Celebrating the 80th Masters: The Spirit of ’76

This year marks the 80th Masters. It also happens to be the 40th anniversary of my first trip to Augusta. I’d love to be able to say therefore that I’ve attended exactly half of all Masters ever played, but that’s not the case: I missed a few while living in the UK. What I can say is that I’ve seen some big changes since 1976.

In truth, the whole world has changed more than a little since that year when America celebrated its bicentennial, when you could buy a new Plymouth for $3,175—and gas it up for 59 cents a gallon—when Jerry Ford was in the White House, Patty Hearst was in jail, The Concorde was in the air, and Tiger Woods was in diapers.

Of course, change—constant and improving—has been the Masters mantra ever since Bobby Jones made his post-retirement dream come true. The man who set the tone was Jones’s Augusta National partner, Clifford Roberts. Remarkably, in 1976 Roberts was still in the saddle as Masters chairman. (A year later, he would be found dead on the Augusta grounds, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.)

This was the latter half of the Nicklaus era—Jack had won his fifth Masters in dramatic style the year before and would finish tied for third in 1976. The field also included Sam Snead, and not as an honorary starter: At age 63, the Slammer could still play and missed the cut by just one stroke.

Another stalwart, making the last of his 18 appearances, was amateur Bill Campbell, one of two future USGA Presidents competing, the reigning U.S. Amateur Champion Fred Ridley the other. Ten amateurs competed but only one made the cut, a three-time All-American from Wake Forest named Curtis Strange who tied for 15th, while one of his teammates, Jay Haas, won the Par 3 Contest.

The international field was comparatively anemic in those days, with Gary Player the only non-American champion. Fourteen foreign players were in the 1976 field and none of them bettered par for 72 holes. But the tide was about to turn. A year later, Seve Ballesteros would make his Masters debut, and international players would win 13 of the next 24 titles.

The Honorary Starter was not Gene Sarazen but Fred McLeod, a Scotsman who had won the 1908 U.S. Open and in 1938 had won the Senior PGA Championship played at Augusta National. Sarazen wouldn’t step to the ceremonial tee until 1981, joined by Byron Nelson.

In one of the most marked differences between then and now, competitors were not allowed to bring their own caddies, but were required to hire the club’s bagmen. Chairman Roberts had issued a now-infamous decree: “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” Only half of his prophesy held as in 1975 Lee Elder became the first African-American Masters competitor while the Augusta-caddies-only policy survived until 1983. (A few years after that, I remember having lunch in the clubhouse beside a table of players. The service that day had been extremely slow, prompting one of the players to muse loudly enough for all to hear, “I wonder when they’ll allow us to bring our own waiters.”)

There was a different sound to the Masters back then, too, as every player in the field, and many members of the gallery, clomped along in metal spikes. In the press facility—which was nothing more than a large quonset hut—things were louder as well, with the rat-a-tat-tat of scores of typewriters, half of them manual, half electric. A few years later, I would be among the first scribes to show up with a computer—a Kaypro 2 “luggable” weighing 26 pounds. Thank goodness, in those days if you arrived early enough you could pull your car right up to the press center. Today, it’s a 15-minute walk from the nearest lot. The trade-off is that you arrive at a state-of-the-art facility where the working conditions and overall standard of living are better than at either your office or home.

Press credentials were closely controlled back then, but there was room for creativity. The major golf publications were given an allotment of badges, but it was never enough, so we platooned. Half of our writers went for the first few days of the tournament then surreptitiously slipped their badges to folks in the second wave. There were no photo IDs on the credentials—just names—so things only got touchy when Mike was relayed a badge from Sophie. I’ve saved all my Masters badges, but I don’t have the one from 1976 because that year I covered the tournament under the name Oscar Fraley.

We had a good show to cover in 1976: Ray Floyd took the tournament by the throat with an opening 65 and never let up, winning by eight strokes while tying Nicklaus’s 72-hole mark of 271. Along the way, Floyd also set records at the 36- and 54-hole marks, which lasted until Jordan Spieth broke them last year.

Floyd was particularly masterful on the par fives, which he played in 14 under par, thanks to a persimmon 5-wood he’d added to his bag that week. Yes, this was on a different course than we know today—more than 400 yards shorter—but the golf ball was also a lot less lively. Following the tournament, GOLF Magazine signed Floyd to a three-article deal and I was dispatched to Florida to produce the pieces with him: Our first one was entitled “Winning with the Woods.”

For his bravura performance, Raymond earned a first prize of  $40,000. According to normal inflation that would translate to just over $170,468 in today’s dollars. It tells you something about the explosion of pro golf in the Tiger era that Spieth’s payday last year was $1.8 million.

Happily, although much has changed during the last 40 Masters, the important things remain the same—the impossibly green fairways, the sweet scent of pine and azalea, the weekend roars from the hollow of the back nine, the gentility of the galleries, the classic, understated logo, a telecast with minimal commercial interruption.

And the abiding certainty that this is an event without equal.

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