed the putt, but after my position in the bunker, a par was what I wanted.
"I can't argue with those who maintain that the leader has to bear the greatest pressure, but that is not the way it was for me that week. I continued to feel that flow of confidence, relaxed in mind and body. In other tournaments I have felt that pressure, but not once at Augusta did I feel I might buckle. My game was too solid."
Sneed's confidence and control were evident to other players as well. Watson was asked to assess his chances of challenging from a five-stroke deficit. "There's no reason why a player of Sneed's caliber shouldn't win," Watson said. "He's swinging well and has confidence. The only way I can win is for Ed to play poorly and me to play well."
Stadler agreed, saying, "Ed isn't making any mistakes and that's the key."
Before leaving the course on Saturday afternoon, Sneed spent some time at the putting green. "I don't think I'll be too conservative tomorrow," he said at the time. "At the beginning of the round I'll do just what I've been doing all week. If I have a big lead on the back nine, I wouldn't want to do anything foolish on the water holes. If my lead was only two or three strokes, I'd have to be more aggressive."
And with that he went home to the house that he and his wife, Nancy, had rented for the week, there to enjoy the antics of his daughters, Elisa, 4, and Erica, 2, and a steak dinner with friends from Charlotte, N.C.
Around 9 that evening Sneed called the club to find out his tee time and pairing. He had hoped it would be Watson, because if anyone were to press him he thought it would be Tom. Watson is an aggressive and formidable opponent head-on, witness his performance in the British Open at Turnberry in 1977 when, paired with Nicklaus the last two rounds, he fell as many as three strokes away only to attack his way to level with three holes remaining, and finally to a one-stroke victory. Sneed was surprised, then, and a little disappointed to learn that he was paired with Stadler; Watson and Zoeller would play together, just ahead. Still, he slept well.
Sneed's in-laws, Nick and Betty Popa, had helped Elisa and Erica decorate Easter eggs on Saturday, and on Sunday morning, after attending Easter Mass, the family returned home for a spirited egg hunt. The time passed quickly. At 11, Sneed went to the club, where he joined a friend for breakfast in the men's grill. At 2 o'clock, he and Stadler teed off in the last pair of the day.
"The weather on Sunday was different. It was very windy, gusting up to 35 or 40 mph, but I wasn't worried. I've never had much of a problem keeping the ball down low in the wind. Such unpredictable gusting reduced the chances of someone out of the pack shooting a 65 or 66 to catch me, as happened the year before when Gary Player shot 64.
"I started with a tough par at the 1st hole, blasting out of the trap to three feet and holing the putt. At the 2nd, after knocking a two-iron on the green, I three-putted from 60 feet for a par, and lost a chance to maintain my five-shot lead. Watson birdied the 2nd and then the 3rd, and when I bogeyed the 4th I knew that my lead was only two shots.
"At 6, a par-3 where the tee is elevated, the wind made club selection tricky. I hit what I thought was a good six-iron but the ball came up short in the bunker. After playing my next stroke, I was still in the bunker. At that point, I had to step away and get a firmer grip on things. I blasted to four feet and saved a bogey. That settled me down."
Sneed gathered his wits enough to par the next three holes, missing birdie putts at the 8th and 9th. But it had been a shaky start, and his game was not as relaxed and fluid as it had been earlier in the week. He turned in 38, two over par on the day, 10 under for the tournament. Stadler had fallen away with bogeys at the 7th and 9th, Watson had parred into the turn at eight under, and Zoeller had birdied 8, his first subpar hole of the round, to move to six under.
A poor approach short of the 10th green set up Sneed's third bogey of the round, and now one had to think back to his remarks of the previous day, when he spoke of having to become more aggressive if his lead dwindled on the back side. Watson and Zoeller had parred 10, and Sneed led by only a stroke. Looking a bit shaky, he made sure of his par at the 11th, playing a three-iron to the safety of the back center of the green and getting down in two. He now faced the deceptive and unforgiving par-3 12th.
"My next stroke could have resulted in total disaster. Even when the rest of the golf course is still, the wind in that low corner can be gusting. Players have hit one shot into the water and a moment later flown over the green with the same club. I didn't know it at the time, but most players had been hitting eight-irons to the green and seven-irons over it. Having just played the 11th against the wind, I thought it might still be blowing at the 12th, as the holes run approximately in the same direction. The pin was tucked near the front right, flirting with the water. With about 160 yards to the center of the green, I chose a six-iron and airmailed everything. The ball ended up on the downslope of the back bunker, and I had to blast back toward the water. I had to carry the ball onto the fringe and hope I could get enough backspin to keep it on the green and not have it roll across into Rae's Creek. This had to be my best shot of the tournament. It landed perfectly in the fringe, then moved toward the pin, finishing three inches left of the hole. It gave me my biggest lift and couldn't have come at a more opportune moment."
That extraordinary shot from the bunker seemed to buoy Sneed, to steady him and offset some of the vise-grip pressure he was feeling. His pursuers now included Jack Nicklaus, suddenly eight under through 16. Up ahead, Watson was par-ring the par-5 13th after an errant tee shot, and Zoeller had to be content with a birdie after reaching the green in two. Sneed laid up at 13, pitching to five feet with his third shot, and holed the putt for a birdie 4. He was pulling away again, now with a two-stroke lead, and things seemed to be going his way.
Watson bogeyed the 14th after hitting a poor approach. Sneed drove to the right on 14, and though his second shot came nicely out of the trees, his position on the front fringe was similar to Watson's moments earlier. But unlike Watson, Sneed got it up and down safely to stay at 10 under, now three ahead.
Both Zoeller and Watson birdied 15; Sneed followed with one of his own, a Hogan-style birdie featuring a wonderful pitch shot over the water that stopped eight feet from the flag.
By this time Nicklaus had bogeyed 17 and would finish at seven under, 281. After 16, Zoeller was seven under and Watson eight under.
"I went to the 16th hole thinking it was impossible for anything to happen except for me to win. I had played brilliantly for three rounds, fought through the most dangerous part of the golf course on a day when I was playing poorly and emerged with a three-stroke lead and only three holes to play.
"As I walked to the tee, the gallery was standing and applauding, not in a wild frenzy but appreciatively. It was quite moving and exhilarating.
"I have refused to second-guess my strategy on the next three holes. There's no question I played conservatively, but I cannot imagine anyone in that position trying to put the ball in any other spots.
"At 16, I hit my tee shot almost exactly where I wanted. I was a bit surprised that the ball didn't spin more to the left when it hit the green. If it had, it would have run down the slope toward the hole, maybe 12 or 15 feet away. Instead it bounced up onto the knob and stopped, leaving a long, difficult putt. I played a 10-foot break on my first putt, and hit it five feet past the hole. My second putt was solid but it went over the left lip and I had a bogey 4. All in all, a four there did not seem disastrous. I went to 17 knowing I still held the lead. I didn't feel tight."
Watson missed a 10-foot birdie putt on 17 that again would have brought him within a shot of Sneed, and he would par in to finish at eight under, 280. Zoeller, who had crept into contention with birdies at 13 and 15, birdied 17 from 14 feet and now marched happily up 18 tied with Watson. Sneed goes on:
"My tee shot at 17 was perfect, downwind 290 yards in the center of the fairway, but my second shot remains a mystery to me. I knew I had 104 yards to clear the bunker in front of the green. The pin was in the back, so I figured 120 yards to the hole. Just as I prepared to hit, the wind gusted very hard, from the left and behind me. I attempted a high soft shot and when the ball left the club I couldn't have been more pleased. It started on line, faded slightly toward the hole and looked close. While it was still in the air, a gust of wind actually knocked the ball down and slightly left. But the green, hard and fast, didn't hold the shot and the ball slid over the ridge onto the back fringe. My first putt was excellent, coming up over the rise and slipping no more than three feet past the hole. I thought my second putt would break left, not enough to give away the hole, but I must have pushed it slightly, because it went over the right edge of the cup. Another bogey."
From the comforting cushion of three strokes, Sneed had dissipated his lead. Having to make par on the final hole to win is a world removed from even a two-stroke edge, and needing that par on the heels of two damaging bogeys added to the pressure of the task. There was no question that Sneed was playing tentatively.
"As I prepared to hit my tee shot at 18, a three-wood to be short of the bunkers, a young kid snapped his camera and I was forced to step away. I took my time, then drove perfectly into the left center of the fairway. That gave me a big lift. I had been terribly distracted when I was ready to play, but had collected myself.
"A four would win. I had 160 yards to the hole, a solid seven-iron, and I wanted the ball on the right side of the green, either pin-high or below the cup. This was the poorest shot I hit on the closing stretch. My body came up a bit quickly at impact and I hit it slightly to the right. Instead of a draw, the ball flew dead straight and took a huge bounce to the right, coming to rest on the edge of the right bunker.
"I called Joe Black, a tournament official, over to look at my ball. It appeared to be half in and half out of the bunker, and a cigarette butt lay in the sand almost touching it. I wanted to remove the butt with an official watching in case the ball moved and I had to replace it. Also, I wanted to know if he thought the ball was in or out of the bunker. Black determined it was out of the bunker, but even then I was afraid to ground my club, for fear of moving the ball. This only added to the difficulty of the pitch shot.
"I hit what I thought was a pretty decent shot. The ball came up about six feet below the hole."
Perhaps he had let up on the last holes, after struggling through the treacherous stretch of Amen Corner. Perhaps he had loosened his grip before he had the tournament fully in his grasp. Perhaps he was thinking about winning when there still was too much golf course to be played. Whatever had gone wrong, the results could be read on Sneed's face. Serenity had faded. He had just hit a marvelous shot under the most testing of circumstances, yet there was no relief in his expression, only tautness and apprehension at the six-foot putt that remained.
"I read a break to the right and decided to play the ball at the left center of the hole. I don't know if I pulled it, or if it jumped slightly left on the way. All I know is that I thought the ball was going in, and it hung there, incredibly, on the left lip with a quarter of the ball over the hole."
A gasp escaped the gallery. Sneed bent over and studied the ball, which was perched precariously, overhanging the hole. But it was not to fall. Finally he tapped in for his bogey, a last-round 76 and the same eight-under-par total as Watson and Zoeller, who had finished in time to watch Sneed falter.
After he had checked over and signed his scorecard, Sneed was asked by Black if he wanted a few minutes to compose himself. He declined. The playoff was to begin immediately on the adjacent 10th hole, a demanding 485-yard par-4 with its green raised above the valley of the fairway and shaded almost entirely by tall pines. Sneed won the coin toss and hit first, Watson next and Zoeller last. All hit good drives and all three put their second shots within 12 feet of the flag.
"Fuzzy's putt missed, and I could redeem myself with my 10-footer. My caddie told me it would break slightly right. I thought it would go straight or slightly left, and although I had consulted him on a good number of putts that week and had confidence in him, I just couldn't make myself play the ball out of the hole as Bill suggested. I putted for the left center of the cup and the ball slid by on the right.
"Watson missed. I was still alive.
"We all hit good drives at 11, Fuzzy's being much longer than Tom's or mine. I had to play over the corner of the pond from about 185 yards, downhill with a wind blowing slightly in my face. Because of the wind I chose a five-iron instead of a six. The scouting report says always play to the right side of the green to avoid the water. But in a three-way playoff you have to throw away that chapter. I thought I hit it stiff, but it was long and I was bunkered.
"Tom and Fuzzy hit great shots, but their putts were by no means automatic and I thought if I could save par we could go play No. 12 again.
"Some people think I tried to hole that bunker shot, because it almost went in. Under any circumstances it was a remarkable shot, but I was only trying to get close enough to make four, and it stopped 15 inches from the hole.
"Tom's putt was on line but a bit short. Then Fuzzy putted, and for a moment as I watched the ball roll into the cup, I couldn't believe it had happened. It was like having the wind knocked out of me. The tension was suddenly gone.
"The shadows were long as I rode in the cart back toward the clubhouse. It was very cold.
"I was bewildered, not bitter or full of self-pity. I knew in my heart I had outplayed and outsmarted the held, but I didn't feel very smart at 6 o'clock that Sunday afternoon.
"Yet I realized quickly that how I accepted that defeat was very important. Many times that sort of thing has happened to players and they never recovered. I knew that I couldn't let that happen. Finishing second is an accomplishment, too.
"After the interviews and the presentation ceremony, Nancy and I went home and as we pulled in the driveway, Elisa and Erica came running out of the house. They had watched the tournament on TV with their grandmother. 'Daddy, Daddy,' Elisa shouted as she hugged my legs. 'Congratulations. You won.' I turned to my wife and said, 'I guess I am the winner.'
"Later that Sunday night I went back to the course to retrieve a bag cover. It was quiet and I went out to the 18th green and stood for a few minutes near the cup. As I walked back to the clubhouse, I saw lights on in the dining room, and, only for a moment, I felt a little bit lonely."