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Ben Wright: Southern Inquisition

Appeared in the April 2004 LINKS

A rude awakening was in store for me when I joined the CBS broadcast team for my Masters debut in 1973. On that first morning in Augusta, Bill McPhail, president of CBS Sports, asked for a quiet word in my ear after breakfast. “Although I signed you to our team, your participation really depends on your approval by Clifford Roberts,” Bill said. “I’m taking you to see him this afternoon.”

Co-founder of the Masters with Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts ran the tournament with an iron fist, and I was scared witless of him. The hour came and Mr. McPhail literally pushed me through the door to Mr. Roberts’ cottage—then fled!

“You drink tea, boy? Every Englishman drinks tea,” Mr. Roberts slowly intoned in his sepulchral voice. “Yes sir,” I replied with almost indecent haste, pouring myself a cup when the ogre indicated I should do so. It mattered little that the steaming liquid burned a hole in my throat. I quaffed it as quickly as I could bear.

“Now talk to me, boy,” Mr. Roberts said. “About what, sir?” I asked respectfully. “I don’t care. Just talk.” In my state of abject fear I reeled off a few achievements of my fledgling career. I had barely gotten going when Mr. Roberts raised his hand and said abruptly, “Stop. I’ve heard enough.”

My heart fell into my boots as I imagined I had somehow blown the opportunity of a lifetime. “You probably want to know why I stopped you,” Mr. Roberts said. “I’ll tell you straight. That fellow McPhail brought in one of your countrymen last year and stationed him at the 13th hole without even telling me. His name was Bob Ferrier and he was a Scotsman from Glasgow. And I never understood a damn word he said all weekend. But you’ll do. I hope you enjoy our tournament.” With that, Mr. Roberts turned away to concentrate on more important business, and with a mumbled “thank you, sir,” I fled with all the speed of McPhail!

But my baptism by fire was far from over. I was assigned to the 14th hole, where most CBS rookies languish. After Friday’s rehearsal I asked Henry Longhurst, who was as usual stationed at the 16th hole, if he would critique my debut on the morrow. Longhurst, the legendary dean of golf broadcasting, agreed—on the strict condition that I would deliver him to his post in my golf cart, collect him after the broadcast and buy him a couple of drinks in the men’s grill.

Imagine my consternation when my mentor volunteered nary a word as he swilled his first five cocktails. When I reminded him of why we were there, Henry answered that one more drink would be needed before he was ready. I was shattered when he finally delivered the verdict. “You were quite terrible,” Henry said flatly. “You ran off at the mouth like a dripping tap. You must have been mighty nervous.”

“Of course I was nervous,” I replied, “but I thought I did alright.”

“Well, young man, I’ve got a piece of advice for you,” he said. “We are nothing but caption writers in a picture business. If you cannot improve the quality of the pictures with your words—then keep your damned mouth shut!” I never received better counseling.

I must have done a competent job thereafter, because Mr. Roberts told McPhail he wanted me at the 15th hole the next year. That became “my” tower for more than two decades, and I eventually inherited the 16th hole as well—which, in my humble opinion, allowed me to announce perhaps the most pivotal holes in the history of this marvelous event. Oh, how I miss that most precious of assignments!

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