The car glided silently through the Georgia darkness, stopping outside the Augusta National clubhouse. It was a Sunday evening in April 1981, my first visit to the Masters, and I was benefiting from generosity begun a couple of decades earlier by Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and Jones’ great friend Charlie Yates. Jones loved golf in the United Kingdom and was much loved in return. His presence in golf events in the 1920s guaranteed huge numbers of spectators and many inches in the broadsheet newspapers. Needing publicity for the Masters in Augusta, a speck of a town in Georgia, in the 1950s and 1960s, they made a proposition to some of the leading golf journalists in the UK. In return for transmitting accounts of the Masters to our newspapers and magazines back in the United Kingdom, we were billeted free of charge in houses on a nearby street where a resident chef made us breakfast and dinner and a car was put at our disposal.
I remember the scramble to get into the houses and find one of the few single bedrooms. The late Dai Davies, then of the Birmingham Post, got to Augusta the week before to make sure he had the bedroom he wanted. The rest of us shared, two to a room, and did our best to maintain our decency when billeted with a colleague who had a stentorian snoring habit. Or had to get up three or four times in the night.
The next year, I arrived at Magnolia Lane just after the Falklands conflict had started. I stopped my car at the gate and waited as a portly security guard waddled out of the gatehouse to examine my credentials. He took a cigar as thick as a sausage out of his mouth and stared at the pieces of paper I had handed to him. Finally, he clapped me on the shoulder and sent me on my way with a ringing instruction: “So you’re from Britain, are you? Man, don’t you let those Argies give you no s**t.”
The next morning, I explored the clubhouse and saw a barber shop. I recounted this story in The Times a few years ago. “Wandering in, I sat in a chair and had a good old-fashioned Southern haircut,” I wrote. “It lasted for months. Some years later I saw Sam Snead in the same chair having his hair cut. The barber shop has gone now. So has Snead’s hair. And so has Snead.”
The British journalists who first received this hospitality were known as the Crazy Gang. There was Henry Longhurst from the Sunday Times, later to become a television star. Longhurst was of medium height and had slicked-down black hair and a parting that looked straighter than Augusta’s seventh hole. Longhurst wrote simply and nearly always wore a club tie and sports jacket. “I am paid to do what I want to do, which is to write about golf,” he used to marvel, peering at his shoes through the bottom of a glass of gin. Later, his world got even better when he was paid to talk about golf on television as well as write about it.
Leonard Crawley, golf correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, was another member of the Crazy Gang. Crawley was red-faced and had a mustache the ends of which he would regularly twirl after he had vigorously blown his nose on a red spotted handkerchief. He was a talented golfer, a fine cricketer and better-than-average racquets player. He is famous for explaining what were felt to be excessive expenses for covering a boys’ tournament by saying, “You’d be amazed at how much squash the little buggers drink.”
Another much-quoted story is that of Crawley’s opening paragraph in the Daily Telegraph on the Monday after an amateur event he had been covering in Switzerland. It went as follows: “If one can forget for a moment the appalling handling of journalists’ luggage at Geneva airport, then it can be said that the Swiss Open Amateur was a success.”
Between he and Longhurst, animosity crackled like lightning in a prairie storm. Crawley didn’t approve of Longhurst’s table manners. “Just because your father was a pig farmer doesn’t mean you can eat like a pig,” Crawley once exclaimed.
Peter Ryde, the third of the Crazy Gang, was the golf correspondent of The Times, the man who succeeded the famous Bernard Darwin. Ryde was very tall, with a high forehead, and quite self-effacing. His first appearance as a golf correspondent at a tournament was notable. He wore a blue suit, carried a rolled umbrella and wore a beret. “I first met Peter in 1960,” Arnold Palmer recalled on hearing of Ryde’s death in May 2000. “He stood out not only for his height but also for the quality of his writing.”
Palmer and Ryde knew each for 40 years, and their friendship was sealed around a bridge table. After the death of his wife, Winnie, in 2000, Palmer was touched to receive a handwritten note of condolence from Ryde. Cancer claimed Ryde, too, but the fact that he had 18 months’ knowledge of it enabled him to prepare. “It gives one time to prepare one’s bags,” he remarked drily.
There are those who think that if Ryde had succeeded someone other than Darwin, then his writing talent, his enthusiasm for golf and his wisdom about matters inside and outside the game would have been appreciated more.
Pat Ward-Thomas, who covered golf for The Guardian, was the fourth member of the group of slightly eccentric British golf journalists. A man who served time in a German prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War, he was a most elegant writer whose work could often be lyrical. It earned him a loyal following among aficionados, one of whom was Alistair Cooke, the Briton who became so popular in the U.S. Cooke described Ward-Thomas thus: “a hawk-like figure with the exact profile of Goya’s Duke of Wellington. This distinguished image was a little roughed up at the time because the man’s steel-gray hair had recently been subjected to a trim by a one-armed barber with blunt scissors, and from the poky strands of it rivulets of sweat were coursing through the clefts and canyons of a face that just then looked more like that of an impoverished Mexican farmer who was calling his landlord in a failing attempt to prolong the mortgage.”
Ward-Thomas is remembered for once losing his spectacles during a Masters in the old Quonset building that housed the press until 1990. Slowly his language got riper as more people were recruited to the task of locating his missing spectacles. Finally, they were found – on his head. “There you are, you little buggers,” he shouted irascibly as he pulled them down and put them where they belonged.
The Crazy Gang sat in the front row on the left-hand side of the central aisle in the old Quonset building. A television set rested on a rickety wooden platform a few feet above where the journalists would be hammering away at their Remingtons or Underwoods. “Be a bizarre death for a golf correspondent at Augusta to be killed by a falling TV set,” Michael McDonnell, the Daily Mail golf correspondent, who sat directly beneath the tv, remarked one day. “Be a good story though,” said one of his colleagues.
After Ward-Thomas retired, Peter Dobereiner took over as golf correspondent. An amusing writer who had been one of the scriptwriters for a well-known satirical television programme on the BBC in the 1960s, Dobereiner was tall, stooped, dry, and much respected for his writing by the players.
On the Saturday night of the 1996 Masters, when Greg Norman held a lead of six strokes over Nick Faldo, Norman found himself in the locker room lavatory at Augusta National standing alongside Dobereiner.
“Well, Greg,” Dobereiner said. “Even you can’t f**k it up from here.”
Sadly, as we all now know, Norman could, and did.
Saturday nights of the Masters were notable for a party that Augusta National officials gave for overseas visitors. Grandees from the R&A, from other European associations and Augusta officials mingled with Fleet Street’s finest in the club’s Grill Room where a splendid cold buffet was served, and the bar did a roaring service. The jovial evening ended with a stirring rendition of a well-known Scottish song by Yates, who had performed it on the steps of Royal Troon after his win in the 1938 (British) Amateur. “Just a Wee Deoch an Doris” by Harry Lauder means a drink at the door for departing guests. After this, a group of writers would head to the Discotheque Lounge, a strip club at the bottom of Broad Street heavily populated by soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon. That was where the Snake Lady used to perform her rather ingenious act with a boa constrictor. In my early years, the ’80s, it was compulsory for any journalist making his debut at the Masters to go there. It happened to me in 1981.
I have a vivid memory of a colleague, a distinguished name in the world of sports writing, making his debut at the Discotheque. With a glass of beer on a nearby table, he sat back in his chair, a smile broadening on his face. He adjusted his glasses, which were fast becoming steamed up, and watched the gyrations of a scantily-clad lady only a few feet in front of him. “I don’t suppose I could put this through on my expenses,” he asked.
Top: A newspaper reader, perhaps an Englishman, sits in solitude on a golf course in Sandwich. Photo: Topical Press Agency via Getty Images
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