Stop The Presses They say that everything in the Augusta paper about the National is okayed by a member, but he isn't talking

April 04, 1999

During Masters week, almost nobody works harder than the seven
sportswriters on the staff of The Augusta Chronicle. During this
Holy Week, when Augusta's schools are closed and its stores stay
open late, a short shift for a Chronicle sportswriter is 12
hours and a light load is two stories per day. For eight
consecutive days, The Chronicle publishes a special Masters
supplement and as many as 16 broadsheet pages devoted entirely
to the tournament. To fill these pages, the seven Chronicle
sportswriters type tens of thousands of words. Much of the rest
of the paper's 104-person editorial staff also contributes. From
time to time during Masters week, you'll see Ward Clayton, the
paper's sports editor, standing on the veranda of the clubhouse,
his belt and pockets weighed down by various electronic gadgets,
surveying the scene, fearful that somewhere out there something
is happening that one of his writers is not documenting. It
could happen.

The nerve-racking thing for Clayton and his writers is that the
boss is never far away. The publisher of The Chronicle, William
S. (Billy) Morris III, is a member of Augusta National. Not only
that, but also he's on the club's media committee for the
tournament. One of his functions is to drive contestants from
the scorer's tent behind the 18th green to the press building
for postround interviews. He does this expertly and gleefully,
navigating the large crowds and steep hills with the ease of a
NASCAR driver out for a Sunday spin, never losing his
broad-brimmed straw hat in the April breeze. Inside the mammoth
interview room, Morris often serves as moderator, sitting next
to the interviewee, identifying the next questioner with a
pointed finger or a slight nod, repeating and sometimes
truncating a reporter's question. (When the subject of the
interview is Jack Nicklaus, Morris, looking deeply satisfied, is
always the moderator because of the long-standing friendship
between the two men.) As a moderator, Morris never favors his
own typists. Sometimes interview sessions end with the right
hand of David Westin, The Chronicle's lead golf writer,
stretched skyward like the third-grader in the back of the
classroom who needs to use the bathroom now.

Billy Morris could be an invaluable source to his staff. As a
member he knows about the inner workings of his club. He knows
things his reporters would love to get in the paper. He attends
the members' dinner for the new champion on the night the
tournament concludes. He sees the players in their raw emotional
state as they sign their scorecards in the privacy of the
scorer's tent. When members are being kicked out or reprimanded
or recruited, he knows about it. But Morris doesn't breathe a
word of what he knows to his writers. He loves the club deeply
and treasures his membership. He knows his place in it. He knows
the rules. No talking is Rule No. 1.

Morris, 64, is trim and pale, and Southern to the core. Although
he's not a Southern eccentric, he did ride down Augusta's main
drag, Broad Street, on horseback wearing full Native American
regalia during a celebration after the Atlanta Braves won the
National League pennant in 1991. Ordinarily, he does nothing to
bring attention to himself. He owns two jets, many horses, a
fishing camp and a plantation, yet somehow he isn't flashy in
any way. Morris is careful with his money. Although he built a
beautiful museum in Augusta devoted to Southern artists--it's on
the Riverwalk, next to the Radisson hotel he owns--his
reputation for thriftiness is widespread in the city. He pays
his reporters at The Chronicle, on average, about $25,000 a
year, and if they want to park in the lot next to the paper, he
charges them $10 a month.

He looks meek, but he's immensely powerful, in his native
Augusta and across the country. His company, Morris
Communications, owns about 35 small and midsized newspapers,
most with a Rush Limbaugh-Pat Robertson bent, at least on the
editorial page. (The Chronicle, for instance, runs a Biblical
verse daily above its lead editorial, which routinely bashes
President Clinton, his policies, his appointees and his
friends.) The paper reflects Morris's interests. On every
Chronicle news rack are the words THE SOUTH'S OLDEST NEWSPAPER,
along with a picture of a golfer wearing speckled pants.

In Augusta, The Chronicle gets local pols elected. It is common
knowledge in town that if you have political or social or
commercial ambitions, and you run afoul of Billy Morris, you
might as well pack your bags and start over in Athens or
Savannah or Atlanta. Morris's papers have made him a rich man.
In 1991, Forbes estimated Morris's fortune at $350 million. But
when it comes to his membership at his beloved Augusta National,
he falls right in line with the other members: He doesn't make a
peep about the club to outsiders. That's the way the club's
legendary chairman, Clifford Roberts, who invited Morris to join
in the early '60s, wanted it. That's the way it remains.

In his own newsroom, Morris's loyalty to his club is well
established. Any story containing anything sensitive about the
National is first run by Morris. The people who rise to the top
at The Chronicle know what types of stories Morris wants and
what types he does not. In 1991, Westin wrote a story about how
the handgun Roberts used to commit suicide in 1977 showed up in
a Japanese auction-house catalog. He reported the story,
needless to say, without any help from his publisher. Morris
allowed the story to run because it was accurate and fair, and
because nobody at Augusta National said boo when they heard that
Westin was working on it. In '94 some people in the newsroom got
wind that two local members of the club were asked to resign for
taking money to arrange tee times for nonmembers. The reporters
wanted to pursue the story but were told that Morris wouldn't
much care for it. Naturally, the story was dropped. Later, Golf
World broke the story, Golf Digest published a follow-up and
many other publications carried at least a brief item on the two
expulsions.

Cliff Roberts clearly knew what he was doing when he invited
Morris to join the club. The Chronicle's coverage of the Masters
is so positive and so pervasive it can not help but influence the
national and international coverage of the event. Today, when so
much sportswriting in daily newspapers has become caustic, the
coverage of the Masters in The Chronicle remains buoyant. So is
the coverage, it so happens, most everywhere else.

Morris is what National members call "a good member," which
means he works on behalf of the club, is discreet about the
entertaining he does there, doesn't use the club too much and
never embarrasses anyone there. Only once did he slip up. In
1997, Morris was introduced to Curt Sampson, who was writing a
book about Augusta National and the Masters. As the two men
talked, Morris didn't realize that Sampson was treating their
conversation as an on-the-record session. Speaking of Roberts,
Morris said, "I think he was an atheist. At least, he never set
foot in a church here." In '98, when Sampson's The Masters:
Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia was published, Morris
was horrified to see that quote. He had broken Rule No. 1. Not
only had he talked, but also he had talked about the personal
life of the club's sacred patriarch.

Morris immediately called Sampson. "He was intensely worried,
felt the quote lessened him as a member, said he was losing sleep
over the matter, but he was extremely gracious," Sampson says. "I
think he was particularly embarrassed because he is one of the
club's public faces, and he was doing well in the hierarchy. In
the second printing I left the quote, but as a courtesy to Mr.
Morris, I altered it slightly and took out his name, because of
the polite way he had handled the matter. He had been a complete
gentleman. Then I saw him last year at the Masters. As I
approached him, he gave me a withering look like 'You bastard'
and did an about-face. The time for civility had passed."

Civil is Morris's normal tone. Every year, shortly after the
Masters, he gathers The Chronicle's staff in the paper's
sprawling auditorium in the News Building on Broad Street. The
publisher talks about what he likes and, gently, what he does
not. A few years back he told his employees, "It's our job to
give the best bag of peanuts we can give. We don't want to give
sorry peanuts. We want to give them the tasty peanuts."

Morris then turned to Mike Berardino, a sports columnist, pointed
to one of his stories and said, "I heard from a reader who was
surprised that a Christian newspaper would be running a story on
psychics on a Sunday. Now, you didn't actually talk to these
psychics, did you?" The column was about a local psychic
predicting that Greg Norman, who held a six-stroke lead going
into the final round of the 1996 Masters, would lose.

"Yes, I did," the columnist said, dumbfounded. "I spoke to them."

"Oh," Morris said. "I thought you made that up."

The employees, some of them, endure that session on pins and
needles, but another they anticipate greatly. Being a Chronicle
employee has one enviable benefit: the opportunity to play
Augusta National on the club's local media day in late May. On
that one day, 24 Chronicle employees are allowed to play, if
they meet one requirement. They need to shoot 105 or better in
one of the various Chronicle golf outings held in the previous
year. (The boss himself could qualify--he can shoot in the
90s--but he doesn't play on media day.)

It has been a good marriage for many years now, the union
between Morris and the National, but even in good marriages
there are disputes, and given the controlling nature of both the
club and the publisher, it's a wonder they didn't clash earlier.
The fight came over, of all things, a Web site.

Since 1995, The Chronicle has run Augustagolf.com, a site about
the Masters. (In 1996 SI came on as a partner.) The site has
proved to be a popular one. The club wanted The Chronicle (and
all other Web sites) to delay for a half hour the reporting of
scores. This offended Morris deeply. There are people who know
Morris who say he was so angry that for the first time in
anyone's memory he took a stand against his own club. He saw no
room for compromise on the 30-minute news embargo. In Morris's
view, the Internet is simply a modern form of publishing. He
knows when his business is being encumbered.

In the end, another Morris paper saved the day. The Florida
Times-Union, in Jacksonville, was facing a similar problem with
the PGA Tour. During last week's Players Championship, the Tour
wanted the Times-Union's Web site to delay the reporting of
scores. The paper told the Tour that it would not send its
staffers to the event if the Tour demanded the delay. The Tour
relented. Subsequently, the Masters decided to follow the Tour's
example.

Has this episode changed Billy Morris's relationship with his
club? Will he sit beside the recuperating Nicklaus on the dais in
the interview room with the same satisfaction? Will he continue
to joyfully drive contestants to the press room?

You would love to ask Wm. S. Morris III these questions, but you
cannot. At his office you can't get past the reception desk. His
secretary tells you that Mr. Morris never grants interviews when
the subject involves Augusta National. A newspaperman who won't
talk to a reporter, that's a rare thing. But when you're an
Augusta National member, the rules are different.

COLOR PHOTO Read all about it No story is bigger than the Masters for the 74,000-circulation Chronicle. COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Billy ball The people who rise at The Chronicle know what types of stories Morris (above) wants and what types he does not. COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER

"As I approached [Morris]," says Sampson, "he gave me a
withering look like 'You bastard' and did an about-face."

Being a Chronicle employee has one enviable benefit: the
opportunity to play Augusta National on the club's local media
day in late May.

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)