On this April day at other times and in another place, this is what I would be doing: Springing out of bed with a rare enthusiasm, driving to the golf club, unloading my stuff from the boot of my car, heading in for a quick cup of coffee and then taking to the golf course.
Nothing unusual in that. Sneaking out for a cheeky game of golf, eh?
Not exactly. You see, on this the second Thursday of April, I traditionally have been in the U.S., in Georgia to be precise, and the golf course I would head out towards would be Augusta National Golf Club. You may have heard of it. What draws me there is the start of the Masters, of course, the spring festival, the first of the year’s four major championships even though it is officially called a tournament.
Masters week is seven days in heaven. I’ve attended 39 Masters and let’s say I have spent an average of one week there each year. That’s 39 weeks, more than three quarters of one year, in this one place.
What draws me there so urgently on the first morning is the opening ceremony. I never saw Jock Hutchison tee off, though I did introduce him posthumously when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St Augustine, Fla. But I did see Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson when they got proceedings underway at the Masters, then Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, the Big Three as they were known 60 years ago, and now, since Palmer’s death in 2016, Nicklaus and Player.
There is usually a lot of sentiment in the air. It’s thicker than pollen. Sarazen always wanted to hit the longest drive but Snead was longer though not always straighter. One year, Snead hit a spectator – sorry, a patron – and the poor man was taken away, bleeding.
At what everyone thought was going to be Palmer’s last, Phil Mickelson was there, crouched on one knee at the back of the first tee. He knows his golf history. If every golfer of the modern era owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tiger Woods for enriching them, every golfer of previous eras owes something similar to Palmer for sparking life into golf.
It was in 1954 that Hutchison and Fred McLeod were invited to play a round on the first morning – and then to withdraw. The expatriate Scots were held in high regard in the U.S. for their golfing skill. McLeod had won the 1908 U.S. Open and finished tied 50th in the Augusta National Invitational, the forerunner of the Masters, in 1934. Hutchison won the 1920 PGA Championship and the 1921 Open.
In 1963 they were formally invited “ … to start the parade as the opening two some,” The Augusta Chronicle reported. “Leading off the Masters is the greatest honour we can ever have,” Hutchison said. “I would rather do this than win a tournament.”
A considerable part of the enjoyment of this ceremony now is the press conference with Jack and Gary afterwards. The two old timers will talk happily for as long as you want. Half an hour? Forty-five minutes? An hour? Try 75 minutes.
What is more, Nicklaus would probably be cornered on the way out of the interview room to give more answers until he is finally ushered away.
As I write, I have by my side a transcript of the 2019 post-opening ceremony press conference with Nicklaus and Player. Because it was the first Masters to take place since the death of the great Dan Jenkins, the moderator – trust Augusta National to come up with a title like that for the man who chaired the press conference – read out a couple of passages by Jenkins about each of Nicklaus and Player.
First an extract about Nicklaus: “On that final afternoon of the Masters Tournament, Nicklaus’s deeds were so unexpectedly heroic, dramatic and historic the taking of his sixth green jacket would certainly rank as the biggest golf story since Jones’s Grand Slam of 1930. That Sunday night writers from all corners of the globe were last seen sitting limply at their machines muttering: it’s just too darned big for me.”
Now one about Player at Augusta National in 1978: “He will fall down, come out of his shoes, hit it on the run and turn the golf swing into something that could be more closely identified with tennis or baseball, but he outworks and outtravels Attila the Hun and there has never been a tougher competitor.”
That was the start of a press conference that went on and on. The transcript is 13 pages and contains nearly 25 questions and each was answered by each player, sometimes with quick follow-up questions. It’s an evergreen at this event that Player emphasizes how many times he has been to Augusta. He said last year, “…this is my 62nd year here.”
What they say is historic. They are a link to days before some of us were born, before others of us began writing about golf. If journalism is the first draft of history, as it is so often said to be, then Player and Nicklaus are the game’s current historians.
Listen to Player on the subject of Bobby Jones: “ … he had the most beautiful balance you’ve ever seen in your life and basically he played with a walking stick. If you look at the club … it’s that thick, it’s got a face that looks like a soup spoon with a few dots in it, and he hit a shot at Lytham & St Annes out of the bunker that I would like to see any player today hit.”
Listen to Nicklaus about his first green jacket. In 1963, he was given a jacket that was 46 long “and I was 43 regular and didn’t quite fit.” The next year he wore the green jacket belonging to politician Tom Dewey and kept wearing it for the next 14 years.
In 1998, 12 years after he had won his sixth Masters, he told Jack Stephens, then the chairman, about his jacket. Stephens ordered Nicklaus to go to the pro’s shop to be fitted for a new one.
At that Nicklaus fingered the jacket he was wearing. “So, this one here is 20 years old, at least,” he said with a slight affectionate smile. “20 years old.”
Player, laughing, interjected: “Looks like it, too.”
And so the Nicklaus and Player stories continued, rather as putts never seem to stop on some of Augusta’s greens.
How Player took his jacket to South Africa when he was supposed to leave it on the premises. How a 15-year-old Nicklaus had first met Bobby Jones at the Country Club of Virginia and played the 18th hole in front of Jones.
If I characterised the two men as a couple of hams performing an annual ritual there would be no criticism implied. Nicklaus is the more dominant physically, Player a little smaller, impish and mischievous. They loved talking and reminiscing and we loved listening and questioning. One thing: The average age of the writers present was probably 55. No one under the age of 30 seemed to be interested. Interesting that, isn’t it?
In years gone by I used to dash from the opening ceremony to grab a table for breakfast in the Trophy Room with my friends Robert McDonald and more than once, the late great Herb Wind. Herb would probably have been wearing a tweed jacket, stout shoes, a shirt and tie and if there was any danger of rain he would have been carrying a mackintosh folded over his arm. Entering the room, he would sweep his cap off his head and tidy his hair.
And now on the second Thursday in April I will sit in my house in Wales, isolated for my own safety, knowing that I have only to turn on the television to see broadcasts of Masters gone by.
We always did a sweepstake, one dollar per person, usually making our picks over dinner the night before on the verandah of the Partridge Inn at the top of Walton Way. If we had forgotten to do the sweepstake the night before then Robert, usually, was diligent at breakfast in requesting our picks and he would write them down on a piece of paper torn from a notebook he always carried.
Often, one of two things happened thereafter. The person generally considered to be the least knowledgeable on the subject of golf would win. One year it was my friend and colleague Lynne Truss, the author of the Eats, Shoots & Leaves, who had virtually no knowledge of golf and made her selections on a whim.
The other thing that sometimes happened is that Robert might lose the piece of paper so we could not remember who had which golfer.
It didn’t really matter. Taking part in this gimcrack sweepstake had something in common with the Olympic ideal. It was not the winning that mattered but the taking part, and that was just as well because not only couldn’t we remember who had which player but we never paid the winner. Just as traditional was that we’d smile at our ineptness and make jokes about the winner not spending the five dollars all at once.
And now on the second Thursday in April I will sit in my house in Wales, isolated for my own safety, knowing that I have only to turn on the television to see broadcasts of Masters gone by. I will recall Herb’s smile, his voice and his habit of using a yellow pencil when he made notes in a small notebook he carried. I will smile at the memory of all those opening ceremonies we shared and of our ineptness at conducting a sweepstake. And as I pour myself a cup of coffee I will reflect that often the first day of the Masters was the best day of the Masters.
The Big Three on Opening Day at the 2014 Masters. Photo: Rob Carr, Getty Images
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