ATLANTA | Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne and CBS’s Jim Nantz were together in Atlanta on Saturday. And the upcoming Masters tournament never came up. The two men were among a wealth of notables – legendary college football coach Vince Dooley, Billy Andrade and his lovely wife Jodi, as well as a slew of writers and journalists – who gathered at the Northwest Presbyterian Church to pay tribute and say goodbye to a legend and a friend.
For those who never read the singing prose of sports editor and columnist Furman Bisher, who died on March 18 at the age of 93 and was memorialized on Saturday at the church he attended for half a century, go straight to your favorite search engine and catch up. For as former Atlanta Journal Constitution editor Jim Minter put it: “No one in the latter half of the 20th Century or the first decade of the 21st committed more quality words to newsprint. In short, he never wrote a bad column.”
To know Bisher was to know the history of sports in America. He saw Cy Young pitch, Gene Tunney box, knew Ty Cobb (whom he believed fixed baseball games) and Shoeless Joe Jackson (whom he was convinced did not). His friends and admirers included Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnie, Gary, Jack, and Tiger.
In his early years in Atlanta he approached Jones about collaborating on an autobiography. Bisher would chuckle when recounting that story, saying: “Jones was nice, but he said, ‘Furman, if I ever reach the stage where I cannot write my own books, I’m afraid they simply won’t be written.’ ”
He attended every one of golf’s major championships for decades, as well as a half-century worth of Kentucky Derbys and Major League Baseball spring trainings. I walked with him along the fairways of St. Andrews and Muirfield, Southern Hills and Pebble Beach, 44 years his junior and struggling to keep up. He was looking forward to being back in Augusta next week, standing under the oak wearing the yellow Masters bucket hat that had become his ubiquitous trademark. “I’m hoping to get out and see McIlroy,” he told me.
But as beautiful as the stories he wrote were (and there have been few better) they don’t approach the beauty of the man. During one of our many sessions together where we sipped coffee and solved the world’s problems, he picked up a PGA Tour media guide, flipped to the records section and said, “Well, I see Douglas Edgar’s record is still intact.”
I said, “Okay, Furman, I’ll bite: Who is Douglas Edgar?”
He proceeded to tell me the tale of J. Douglas Edgar, the man who still holds the oldest unbroken record on the PGA Tour, a 16-shot margin of victory in the 1919 Canadian Open over his student at the time, a teenager named Bobby Jones. Edgar repeated his Canadian win in 1920 in a playoff with Tommy Armour. He also won the 1920 Southern Open and finished runner-up to Jock Hutchison in the PGA Championship.
“Harry Vardon said, ‘He will be the greatest of us all,’ ” Bisher told me. “And he might have been if he hadn’t been murdered in 1921. Stabbed to death in the street. They tried to brush it aside as a car accident, but given the wounds, there’s no way it was a car.”
My leg started shaking. “Furman, there’s a book there,” I said. “Would you be interesting in writing it? I could help you.”
He smiled and said, “I’ve done all I can with it. Come by the house. I’ll give you all my notes.”
His “notes” included detailed interviews with Jones, Armour, Chick Evans, and Walter Hagen, among others. It was the foundation for a book I did, indeed, write. When To Win and Die in Dixie came out, I devoted several pages to Bisher’s introduction and contribution. I was a man who could do nothing for him, and he befriended me like a son. He could also write rings around me in his sleep, but when I delivered a copy of the book, he said, “I always wanted this story to be told. I just needed to put it in the hands of a master.”
It was the greatest compliment I ever received, even though I knew it wasn’t true.
I sat down with my friend in his living room five days before he died. He was aggravated by a nagging back problem and loath to use the cane his doctors had prescribed. But he was looking forward to spring with baseball and golf and more words to be crafted.
He planned to watch the final round of the Traditions Championship, but told his wife Lynda he wasn’t feeling well. A trip to the Fayette County (Ga.) Hospital ensued where he took and passed a stress test. After putting on his shoes, he collapsed from a heart attack.
For decades, Bisher wrapped his columns with “Selah,” a Hebrew word loosely translated to mean, “stop here and ponder.” There will be an empty chair in Augusta next week. And everyone who has been a part of the Masters fraternity will stop there and ponder. Selah.