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Dogged Victim | Mastermorphosis

No event has changed more than golf's rite of spring

By: George Peper

Appeared in Spring 2013 LINKS

As we emerge at last from winter and the days grow longer and warmer, my thoughts turn inexorably toward the Masters. This year will mark my 30th trip to Augusta, cause for some extra rumination.

My first was actually 37 years ago (I missed a few during a sojourn to St. Andrews). That 1976 event was notably dull by Masters standards—Ray Floyd led wire to wire and won by eight—especially in contrast to the year before which had brought a stirring Sunday battle among Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, and Johnny Miller, Nicklaus sinking a slope-climbing birdie putt at the 16th en route to his fifth title.

But that 1976 Masters was not dull to me, a just-hired junior editor at GOLF Magazine. Everything about it was magical. As I look back on that era, when spikes were metal, woods were wood, and 300-yard drives were meaningful, I’m struck by the irony that this hallowed event, this enduring presence in our golf lives, is also the most utterly morphed of the majors.

In 1976, the Masters chairman was Clifford Roberts, the New York financier who along with Bobby Jones had started the tournament back in 1934. Under his autocratic regime, the Masters had launched some of tournament golf’s most lasting innovations—everything from gallery ropes to grandstands to a scoring system based on how much a player was over or under par. At the same time, however, the somber, conservative Roberts did relatively little to alter the overall tenor of the tournament and club.

A year later Cliff Roberts was gone—literally—the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the temple. (He’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had decided—as
with all things—to handle it his way.)

In the 36 years since Roberts’ death, there have been five different chairmen and innumerable major changes to the club, the course, and the tournament.
Whereas Roberts’ rules of order had included a tacit decree that no African-American or female would become a member of the Augusta National, today the club has both black and women members (albeit only a couple of each). During the Roberts years, competitors were forbidden from bringing their own caddies to the tournament and were required instead to use one of the Augusta National caddies. That policy was abandoned 30 years ago.

The golf course they played in 1976 was more than 500 yards shorter than the one that will greet the players this year. Granted, most courses of a similar age have lengthened at least a
little during the same period, but Augusta has also made changes that no other course can claim, including the installation of an automatic heating and cooling system beneath its greens. In 1980, all 18 greens were stripped of their bermudagrass surfaces and replaced with smoother, faster-running bentgrass. We’ve also seen the addition of a “second cut” (Masters speak for rough), the doubling in size of the practice area, and two completely new holes on the Par 3 Course.

But the most dramatic transformation surely has come in the makeup of the Masters field. In 1976, 58 of the 72 competitors were Americans. Not one player was from Europe, and only two were from Great Britain. That same year, however, 19-year-old Seve Ballesteros would burst onto the scene at Royal Birkdale, signaling the start of a sea change in world golf. Now over half of the Masters field annually comes from outside the U.S., and 16 of the last 33 champions have been internationals.

By contrast, the amateur contingent—something near and dear to lifelong amateur Bobby Jones—has been sharply curtailed. Whereas at one time two dozen or more amateurs might populate the starting field, the current regulations insure we will likely never see more than six. 

If you watched that 1976 Masters on television, you didn’t see much, at least not compared to today. There was no Golf Channel, no ESPN, no HD, 3D, or streaming video. The telecast was confined to Saturday and Sunday, showed only the last seven holes, and outside the western world, almost no one saw it. This year all seven days will be telecast by one network or another and the big show will be beamed to 200 countries.

We ink-stained wretches from the print media also have come a long way since those days when we crammed into a quonset hut beside the first fairway. I was part of a group of two dozen or so known as the Attic Rats because we were relegated to a small loft at the back of the hut, so far from the front scoreboard we were all provided binoculars. We were a sarcastic, fun-loving lot, proud of our Attic Rat tee shirts, and each year we presented a shirt to an Honorary Rat, someone we thought would fit in with us. One year it was Fuzzy Zoeller.

There were no computers: Everyone scribbled on notepads or hammered on typewriters, then “telexed” or phoned in their copy. I vividly recall watching the distinguished British journalist Pat Ward-Thomas stand at a pay phone, hand cupped over his ear, and shout his report word by word to his editor at The Guardian.

Now each of the several hundred members of the international press gets his or her own television monitor, a dedicated computer line, and earphones to listen in on post-round interviews. The quonset hut has been replaced by a media center similar in design and grandeur to the U.N. General Assembly. Among its features is a vast lounge area built around a breakfast and lunch buffet worthy of a five-star hotel, including all the Krispy Kremes you can pound down.

On the other hand, there were things you could do in simpler times that are not possible now. For years, I was able to park my car smack beside the quonset hut, less than two minutes from my desk. Now the press lot is half a mile away.

Back then, if as a member of the press you wanted to play the course on the Monday following the tournament, you could make that happen. All you had to do was be one of the first 40 people on the sign-up line on Thursday morning. Of course, this meant rather early Thursday morning, as in get there by 5 a.m. or miss the cut. Over time, as the press corps swelled, this pre-dawn silliness got out of hand—guys were arriving at 3 a.m. to find they were mathematically eliminated—so several years ago a lottery was adopted, with Masters officials keeping careful records: If you’ve been chosen from the ballot in the last seven years, you needn’t bother entering again.

One Monday I played in the company of a young kid who’d approached me to do some writing on golf course architecture. His name was Tom Doak. I can’t recall how Tom got a press badge but I suspect he was posing as another member of the GOLF Magazine staff. In those days, there was comparatively loose policing of credentials, and since each magazine and newspaper got a limited number of name badges, we routinely doubled up. The eight staffers issued credentials under their own names would go to Augusta for the first half of the week, then hand off their badges to eight other people who would skulk the weekend as imposters.

I attended the 1976 Masters as Desmond Tolhurst, a burly, bearded Englishman who was then my supervisor. On my very first tour of the course that Thursday I got lucky, wending down to the par-five 15th hole just in time to see Jack Nicklaus hit a towering long-iron that stopped five feet away and set up an eagle. The next day I saw both Jack and Ben Crenshaw eagle No. 2.

Ben finished second that year, Jack tied for third, but no one threatened Floyd, who set scoring records at 36 holes (131) and 54 holes (201) that still stand. His  play on the par fives—14 under—is also a Masters record, and shortly after the tournament, photographer Leonard Kamsler and I went to the La Gorce Country Club in Miami to do a three-part instruction series with Raymond, the first installment of which was a cover piece, “Winning with the Woods.” I don’t recall the two other articles, but my memories of that first Masters will last forever.                                                          

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