t was the Masters where a phrase was coined, a controversy was created and an epic champion was crowned. It was the Masters for which rules decisions seemed to be made on the fly but great shots were made whenever demanded.
It was the Masters of 1958, with plenty of history – Arnold Palmer’s first major win – and enough mystery that even a half-century later questions remain about who was entitled to what. Or who wasn’t.
It was a different world, without the media coverage of the present, enabling the development of little fiefdoms by people who would rather be in power than be correct.
It was a different world, without ESPN and CNN and the Golf Channel – for a start – so the printed words, especially those authored by the legendary Herbert Warren Wind, became golf’s gospel and reference point. The way the presence of a Jim Nantz or Johnny Miller would be in the 21st century.
As Ken Venturi, heavily involved in that Masters and now a few weeks from his 80th birthday, so accurately summed up about so much of what happened 53 years ago, “It would never happen today.’’
Not with television cameras everywhere. Not with more than 500 journalists asking questions. Not with the rules committee unable to shirk its responsibility.
Well, what could happen today is someone who would become the sport’s transcendent personality might appear at the right place, Augusta National, at the right time, such as Arnie.
Or even if he wasn’t a competitor, for the 1958 Masters, Herb Wind in a different way met those requirements. His report of that tournament for the then not quite four-year-old magazine, whose deadlines made him uncomfortable, Sports Illustrated, included the first mention of a location now famous and familiar.
“On the afternoon before the start of the recent Masters golf tournament,’’ was Wind’s opening of the April 21, 1958 piece titled, “The Fateful Corner,’’ “a wonderfully evocative ceremony took place at the farthest reach of the Augusta National course – down in Amen Corner, where Rae’s Creek intersects the 13th fairway near the tee…’’
There, in relating the dedication of the Ben Hogan Bridge, which goes to the 11th green and the Byron Nelson Bridge, leading from the 13th tee, Wind gave a name to property where the 11th green, 12th hole, and 13th green are located.
Wind, who died at age 88, in 2005, said he was trying to come up with a colorful label, and thinking of the hot corner in baseball and coffin corner in football recalled a jazz song from the 1930s, “Shouting in that Amen Corner.”
There wasn’t much shouting in the ’58 Masters but a considerable amount of debating. The evening before the fourth round, one of those classic downpours crashed upon Augusta. The man didn’t write “Rainy Night in Georgia’’ without reason.
The course was a semi-quagmire, and it was decided embedded balls could be lifted and cleaned without penalty.
Palmer, his charisma in full view, was the 54-hole leader at 211, paired with, according to Wind, “bona fide sensation’’ Ken Venturi, at 214. At the tee of the 12th, named for the flower Golden Bell, a hole which had through the years gained a reputation as the toughest par-3 in the game, Arnie’s lead over Venturi was down to one shot.
Both hit over the green into the bank. Venturi’s ball kicked back on to the green. Palmer’s ball embedded. No communication with the outside world. Only the 15th through 18th holes were televised back then. Back on the far side of Rae’s Creek, Herb Wind peered through binoculars and surmised.
“…One could only watch the pantomime activity taking place on the distant stage of the 12th green,’’ Wind wrote, “and try to decipher what was happening. To begin with there was an animated and protracted discussion between Palmer and a member of the tournament’s rules committee, obviously on the subject as to whether or not Palmer could lift his ball without penalty.”
The official, who later was identified as Arthur Lacey, a former president of the British PGA and two-time Ryder Cup player, said he couldn’t because the ball was only half-embedded. As Venturi pointed out in a 2004 book, “Getting Up and Down: My 60 Years in Golf,’’ being half-embedded “is like being half-pregnant. Either it’s embedded or it isn’t.’’
Arnie played that ball, taking a double-bogey five. Then he played a second ball and made three. So, going to the 13th hole, Palmer was either one shot behind Venturi or one shot ahead.
Out on the course, fans looked at scoreboards handled by soldiers, volunteers from Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon) some 15 miles from the course, but that didn’t help. The soldiers were in Army uniform, and when some left their scoreboard assignments to gallery Palmer, a journalist called the gathering “Arnie’s Army.’’ Which, literally, it was. So a nickname was invented.
With Palmer and Venturi on 13, the dog-leg par 5, they still didn’t know whether Arnie made a double-bogey or a par on 12. Arnie, showing his strength, was on the green in two. Venturi, shorter off tee, had to lay up short of the creek.
Bill Kerr, an Augusta National member experienced in rules, although not serving on the rules committee, was hustled down to 13 to give an unofficial opinion. As he arrived, Palmer knocked in an 18-footer for the eagle. Moments later, Venturi missed an eight-foot birdie.
Not until the 15th hole was it announced that Palmer was correct in his judgment at 12 and had the lead.
Some 45 years later, in his book, Venturi said Palmer inadvertently broke the rules. Headlines screamed out “Venturi calls Arnie a cheater,’’ but he never said that or even implied it. It made good copy, however.
When Arnie played the second ball on 12, Venturi told him, “You can’t do that. You have to declare it before you hit it. Suppose he had chipped in the embedded ball?’’
In his own book, “Playing by the Rules,’’ Arnie said he told Lacey he was going to play a second ball and maybe Venturi didn’t hear the conversation.
“There was never a question in my mind that I wasn’t right about the 12th hole,’’ said Palmer in the book. Eventually, after charges by Fred Hawkins and 1957 champion Doug Ford, Palmer, despite a 1-over-par 73, finished at 4-under 284, one in front of Hawkins and Ford and two ahead of Venturi and Stan Leonard.
John Morrissett, a former director of rules for the USGA, said a couple of years ago when the issue was raised on the 50th anniversary of the tournament, he believed Palmer originally got a poor ruling and then the committee – in what basketball mavens refer to as a “make-up call’’ – allowed the second shot to be the one of record.
If the situation occurred now, the first ball, the double-bogey, would have counted, but the way the rule existed in 1958 there was room for interpretation. “Should the competitor fail to announce, the score with the second ball shall be his score,’’ was the way the rule read previously.
Palmer, of course, would win The Masters three more times, in 1960 – when he also took the U.S. Open and was second in the British Open – 1962 and 1964.
“I remember the experts said I didn’t hit the ball the way you have to hit it to win at Augusta,’’ Palmer said once. “I hit it low and on line … That made me more determined to win, because I figured if there was a way, I would find it.’’
He found it. After finding controversy and an army.