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Small Wonder

April 08, 2008
April 08, 2008

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April 8, 2008

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
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Small Wonder

HERE'S A subjective list of the most influential figures in Augusta National history, going backward: Tiger; Jack; Frank Chirkinian, the CBS golf producer; the King (Arnold Palmer); President Eisenhower; the mid-century triumvirate of Nelson, Hogan and Snead; architect Alister MacKenzie; Bobby Jones. And then there's the figure, far less known, who towers over that tensome: Clifford Roberts, the club's Chairman in Memoriam. The life and death of Roberts imbue everything at the Masters. (Among other things, the man was a perfectionist.) Augusta's sublime Par-3 course, which opened 50 years ago, was built at Roberts's insistence, and this year the Wednesday Par-3 contest, another of his children, will be televised for the first time. A homecoming, in a manner of speaking. On a weekday morning in September 1977, during the club's off-season, Roberts, 83 and ill with cancer, was found dead near the edge of his little course, a short note to his wife, Betty, in his breast pocket. It's a death that still stirs debate within the old guard, especially in the mind of the former chairman's personal waiter.

This is an article from the April 8, 2008 issue

In the years since Roberts's suicide, the Par-3 contest has turned into a festive afternoon event, with thousands of spectators filling the grassy slopes that surround the course. (You could say it was the first stadium course.) On TV this year you might see Phil Mickelson make a righthanded swing; or Jim Furyk's four-year-old son caddying for him in a baggy white jumpsuit; or Jack Nicklaus, retired from Masters play, still making pitch shots in public.

But when Roberts invented the contest, in 1960, he had something more serious in mind: a nine-hole competition to replace a long-drive contest and a golf clinic that he had found lacking. "He was always looking for ways to give spectators value," says David Owen, author of The Making of the Masters, a fascinating book about Roberts.

When Roberts announced the first Par-3 contest, he also mandated that the big course would close at 2:30 on the afternoon of the event. The players didn't need an interpreter. "It meant he wanted us to play in that Par-3 contest, and we did," says Gary Player, who has participated in all but one and will play again this year. "Mr. Roberts came up with so many marvelous ideas for the Masters—the dinners, the Champions locker room, the green coat ceremony—and that Par-3 contest is certainly one of them." Player has three aces in the event (he's the leader in that category) but has never won it. The course record is 20 (Art Wall, Gay Brewer). The ringer score for the course (the total of the best score ever for each hole) cannot be lowered (nine!). Roberts himself once made an eagle on the course, in 1966. To the degree that the hole in one represents perfection, you can imagine his satisfaction. That Ike was in his foursome that November day could only have added to his pleasure.

Roberts, a Wall Street banker who left school at 16, cultivated relationships with two 20th-century icons: Jones (winner of the Grand Slam) and Eisenhower (winner of World War II). When Roberts and Jones were planning the club in the early 1930s, Roberts wanted a short course in addition to the main track, but Jones did not. The debate never went far, owing to the shaky finances of a young club in the Depression years. In 1958 Roberts hired a well-known Southern architect, George Cobb, to design and build nine par-3 holes near the clubhouse, on sunken, boggy land that would be out of the wind for late-afternoon winter golf. Since then, two more holes have been added; the Wednesday event is played over seven Cobb holes and two Tom Fazio holes. The course is laid out around two ponds, one of which is called Ike's Pond, just down a hill from the Eisenhower Cabin. Roberts and Eisenhower would fish there for bass and bream with simple 12-foot bamboo poles.

John LaFoy, Cobb's longtime design associate, spent many days at Augusta National with his boss and Roberts in the 1970s. He remembers Roberts for the tongue sandwiches he ate at lunch and for his extraordinary precision. LaFoy has all the original documents related to the course, including Cobb's original hole sketches on onionskin paper. The course cost $72,178 to build and should be credited, LaFoy believes, to Cobb and Roberts.

"Mr. Cobb always said there was a special relationship between Mr. Roberts and the Par-3 course," LaFoy says. "Mr. Cobb would say that Mr. Roberts felt kind of left out of the design of the original course." The Par-3 holes, every bit as lush as the holes on the big course, are all variations on a theme: Hit a short iron a precise distance to a small green or your ball will suffer death by drowning. The course is modern, unique and excellent. "Mr. Roberts wanted the little Par-3 course to be something of his very own," LaFoy says.

And maybe, too, a gift for his friend Ike. In the last 14 years of his life Roberts, who married three times but never had children, grew close to the club's general manager, Phil Wahl. He once put an arm around Wahl and said, "My son." A year after tending to Roberts's death, Wahl, at age 43, was killed in a traffic accident on Berckmans Road, near the gates of the club. His widow, Janice Wahl, 68, still lives in Augusta. "I believe, from what I was told, that Mr. Roberts built that course for President Eisenhower, as a place he could get away from it all, even his Secret Service guys, for a quick nine holes or some fishing, and get back to the cabin and Mamie," says Wahl. (Mamie Eisenhower, as First Lady and afterward, regularly joined her husband at Augusta and was "a lonely sort of person," Wahl remembers.) The little course could be played in 90 minutes, and it didn't take long to catch a fish. "Mr. Roberts kept that pond stocked," she says.

If Roberts had Eisenhower in mind when he built the course, there's no known written record of it, and Roberts never discussed it publicly. But secretiveness is part of the Roberts legacy and of the club's peculiar charm; it never revealed much about the circumstances around Roberts's death. His body, in accordance with his wishes, was cremated, and people at the club have been saying for years that his ashes were distributed around Amen Corner and over the Par-3 course. Janice Wahl has always doubted that. "My husband told me that he buried the urn that held Mr. Roberts's ashes," she says. "Where, I don't know. I didn't probe into those kinds of things with Phil. He took that secret to his grave."

THE DAY after his final Masters, the superb '77 tournament won by Tom Watson over Nicklaus, Roberts signed a photograph of himself for Phil Wahl and wrote on it, For Philip R. Wahl, The best club manager the Augusta National ever had or expects to have. Wahl's son, Phil Wahl Jr., a Wachovia executive in Augusta and a prominent civic leader, treasures that picture. "It wasn't easy for Mr. Roberts to show affection," Janice Wahl says. The inscription would constitute a sign of affection. She believes the Par-3 course is, too. That he chose to end his life by its side she finds fitting.

But the poignant, lovely setting can't mask that the death was violent. "Gunshot wound to the head," it says on Roberts's Richmond County death certificate, which shows Bahamian citizenship, a common tax shelter.

Rayford Wigfall, Roberts's personal three-meals-a-day waiter at the club, remains haunted by what he saw on the morning of Sept. 29, 1977. When he went to Roberts's suite in the clubhouse to open the drapes and take his breakfast order, no one was there. An across-the-club search for Roberts, led by Phil Wahl, began. At around 9:30 a.m., Wigfall heard a housekeeper, Annie Smart, scream after finding Roberts's lifeless body on the side of a work road near the Par-3 course. Wigfall says he was the first person to respond to the scream. "I saw no gun," Wigfall, 70 and retired, says. He acknowledges that he could have missed it, but he doesn't think so. "I looked from his head down to his feet. I was right over him." Owen's thorough book, written with club cooperation, says the gun was found beside the body. But if Wigfall is correct, that there was no gun beside Roberts when his body was first discovered, one plausible explanation would be that some never-identified person or persons assisted Roberts with his death and took the gun. If so, Wigfall was unimpressed with the work. Roberts "was wearing a London Fog all-purpose winter coat, buttoned up all wrong," Wigfall says. To Wigfall, that doesn't fit. Roberts was fastidious in all matters. Look at his tournament. It will give you an idea.

Wigfall receives a pension check from the club, $108.35 a month. When he's a little short, some employees leave an envelope with some cash in it with the security guard at the Gate 6 entrance on Berckmans Road. Wigfall worked at the club for 30 years, and even when he had trouble with the law (shoplifting at Dillard's, that sort of thing) Augusta National took him back. It's all part of a world—the secretive and paternalistic private club, led by an autocrat—that's now just about dead. Who today would build a perfect little nine-hole par-3 course as a gift and never tell a soul about his intentions? Nobody.

When Roberts was ill, Janice Wahl once said to him, "Mr. Roberts, I want you to know, when my children and I said our morning prayers today, we prayed for you."

"Hmph," Roberts responded, as she tells it. He paused. "Well, goddam. You know, I have always believed in the prayers of children."

"I don't think Mr. Roberts believed in God," Ray Wigfall said the other day.

What then, he was asked, did Mr. Roberts believe in?

He answered in a word: "Himself."

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PHOTOGREG FOSTER (WIGFALL AND WAHL)LAST LINKS Wigfall and Wahl (right) have fond memories of Roberts as well as clues to the questions surrounding his death and his final resting place.