AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | On a dark Sunday night in April 1981, I got my first glimpse of Augusta National from the back seat of a van transporting British golf writers from Augusta airport to the houses we had been billeted in by the tournament organisers. In those days, Hord Hardin was chairman of Augusta National and Seve Ballesteros, 23, was the defending champion as well as the youngest champion after his four-stroke victory the year before.
Dark and brooding, gifted and temperamental, Ballesteros seemed ill at ease that week, sensing plots against him were being hatched behind every pine tree. With rounds of 78 and 76 he comfortably missed the cut. He won $1,500 and appeared happy to be out of the place.
Your correspondent, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. He had his hair cut in the barber shop near where the pro shop is now, was driving a car while staying in a house provided by the club and eating breakfast and sometimes dinner cooked for him. He would file his story back to London by dictating it in the middle of the night over a crackly telephone line from Augusta via an operator in Savannah to his office in London.
The story had been written in the then press room, the Quonset hut where the journalists were penned, to the right of the first fairway. We sat in rows with a television set perched precariously on a shelf above our heads pecking away at our portable typewriters or the sturdy Royals, Remingtons or Underwoods that Augusta National supplied if we hadn’t brought our own.
“Be an ignominious death to be killed by a falling television at Augusta National,” one colleague remarked.
“Make a good story, though,” another replied.
In 1981, there were eight times as many British journalists as the two competitors from the European Tour – Ballesteros the defending champion, and Sandy Lyle, who had qualified by winning the Order of Merit the previous year. For European players, those were the only two ways into The Masters then. Europe was the forgotten continent. It was much the same at the other major championships in the U.S. There seemed to be a bias against players from Europe. Actually, there seemed to be a bias against the European Tour officials. Ken Schofield and George O’Grady, the executive director and assistant executive director of the Tour, did not get accreditation at Augusta until 1986.
“I remember how in 1982 Sam (Torrance) couldn’t finish well in a late season tournament and it cost him second place in the Order of Merit and that in turn meant he was denied a place at Augusta,” Schofield said. “At the next year’s Association of Golf Writers’ dinner, I was sitting next to Hord Hardin and relayed this story to him. All Hord said was: ‘We never put much credit on runners-up.’ Hord even told Renton (Laidlaw): ‘Renton, what you’ve got to remember is that we’re a tournament in America first and foremost for Americans.’ ”
Soon though, Europeans started winning regularly – Ballesteros for a second time in 1983 and Bernhard Langer for a first two years later. As every winner had automatic entry thereafter, his victory meant an extra player in the field.
“Seve was a real inspiration to us all,” three-times Masters victor Nick Faldo told Global Golf Post’s John Steinbreder last week. “And his victories at Augusta, on a place not deemed a European-style golf course and with much better conditioning and much faster greens than we were used to at the time on the Euro Tour, sent a message that we could do well in the States and at Augusta.”
The two words “do well” are typical British understatement. Europeans dominated at Augusta, winning seven of the 11 that followed Ballesteros’ second in 1983 and suddenly the doors, against which Schofield and O’Grady had railed for so many years started opening.
“I remember talking to Hord Hardin in 1986 and he asked me, ‘Are you the young man who has come across here to tell me how we must take more European players into the Masters?’ ” O’Grady said. “My answer was not at all. We have come to look and observe and tell you if I thought our players could be competitive.
“To be fair, the credit for breaking into the U.S. falls to (Schofield) without a shadow of doubt,” O’Grady continued. “He fought tooth and nail and if you know Schofield you know what that means. Let’s face it, Augusta is the ultimate meeting ground for anyone in golf. You can’t not be here.”
Last week, 38 players from the European Tour competed at Augusta, 19 times as many as in 1981. Schofield, now consulting for The Golf Channel, and O’Grady, now chief executive of the European Tour, were deservedly proud. And, for that matter, so was your correspondent. He was attending his 31st Masters, which meant he had spent 31 weeks in this glorious part of Georgia and he looked forward to spending many more.