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Two Pups and An Underdog

It was 25 years ago that my roommate and I packed our bags for the boondoggle of our lives, a trip to the Masters

By: George Peper

It was 25 years ago this month that my New York City roommate and I packed our bags for the guy trip of our lives, a boondoggle to the Masters. We were a couple of certified golf nuts, each the same age, each the same handicap, and despite living in Manhattan, each in a job that tethered us to the game. I was an editor at GOLF Magazine, having recently left a position at a local golf association. The day I quit that job, I’d recommended my roommate, a disenchanted Bankers Trust trainee who could recite the entire roster of U.S. Open champions going back to 1895. They hired him in a heartbeat.

It was my third Masters, my friend’s first, and to borrow some skateboarder jargon, we were stoked. Originally, I’d expected to be going alone. Then, just a couple of days before the trip, GOLF Magazine columnist Oscar Fraley was forced to cancel and a press badge opened up. When no one else on the magazine staff could get free on such short notice, my friend got the nod. (Back then the credential-screening process at Augusta was a bit breezier than today’s gauntlet of photo IDs, holograms, laser scanners, secret handshakes and German shepherds.)

“I still have that badge,” he told me the other day. “It’s the only one I’ve ever saved.”

On our drive to Augusta, the conversation turned inevitably to who would win that 42nd Masters.

“You gotta go with Watson,” I said, partly because he was on the GOLF playing staff and partly because he was the reigning money leader, Player of the Year, Vardon Trophy winner, Masters champion and British Open champion. 

“Nah, I think Watson still has some dog in him,” said my friend. “He hasn’t forgotten that 79 at Winged Foot [in round four of the ’74 U.S. Open] and neither have I.”

“Okay,” I said, “then it’s gotta be Nicklaus.” Jack was heading to Augusta as strong as ever, having won the Tournament Players Championship as well as the Jackie Gleason Inverrary, where he’d blazed home with birdies on the last five holes.

“Nope, I don’t think this is his year. Besides, I have this gut feeling.”   “Okay ...”

“The little South African.”  “Gary Player? He hasn’t won anything in years! He’s what, 44 years old?”  “Forty-two, but he’s as fit as a 22-year-old—and in a lot better shape than Fat Jack.”  “Yeah, he talks a big game, too, but he still can’t hit it more than 250 yards, and at Augusta you need length.”  “Fine,” said my friend, “you can have Watson and Nicklaus, I’ll take Gary, even up. Five bucks for high finish, 10 if it’s a victory.”

“Done.”  For most of the next six days we forgot about that bet. On Sunday morning, however, I couldn’t resist a dig.  “Let’s see here,” I said, flipping through the Masters section of the Augusta Chronicle, “according to my math Tom Watson, thanks to that nifty 32 on the back nine yesterday, is 7-under-par and tied for second with the redoubtable Rod Funseth, three back of Hubert Green, while your little South African is, ooh, here he is, tied for 10th, seven strokes behind. My, my,”  “Yeah, and your Big Jack is eight back so you can forget about him. Besides, it’s Sunday morning, not Sunday afternoon. I told you what I think of Watson. Hubert, despite his last name, has no business leading this tournament, and I can guarantee you one thing: Gary still thinks he can win it.”By mid-afternoon, Watson had climbed within a stroke of Green but Player was still five back. It was about then that my friend and I scaled a 20-foot tower to the left of the 18th green and plopped ourselves into the front row of the small viewing area that is reserved for members of the press. Neither of us deserved to be there, since we weren’t true reporters, but we didn’t care. We were determined to see the final putt of that Masters, even if it meant bumping out the scribe for the Milwaukee Sentinel and the correspondent for Golf Español.

 

That year, for some reason, one row on the big manually operated scoreboard at 18 developed an odd mechanical flaw. Each time a new red number was posted, the board would emit a loud clap, riveting the attention of the assembled thousands. The row in question was the one with Gary Player’s name on it, and beginning at the 10th hole, it began to make a lot of noise.

A birdie at No. 9—clap. Another at 10—clap. At 12—clap.  Thirteen, 15, 16—clap-clap-clap! Suddenly Player was 10-under-par and tied with Watson for the lead, with Funseth and Green one back.  Blessedly for the two amigos in ringside seats, it would all come down to 18. Player, five groups in front of the others, hit a gorgeous approach 15 feet above the hole and, incredibly, sank the putt. He had played his last 10 holes in 7-under-par, posting an inward nine of 30 and a total of 64. As his ball dived into the hole, Gary thrust his muscled arm in the air. A moment later he was wrapped in the arms of the young man with whom he’d played. Seve Ballesteros, celebrating his 21st birthday, seemed even more delighted than Gary.

Watson, Green and Funseth each came to that final green with a chance to change the outcome. Watson, in the penultimate group, needed only a par to force a playoff but pulled his approach directly underneath us in the press stand, and failed to get up and down. As he exited stage rear, the words I’d dreaded were whispered in my right ear: “Still a lotta dog in him.”

In the last group, Funseth and Green needed birdies to tie. Funseth’s approach finished a foot or two outside where Player’s had, but his putt drifted just right of the hole. Green, meanwhile, had struck a brilliant 8-iron to within three feet of the cup. He was about to stroke it when he heard—hell, we all heard—the voice of CBS radio commentator Jim Kelly in the booth adjacent to the press area. Green stepped back, glared at Kelly, settled back in and hit a putt that never touched the hole.

Unbelievably, Player had done it, come from seven strokes behind to win the Masters—his third green jacket and ninth major championship—at the age of 42. And I’d lost a bet to my clairvoyant friend.

Looking back on the cast of characters from that tournament, I’m struck by the paths their lives took:  Player kept the magic going with victories in each of his next two events. They turned out to be the last three tour victories of his career. On the senior circuit he would win 19 times, including a matching nine major championships. Now 67, with a total of 163 victories around the world, he’s convinced he can still win, and I’ve learned not to bet against him.  Watson got rid of the dog in him and went on to win five times in 1978, defending his triple crown as leading money leader, Vardon Trophy winner and Player of the Year. He closed his PGA Tour career with 34 wins—including eight majors—and is now a consistent force on the Champions Tour.  Hubert Green would win another five tournaments on tour, his last victory coming in the 1985 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills CC in Colorado. He’s now a regular on the senior circuit, where he’s had numerous opportunities to hear the dulcet tones of Jim Kelly.   Rod Funseth won the 1978 Hartford Open, the last of his three career victories. In 1985 he died of cancer at age 52.   Ballesteros became the most charismatic and dominant player Europe has ever produced, winning two Masters, three British Opens and 72 titles worldwide. In the early 1990s he began to lose his game, and he has not won a tournament in the last eight years.

As for my friend and me, our excellent adventure continued the day after that Masters when we took our 7-handicap games out onto the Augusta National, neither of us breaking 90. A month later I got married, a year later he got married, each of us serving as the other’s best man. Somehow, we’re both still with our first wives, and we’ve each raised two kids—boys for me, girls for him.

I logged another 25 years at GOLF Magazine and then came here to LINKS. My friend put in another few months at that association job and then moved on to something bigger and better—the USGA, where for the past two decades as its executive director, he has been one of the most influential men in golf. His name is David Fay. And I still owe him that 10 bucks.

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