Of God, Golf And Green Jackets

Even in a bad year for the azaleas, the Masters is a beautiful, though enigmatic, event. At least that's what the author discovered on his first trip to Augusta to observe this annual rite of spring
April 07, 1986

The idea was to scare up two guys, a writer and a photographer, who had actually never set eyes on Augusta National Golf Club before, who didn't possess either a handicap or a pair of funny-colored pastel trousers between them, and to send them off to inspect an American tradition. The Masters is so surpassingly beautiful, so gorgeous in the sight of God and man, that I was sure even if Brian Lanker, the photographer, had to get up before dawn to get the right light, he certainly had the better assignment. I was sure of this even though it was alleged not to be a good year for the azaleas. "I'm sorry," everybody told me from the minute I got off the plane in Augusta, "but it's not a good year for the azaleas." By Friday, I was telling people this. "It's not a good year for the azaleas." No.

One spring, when the azaleas dared to bloom a bit early, Mr. Clifford Roberts ordered men to go out on the course and pack ice around the plants in a Canutian effort to delay their full blossoming until tee time. Roberts, who was the only chairman of Augusta National and the Masters for 43 years, had a very unusual emotional conflict. Some men think they're God. In golf, at least, Mr. Roberts was sure he was God, only he had to go around telling everybody that Bobby Jones was God. It must have worn on him. No wonder he spoke so hesitantly.

The Masters is schizophrenic. Today, 14 years after Jones, his body wasted away to 69 pounds by a degenerative nerve disease, was spared any more agony on this green earth, and more than eight years after Mr. Roberts, perhaps mindful of his dear old friend's slow death, put a bullet in his head out behind the members' cabins and tumbled into the creek bed by Ike's Pond, people still call it Bobby Jones's tournament, when they know it was Mr. Roberts's tournament. Everybody loved Jones, and everybody was scared of Mr. Roberts. They say that when Ike played bridge with Mr. Roberts at the club, sometimes the President couldn't stand it anymore, and he would cry out, "But, Cliff, Cliff, you promised tonight it was just going to be a friendly game."

Mr. Roberts was almost Gatsby-like: Out of the Midwest—Iowa—he went to New York and evolved into something both transparent and mysterious. He became friend, financial adviser and confidant to two legends, Jones and Ike, and isn't it funny? To find them you have to dig in the history books, but to find Mr. Roberts you have to go to the Masters.

Mr. Roberts's place endures at the Masters. The players are props. You either scratch and scramble after one or two of them, hoping for a glimpse of backswing, or you rise early and appropriate one spot on the course, there to stand like a spectator at an automobile assembly line, watching the same miniature action all day without absorbing that a whole car is being constructed all around you. With the Masters, you can truly embrace only the physical place. You can carry only the landscape, the epic beauty, home with you. The people who come to see a tournament rush off to their television sets to follow the final holes, the competition. Folks up north couldn't understand why I departed Augusta on Saturday. But I had seen enough of the Masters. I was also curious to see who might win.

"The azaleas," I explained. "It's not a good year for the azaleas down there."

Next week will bring us the 50th Masters. The tournament was first played in 1934, but during World War II Augusta National was put to pasture for three years, a place for cattle and turkeys, before it was restored by German POWs and reopened in 1945. Apart from Mr. Roberts himself, several factors—some of them designed, some of them pure serendipity—have made the tournament the only significant championship of a private disposition that is left in any sport. Yet while the lay of the land is magnificent and the course a fascinating athletic conundrum—it is fair and relatively easy for everyday players, fair and relatively difficult for superior ones—it was the Jonesian presence that established the Masters. The Grand Slammer was so important to golf that gate receipts at the U.S. Open were nearly halved in 1931, the first year of Jones's retirement. Because the Masters was the only tournament Jones played in thereafter, even though he was never a major factor, Jones drew crowds to see him, just as pilgrims now yearn to see the Masters once before they die, and never mind who's on the leader board.

It certainly helped that the Masters always enjoyed a sweetheart press—heavy on the horticulture—as most reporters tended to follow the example of their beloved leader, "Granny" Rice. Rice happened to be not only one of the five "organizers" of Augusta National, but also the very individual who proposed at the initial club meeting that Mr. Roberts be accorded dictatorial powers, an offhand suggestion happily approved by voice vote. By dumb luck the Masters was scheduled for the time when spring training was breaking up in Florida, and so provided an ideal respite from exhibition baseball.

One of the few people ever to criticize the Masters was Lee Trevino, who declined the club's invitations in 1970 and '71. He publicly dared not to like the course; privately, as a dark-skinned Mexican-American, he felt uncomfortable in what remained something of an antebellum outpost. In a recent interview on San Francisco's KSFO radio, Trevino recalled how Mr. Roberts summoned him to his office and lectured him. Subsequently, Jack Nicklaus visited Trevino in Texas to urge him to be more accommodating. But Trevino said that what finally drove him back to the bosom of Augusta National was the press and its criticism of him.

In his session with Mr. Roberts, Trevino suggested that the whole issue could be settled by simply not inviting him back, but this was a time (circa 1970) when pressure was building on the Masters to invite a black, and it would have been unseemly to turn away a qualified Hispanic. Although in recent years the foreign contingent has diminished some-what, at that time the Masters had a distinct international flavor, leading Red Smith to suggest that Lee Elder should be "invited as an African." Mr. Roberts was not amused.

Time has perhaps blurred the importance of the Masters' Southern heritage. The tournament—toonimint, in the argot of that lilac latitude—was created long before that part of the United States was called the Sun Belt. This was Dixie, a conquered territory, an athletic colony, the bush leagues. No U.S. Open or PGA Championship had ever been played in the Deep South, and if Mr. Roberts and Bobby Jones very pointedly named their club Augusta National, the Masters itself became Augusta Regional. Most golf tournaments—even a U.S. Open today—draw as much as 80% of their spectators from the local area, but the Masters draws only 50% or so from Augusta and environs. The rest were attracted from all over Dixie, Southerners proud that they could boast of something consequential in a professional sports world ordered by Yankees. That the whole event became Bobby Jones incarnate was only partly because he was the greatest golfer ever; what counted at least as much to the tournament's fans was that Jones was a Southern golfer. Southern gentleman, Southern master.

It took two other golfers to bring the Masters fully into the national realm. The first of these was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who originally vacationed at Augusta in 1948. Ike soon became a member and made 29 visits to the club while he was President. Up until 1960 or so every member arrived either as Jones's friend or Mr. Roberts's friend, or, more than likely, a friend of both. "I would like, in conclusion," Mr. Roberts declared at the end of his memoir about himself and his club, "to make the observation that those with talent who give unselfishly of themselves just because they love golf are entitled to one uncomplicated place where they can feel completely at ease."

The avuncular Ike was perfect for Augusta National and the Masters. Even if he was playing with fat cat clubmen, Ike made golf a more acceptable exercise for common folk, just as he helped make the South—which had been the Solid South before he pricked that bubble in '52—more acceptable to the rest of the nation. But it was good old Arno Pomma who put the Masters into the forefront of our consciousness.

A prevailing myth is that Arnold Palmer made golf. He didn't. Not quite. What he did was make the Masters, and the Masters made golf. All that "charge" stuff came in Augusta. Will he charge? was almost as good as He's charging! for anyone watching the azaleas on television up north in the first week of what is celebrated as the cruelest month. In Palmer's wake came Nicklaus and Player, and together they became the Big Three. In a nine-year stretch beginning in 1958, the year Palmer won his first green jacket, the Big Three took eight Masters; by contrast, of 27 U.S. Opens, British Opens and PGAs, they won only nine. This was, surely, the Golden Age of Golf, and the Masters was the studio with the stars.

It was Mr. Roberts's foresight that made this possible. Fortuitously, in 1956, only two years before the heavens opened up and deposited Palmer at Amen Corner, Mr. Roberts had gotten an introduction to William Paley, the chairman of the board of CBS. Paley agreed that it might be nice indeed for CBS to bring the Masters into the television world, and he instructed his minions at CBS Sports to accommodate Mr. Roberts. This year will mark the 31st consecutive Masters telecast on CBS. Frank Chirkinian, who will be producing and directing his 28th Masters, even moved to Augusta 10 years ago. Someone once asked Chirkinian to cite one or two humorous tournament anecdotes. "There is nothing humorous at the Masters," he replied. "Here, small dogs do not bark, and babies do not cry."

The great paradox of the Masters is that it is an extraordinarily conspicuous event held at a secret place by discreet men who go there to be invisible. They are the "Green Jackets," some 15 score of wealthy white males from all over patrician America. Like a secret society at Yale, prospective members are tapped. No one is ever advised that he is under scrutiny, and Hord W. Hardin of St. Louis, Mr. Roberts's heir, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, alone distributes the invitations.

Hardin, a robust, silver-haired man in his 70's, a former lawyer and trust officer, makes no effort to be the autocrat that Mr. Roberts was, but he does retain the scepter. Technically, as chairman, he serves one-year terms, but in reality he serves with open tenure, needing, he chuckles, "to be caught robbing a bank" to lose his office. Unlike Mr. Roberts, Hardin will refer to the other six men on the executive committee when it comes to the unpleasant task of asking someone to relinquish his green jacket, but in golfing matters he reigns supreme. And when someone on the executive committee joins Grantland Rice up there with the One Great Scorer, the successor is chosen without argument on the basis of Hardin's "suggestion."

In the sporting world it is common to compare Augusta National with the All England Club, which runs Wimbledon. I am more than familiar with the All England, and believe me, it's no contest. The All England may be the one in hidebound, class-conscious Britain, but next to Augusta National, it's as democratic as a lodge hall on a Saturday afternoon bus tour to Atlantic City. For example, the All England has a very powerful committee that can check the chairman. Young men, even women, are on the committee! Many tennis decisions must be approved by players of both sexes, and by all sorts of officials, many from foreign countries.

Augusta National suffers none of these fools. Unlike the despotic Mr. Roberts, Hardin is an understanding man who will make concessions—"Hord's been very receptive to the players," says Deane Beman, the PGA Tour commissioner—but the fact remains that any and all changes are made strictly at the Masters' pleasure. "No one can tell them a thing," one golf pooh-bah told me near the putting green last April, looking nervously over his shoulder.

"Well, gee," I said to him, "it all seems very efficient."

"Yes, so were the rallies at Nuremberg."

Curiously, a reason that everyone is inclined to want to like Hardin is because Mr. Roberts is supposed to have done him dirt. Hardin, a scratch golfer in his prime who once shot a 64 in a regular PGA tour event, was the clear successor. He was a past president of the United States Golf Association and a Green Jacket since 1964. He worked well with Mr. Roberts, serving, he volunteers, as "his legman."

But in 1976 to everyone's shock—and, it was whispered, to Hardin's despair—when Mr. Roberts finally decided he might catch a case of mortality, he picked Bill Lane of Houston to succeed him. Typically, at the very press conference announcing Lane's ascension, Roberts refused to let Lane utter a word. Lane was, to be sure, a successful man (he was in the club, wasn't he?), an engaging fellow, but his handicap was in double figures, and the golf folks just didn't think he was dedicated enough to the game. Unfortunately, after chairing only two Masters, in 1977 and '78, Lane suffered a disabling stroke. Hardin assumed the reins on an interim basis, and in 1980 he was named chairman. Secretly, many people cheered that Mr. Roberts had been cheated in death, that the man he had snubbed had indeed succeeded him.

In fact, Mr. Roberts got the last cackle. After all these years, Hardin volunteers the information—"I just never wanted to hurt Bill Lane's family"—that Mr. Roberts had originally offered Hardin the chairman's position, but Hardin had felt obliged to turn it down. It's a full-time job, and in 1976 Hardin simply wasn't prepared to retire from a wage-earning occupation. So Mr. Roberts picked Lane, but he also created the position of vice-chairman for Hardin, confident that, simply because Lane wasn't ail that golfy, he would turn the Masters over to his man Hardin soon enough.

About one-third of the membership actively works on the tournament, though there is no requirement for members to help. Most must travel from some distance; there are only about 25 "locals" from the Augusta area and another 15 or so from Atlanta. An effort is made to maintain geographic (as well as vocational) balance in the membership.

The club can entertain perhaps 85 overnight visitors, mostly in the "cabins" that adjoin the 10th hole, and while guest privileges are limited, members obviously love to bring in a buddy to enjoy the shrine. There are no honorary members, but for all the fuss made about giving the new champion his green jacket, Masters winners are not full-fledged communicants and do not enjoy the privilege of bringing a friend.

The club is open only from mid-October through mid-May, closing in the hot steamy months. Fifty-five years ago, when Augusta National was formed, Augusta, a lovely little town more favored than Atlanta because of its warmer climate, was something of a winter resort. With air travel, though, affluent members are hardly inclined to schlepp into backwater Dixie in the winter, when the weather can be passing cruel, when they can jet to the tropics, and winter attendance has fallen off. In the prime spring and fall dates, however, weekend accommodations can be difficult to come by. But these "men of some means...devoted to the game of golf," as Jones characterized the members, enjoy good service, hearty food and homogenous company. To twist Groucho Marx's famous remark, you can be damn sure that every member of Augusta National is proud of any club that would be lucky enough to have him.

When I was chatting with Hardin at the club in Florida where he winters, I referred to Augusta National as a "number two club," which is a common enough expression in affluent sporting company, meaning that a man belongs to a country club where he resides and a number two club where he goes to escape the winter. "What?" said Hardin, blanching.

"You know, number two club."

"I don't think anybody ever calls us a number two club." He took a long pull on his iced tea to compose himself. "My God," he chuckled, "if Mr. Roberts heard that, he'd roll over in his grave."

A member does not necessarily have to be a good golfer. "But he has to care," Hardin explains. "Golf should be his primary later-life interest. I mean, it's O.K. if he plays tennis or skis, but golf should be first. If we don't have the right kind of people in the club, we'll digress from the ideal. A man who doesn't love golf wouldn't be happy here." There is no swimming pool, no tennis courts or horseshoe pit. In one wild and crazy moment a lawn-bowling pitch was built, but it was soon enough removed for lack of use. "Welcome from the Augusta National Country Club," a CBS announcer named Jim Mc-Arthur once said.

"This is no damn country club," Mr. Roberts growled into the microphone.

When visiting, most members prefer 27 holes a day, starting off on the pretty little nine-hole par-3 course. Afterward, a couple of drinks, dinner and possibly bridge. Augusta National is one place where bridge is still popular. What will the next generation, the one that's growing up without bridge, do at night? Anyway, there's not a lot of time to fill, for it is mandatory that lights in all common rooms be snapped off at midnight, sharp. Everybody then has to take off his green jacket and tuck himself in. Nobody, of course, is allowed to remove his green jacket from the premises, except for the Masters champion, who may do so for the 12 months following his victory. No member ever sneaks his jacket home to show off to his friends. "We've obviously made a mistake if ever we chose anyone who's inclined to do that," Hardin says firmly.

The deal that Mr. Roberts struck with CBS three decades ago remains much the same today, and it is surely a unique arrangement for television, though somewhat similar to the Miss America Pageant agreement. In both cases, top dollar has not been pursued in order that an image might be preserved—in formaldehyde by now.

Aside from a good measure of editorial control, what Mr. Roberts got for backing off on money—broadcast rights are still less than $1 million a year, it is said—was half the normal allotment of commercial minutes. There are only four minutes of TV advertising an hour for the Masters, and only two upscale sponsors—The Travelers insurance company, which started its TV commercials on the Masters in 1959, and Cadillac, the junior partner with a mere 18 years. The local affiliates are also denied any commercials. "You take the Masters, you take it as is," says Neal Pilson, who oversees CBS Sports. The network itself has to take it on a year-to-year basis, always staying on edge and on its best behavior.

CBS remains rather defensive about the charge that it sells its First Amendment right to Augusta National. Pilson staunchly denies that Hardin "plays any more of a role than any other major figure of a comparable position in any sport."

Hardin acknowledges he does not have to stand up on his hind legs much, because the fearsome legacy of Mr. Roberts still holds sway. "CBS already knows what we want," Hardin says.

Crying babies and barking dogs don't exist at Augusta National, and neither do litter, misbehaving nature nor the mention of filthy lucre. On the Masters TV broadcast, nobody ever just won $100,000 in the Snooky Lansen Wonder Bread Tri-State Open. Neither does CBS ever let on that Augusta National is not surrounded by the Garden of Eden. In fact, the club fronts on Washington Road, which is a ticky-tacky generic thoroughfare featuring, right across the street, a shopping center called Azalea Plaza (What else?) that includes a Piggly Wiggly Store, a pizza joint and several similar establishments. The most famous case of outright censorship came one year when Jack Whitaker made a passing colloquial reference to a happy band of Masters' fans as a "mob." The price CBS paid to get the Masters back the next April was to dismiss Whitaker from the team.

Mr. Roberts treated network underlings with contempt, forever waving his finger under people's noses and threatening "to throw your ass out of here next year." He would watch the full tapes of the Masters in May, when the club had its end-of-the-season party, and when he met with the CBS honchos in New York over the summer, he would carefully specify all his grievances as the TV brass dutifully served him what he requested: tea and Oreo cookies with the white stuff scraped off.

Much of Mr. Roberts's meanest spirit fell upon Bill MacPhail, then head of CBS Sports, who was everywhere accepted as the gentlest and most caring of men. MacPhail's voice quakes, even now, when he tells how Mr. Roberts used MacPhail to betray Bobby Jones himself.

Since 1949 it had been the custom for Jones, the President in Perpetuity of Augusta National, to interview the new champion before he was presented with his new green jacket, and this lovely ceremony was adapted to close the telecast—as it still does today. When Jones grew ill and less able to move about, the moment became more touching for the audience even as it became more difficult for Jones. CBS made the decision never to interfere.

But Mr. Roberts went to Jones and advised him that MacPhail would no longer allow him to conduct the interview at the jacket ceremony. MacPhail, unsuspecting, suddenly found Jones before him, livid, crushed, near tears. MacPhail took it all, and then turned and walked away, never telling Jones that the decision had not been CBS's but that of Jones's oldest and dearest friend.

While the Masters can take great pride in its many innovations and special status, there remains a sense that it is selfish and egocentric. At their most paranoid, some golf insiders fear that Masters people form a fifth column, that while they would never sabotage the U.S. Open, they certainly don't have the best interests of it—or any other aspect of golf—at heart. The more general, milder antipathy lies somewhere between cynicism and resentment. Deane Beman of the PGA Tour was commenting on one of his organization's problems, that it has no control over any of the majors. "Of course," Beman said, "a certain amount of the dollars that come to the USGA for the Open and the PGA of America [teaching pros] for the PGA Championship goes back into the game of golf itself."

Implicit in what Beman said was that the Masters has never put anything back into the sport. Beman wouldn't deny that. "You said it, I didn't," was all he offered.

But then, Mr. Roberts had already said it himself. In his book he noted that, regrettably, it was impossible for the Masters to ally itself with charity or any other enterprise, that the Club must always "concentrate all income...on just one objective."

Augusta National remains one uncomplicated place.

The man at the first tee, in a green jacket, sans microphone, says, without emotion: "Fore, please, Jack Nicklaus now driving." Or: "Fore, please, Bernhard Langer now driving." And off we go. However crowded the Masters may be—probably about 18,000 a day, although the club deigns not to release official figures—it never seems cluttered. There are no periscopes, no corporate tents, not even any blue jeans to speak of. The spigots at the concession stands are taped over, so that, even in Georgia, Coca-Cola's name can't defile the esthetics.

The crowd is remarkably the same, golfy and good-natured. There must be some filter, perhaps out by the Piggly Wiggly, that sorts out young people and good-looking women and minorities and packs them off to the Derby or the NCAAs. Everybody cheers every shot the instant it is struck (even if it does end up in a water hazard). Living up to Jones's admonitions, which are still printed in the spectators' guide, nobody utters a negative word, and the fans are courteous to one another. If someone marks out a choice spot and then departs for a time, he or she is allowed to regain the vantage point upon returning. The people at the Masters seem to recognize that they possess the most desired ticket in American sport—if not the world—and must live up to standards, the same as that ingrate Trevino. The champions themselves write bread-and-butter notes to the chairman, and these are duly printed in the official record book, RAY FLOYD LETTER...BEN CRENSHAW LETTER...BYRON NELSON LETTER.

There is an incredible seamlessness to it all. The course is regularly changed, and some of these modifications are announced in elaborate detail. Other times, whole trees are moved, tees shifted, but not a word is said. That's just arbitrary beautification, a designated act of God.

And, Lord, it is beautiful.

Even in a bad year for the azaleas.

PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLER PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLERMr. Roberts reigned supreme over his golf kingdom. PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSJones: golfer, gentleman and true Southerner. PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSIke made frequent presidential visits to Augusta. PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLERHardin has been the keeper of the flame since 1980.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)