There are many traditions that make the Masters Tournament special, but familiarity is the common thread that ties them together. Whether it is past champions reuniting for dinner or the same familiar faces meeting under the tree or in Amen Corner year after year, there is a comfort in the rhythms and memories revived annually on the same stage at Augusta National.
COVID-19 has changed all that in 2020. Not only is the Masters coming in November with fall foliage instead of April with spring blossoms, it will come without patrons and the roars among the pines that accompany them. And what other familiar customs might be missing? Will there be a Champions Dinner? A Par 3 Contest? Honorary starters? Answers to those questions have not been definitive.
We do know, however, that it will come without some of the people who have helped make the Masters what it is today – media members who make up a fraternity of 40-plus-year regulars known as the Masters Major Achievers. Whether by personal choice due to age-related concerns for the virus or due to restrictions on the number of on-site media, many will be missing the Masters for the first time in decades.
“I didn’t apply and didn’t think it was a good idea under the circumstances; thought it was too risky,” said Marino Parascenzo, the former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette golf writer who started covering the Masters in 1976. “I’ve loved it for 40-some years and the Masters is so special. That’s why this hurts so much.”
“Credentials are one thing but I don’t think I would have been going in any case,” said Dave Kindred, who cumulatively has spent exactly one of his 79 years in Augusta, Georgia, having covered Masters week 52 times for five publications. “If they’d played in April I would not have gone.”
“I wanted to go to the Masters but I’m not,” said Art Spander, the indefatigable 82-year-old San Francisco Bay Area journalist who’s been only to the Rose Bowl (67 times) more often than his 53 Masters. “No Masters, no Opens, no Wimbledon this year. We’re all going through this. Everything is restricted. I understand.”
“I never tired of Augusta even when travel became difficult and costs increased. It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t go. April was a sacrosanct date in my diary.” – John Hopkins
“I’d like to keep my consecutive streak going back to 1960,” said Loran Smith, 82, an Athens, Georgia, media institution whose 60 Masters matches Ron Green Sr. for the most credentialed visits to Augusta of any living media member. “I hope to get to go on Thursday to at least see the first shot.”
“This was gonna be my 57th and last,” said Kaye Kessler, 96, whose first was 1963 for the Columbus Citizen-Journal when his local Buckeye, Jack Nicklaus, won the first of six green jackets. “I hope to go one more time. There’s no scene in sports like it.”
For our own John Hopkins, 2020 would have marked his 40th Masters since he first arrived in 1981 with the rest of the European media contingent as honored guests of Augusta National.
“I never tired of Augusta even when travel became difficult and costs increased,” said Hopkins. “It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t go. April was a sacrosanct date in my diary.”
The media – particularly the printed press – has been a key element of the Masters since Grantland Rice helped recruit the club’s earliest members and convinced so many of his peers to stop in Augusta on the way home from covering baseball’s spring training in Florida to check in on Bobby Jones’ invitational. Coming to Augusta every April and convening under the sprawling live oak tree behind the clubhouse was not just a reunion of champions like Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Palmer and Nicklaus but a Hall of Fame collection of journalists such as Herbert Warren Wind, Henry Longhurst, Dan Jenkins and Furman Bisher.
“I went to Augusta in 1967 and had two missions,” recalled Kindred of his wide-eyed first trip. “I wanted to see Ben Hogan and I wanted to see Red Smith. I watched Hogan hit balls and I watched Red Smith roll a piece of paper into his typewriter. I was a happy kid.”
He saw Hogan do more than hit balls. In the third round, Hogan – 54 years old and 14 years removed from his last major win – came home in 30 on the back to shoot 66 and get into the mix. Kindred joined a dozen or so peers in the locker room surrounding the rarest of birds – a smiling Hawk.
“He was the happiest man in the world,” Kindred said. “He was beaming, and I remember him beaming sitting on a bench that was like a locker; behind him was a window with a white-laced curtain with sun coming through and Hogan looked like he had a halo around him.”
Twenty years later, Kindred wrote a remembrance column about that experience and a few weeks later received a personal letter from Hogan, thanking him for the “pleasant memories.”
“My wife is not a sports fan and I said, “Look at this, I got a letter from Ben Hogan.’ She said, ‘Who’s that?’ ” Kindred recalled. “I said, ‘It’s like getting a letter from God.’ ”
That lure of living history is what brings us all back year upon year.
Kindred, for instance, has covered the whole wide world of sports – Wimbledons, Opens, World Series, Super Bowls, Muhammed Ali title bouts, winter and summer Olympics, America’s Cup races from Newport, Rhode Island, to Perth, Western Australia and every single Morton High School girls basketball game from Metamora to Normal, Illinois. There are no items left unchecked on his sportswriter bucket list.
The Masters, however, still stands alone.
“Let’s see how to say this – the Masters is really the only event that I ever wanted to go to every time,” Kindred said. “I went for five different publications – Louisville Courier-Journal, then Washington Post, and then Atlanta (Journal-Constitution), then Sporting News and then for Golf Digest – and each of those I kind of made it known that the one thing I really want to do every time is go to Augusta. That’s the only one I made a condition of what I wanted to do.”
So why did the Masters remain atop his annual to-do list?
“I wanted to go because I think Augusta appreciated the written press more than anyone else and they treated us well,” he said. “To me, the sheer beauty of the golf course and its almost unanimous place among the players. There was a magic about it that existed. It was always my favorite thing. I know there’s an authoritarian impulse and they want to tell you what to do. It doesn’t bother me because the end product is worth it.”
The end product is the key. While Augusta National has changed along with the rest of the world since it opened in 1934, everything about it still seems like it’s been there forever and the tournament maintains an ageless quality.
“The Masters is closer to its original intent than any sports event in the world,” Kindred said, noting the continued lack of commercialization. “It’s kind of a throwback and done so elegantly and with class. They’re not being ostentatious about their un-ostentatiousness. That’s why the players like it. It’s different.”
Both Kindred and Spander covered their first Masters in 1967, won by Gay Brewer Jr. They’ve shared a house annually at Augusta for about 50 years. Spander made his first cross-country trek to Augusta as a reward from his sports editor for winning a couple of writing awards at the Crosby Clambake earlier that year. He stayed with a secretary of the club, and they drove him in from their house near Fort Gordon every day.
What stood out from that first experience to make him a regular? “Meeting the old golf writers and I got to see the old guys (Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod) tee off,” he said. “It was different but particularly special the way they treated you.”
Kessler missed one Masters since 1963 when his wife was in the hospital, but he has come other years despite having to walk in a full cast to Amen Corner on crutches after breaking a leg skiing and in recent years with an oxygen tank in tow. Kindred missed just one Masters since 1967 – when his son got married on April 13, 1986. The first words Kindred heard on TV after the reception were “Jack Nicklaus shot a 65 today …” prompting the veteran to utter a curse.
“I literally told my son, ‘The next time you get married, don’t do it in April.’ In fact, the next time he got married he did it in October,” Kindred said.
A few weeks after he told that story while receiving the PGA of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the golf writers’ banquet in Augusta in 2010, Kindred received only the second letter he’s ever been sent by an athlete in nearly six decades of writing about them. “Nicklaus wrote me a letter and said I had my priorities straight and family comes first,” Kindred said. “Then he said ‘If you do need to know any of the details of the 1986 Masters, I remember most of it.’ ”
Now COVID-19 is interrupting another cherished ritual. The Masters will go on without so much of the shared history that makes it unique. “What the virus has done has taken the fun out of our lives,” said Spander.
What will they miss most? The universal sentiment is missing out on seeing old friends and being present for a new chapter in Masters history.
“I’ll miss the scene,” said Kessler.
“And the egg salad sandwiches,” added Parascenzo.
“It’s such a prestigious event and operated with such class and magnificence and just to be walking around in what is a relative Garden of Eden,” said Smith. “I would like to see it with all the fall color.”
Hopkins will miss the “unique atmosphere that is Augusta” such as the conviviality of the press building and the stories and jabs old champions share every year after the ceremonial tee shots open new Masters chapters.
“And that extraordinary tree and what goes on under that tree,” Hopkins added. “You’ll say ‘See you next year under the tree’ and everyone knew what you meant.”
Hopefully next April, we can see everyone under the tree again.
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