There is golf, and there is tournament golf. But as Bobby Jones
failed to mention in his oft-quoted analysis, there is also
Pretournament golf is what John Daly was playing last Tuesday at
Augusta National when he teed up his ball on a Coke can and
smashed a drive 270 yards down the 11th fairway. It was
pretournament golf that put a 40-year-old real estate developer
in a foursome with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Pretournament golf also had Nick Faldo playing several times by
himself, stopping from time to time to search the crowd for a
man in a Panama hat.
Mere practice rounds? No way. In the early '90s, when anybody
with a sawbuck could buy a general admission ticket to Augusta
National for Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, vast throngs turned
the golf course into a kind of hajj. Green-hatted pilgrims
poured into Amen Corner to watch, say, Wayne Grady putting to a
head cover in the shade of loblolly pines. A lottery system now
limits practice-round attendance to about 40,000 a day, but it's
still common to see two pros playing a $50 Nassau in front of
Tokyo-subway-type crowds. "When I played here as an amateur, I
was amazed at the number of people," says British Open champion
Justin Leonard. "Even now I get here before the gates open, and
by the time I reach 7 or 8 the place is full."
The practice rounds are not televised, but maybe they should be.
No final-round drama could top the practice-round shenanigans of
1948, when America's best amateur golfer, Frank Stranahan, got
escorted off the course by club officials and Pinkerton guards,
allegedly for hitting too many balls into the greens.
April 19, 1998
"You could hit only one ball because the course was wet," says
Freddie Bennett, Augusta National's caddie master and
Stranahan's caddie that day. "That's how many he hit, but he had
a bunch of balls in a shag bag, and he'd throw 'em down and putt
to points on the green. You could do that." So why did the
course superintendent confront Stranahan on two holes and
finally round up a posse? Bennett shrugs and grins. "I don't
know what he was upset about."
A more recent practice dustup matched two-time Masters champion
Bernhard Langer with then tournament chairman Hord Hardin. On
the Sunday before the 1988 Masters, Langer teed off on number 10
and was measuring distances to the green with a yardage wheel
when a ball hit from the members' tee flew past him. A hole
later, more tee shots rained on the spot where Langer's caddie
had left his bag in the fairway while he made more measurements.
Hardin and his foursome rolled up in golf carts, and after some
small talk Langer made it known that he didn't appreciate the
bombardment. The chairman and his friends then played through,
but that wasn't the end of the matter. "I got a nasty letter
from him," Langer says, "saying just because I was a past
champion didn't mean I was going to be invited back every year."
The Stranahan and Langer episodes suggest that Augusta National
is not always the Eden it's reputed to be, but then, nobody
asked the snake. That opportunity was missed in a 1958 practice
round when Australian golfer Frank Phillips used a sand wedge to
kill a young blacksnake in the woods near the 6th green. For
some reason Phillips decided to stuff the dead reptile into the
cup. This proved bothersome to his playing partner, Mike
Souchak, who made a putt and then was too timid to reach into
the hole for his ball. A spectator finally ducked under the
ropes and retrieved the ball, permitting play to resume.
More typically, Masters practice days are predictable, even
staged. Until 1960, when the par-3 tournament began, Wednesday
usually featured a golf clinic, a Paul Hahn trick-shot
exhibition or a long-drive contest. These events amused the
players and entertained arriving guests, who would walk down the
hill from the veranda, often with drinks in hand. ("George
Zaharias, the Colorado wrestling man, is expecting his wife, the
Babe, today," read an Augusta Chronicle note from the '50s.
"E.N. Eisenhower is in town, but his brother the general isn't
In 1955 the club chose a Wednesday afternoon to dedicate the new
Gene Sarazen Bridge over Rae's Creek, and when the speeches were
over, some 35 players took part in a double-eagle contest. The
idea, of course, was to see who could come closest to
duplicating Sarazen's 232-yard four-wood shot from the 15th
fairway in the final round of the 1935 Masters, the so-called
shot heard round the world. Fred Haas won the contest and a
crystal goblet by lacing one to about four feet from the hole.
According to the next day's paper, the only player to try the
shot with an iron was Sam Snead, and "he didn't do too well."
Another player, unnamed, nearly whiffed, moving his ball about
Today's par-3 tournament may be the last vestige of formal
exhibitionism, but the wink-and-a-putt climate survives with
some players. During last Tuesday's practice round, Daly dived
into a tee-side snack chest at the 11th hole and started
throwing Nestle Crunch bars back over his shoulder to the crowd
behind the ropes. The next day, on the same tee, shouts of Hit
another! rained down on Tommy Tolles after he snap-hooked his
drive. When he did take a mulligan, after borrowing a ball from
a fan, Tolles had to withstand the taunting of Daly, who yelled
"Much better!" as Tolles started his downswing.
Some players are more interested in entertaining themselves. For
them, a high-stakes wager tests the nerves and adds zest to a
practice round. Lanny Wadkins and Tom Watson played a Tuesday
money match at Augusta for years, often against Ray Floyd and
another player. A few years ago Wadkins and Watson had Floyd and
Greg Norman a few down on the back side. "We finished solidly,"
Watson recalled last week, "birdie, par, par, birdie." He
remembers the finish because Norman and Floyd finished birdie,
birdie, birdie, eagle to win the wager--the eagle coming when
Floyd holed out from the 18th fairway with a six-iron. Watson
will not disclose how much he lost on Floyd's miracle shot,
saying only, "It was more than eight dollars."
Not everyone uses the days before the tournament to relax or
make a buck. Faldo, Fred Couples, David Duval and Bill Glasson
played alone on Monday, pursuing their golf muses with a minimum
of distractions. On the practice range, coaches fine-tuned the
swings of submissive clients, while over at the practice green a
grandstand packed with spectators watched Tiger Woods hit shots
out of snowy sand for his coach, Butch Harmon.
It's a tough week for the gurus. A few years ago, when Augusta
National decreed that coaches could no longer accompany their
players on practice rounds, Faldo had the renowned David
Leadbetter don a caddie's white jumpsuit so they could work
together on the course. That was Faldo's story, anyway. The
gangly Leadbetter, dressed like an ice-cream vendor, found Faldo
waiting for him with a camera. Flash.
"It was a good joke," Leadbetter says, "but access is a real
problem. Certainly at Wimbledon they don't keep coaches from
sitting next to the court when their players warm up." This year
Leadbetter split his time among "the two Nicks" (Faldo and
Price), David Frost, Fred Funk, Gabriel Hjertstedt and John
Huston. With no cocoon of privacy, Leadbetter frequently found
himself surrounded by well-meaning fans who recognized his face
and trademark Panama hat from television. "You don't want to be
rude," said an obviously frustrated Leadbetter, "but you have to
do your job."
Sometimes, and Woods can testify to this, a practice round isn't
a tune-up at all, but a rite of passage. Woods was 19 when he
earned his first Masters invitation, and his practice rounds
with Nicklaus, Norman and Palmer were part audition and part
initiation. (Norman's awed assessment of Tiger's length--"I feel
inferior"--helped launch Tigermania.) Lesser players get
essentially the same treatment. This year's newcomers included
'97 U.S. Amateur champ Matt Kuchar, runner-up Joel Kribel and
Mid-Amateur champion Ken Bakst, who was captain of the Stanford
team 18 years ago, before he got into real estate. Bakst played
on Tuesday morning with Funk, Nicklaus and Palmer, and spent an
hour afterward telling everyone what a thrill it was. "In the
13th fairway Nicklaus hit a two-iron off a side slope to about
20 feet," he said. "To be standing there, five feet from him,
that's a treat."
It is this ceremonial aspect, more than the competition, that
Bobby Jones seemed to enjoy in the 11 Masters he played in from
1934 to '48. Jones wrote that his Masters practice rounds were
"the most enjoyable golf I had ever had," and it showed. He shot
a course-record 65 in practice in '34, and he beat that in '36
with a practice 64. Jones never broke par in an official round.
If that didn't convince Masters fans that pretournament golf was
different from tournament golf, Palmer's practice rounds of 1960
should have. The year before, Palmer's chance of repeating his
'58 victory had vanished when he hit one into the creek in front
of the green on the par-3 12th hole. A year later he played a
Sunday practice round and put another ball in Rae's Creek. On
Monday he drowned yet another at 12. On Tuesday ditto. "I can't
seem to get it across there," he fretted. "If this keeps up, I'm
going to play it short of the creek and pitch it on."
It looked bad for Palmer, but he kept his ball dry the rest of
the week and shot a 282, good enough for the second of his four
Masters wins. Pre-dictable.
Watson will not disclose how much he lost, saying only, "It was
more than eight dollars."