Golf Australia

Peter Stone: The magnificent elusive Masters

Who will wear the jacket in 2013?

Augusta National and The Masters folklore has it “the shot that was heard around the world” – Gene Sarazen’s albatross at the 15th in the final round of the 1935 Masters that ultimately tied him with Craig Wood who Sarazen then defeated him in a 36-hole playoff the following day – was the making of what is now the most-watched golf tournament on the planet.

In truth, according to five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson who played the Masters eight times in the 1950s and 1960s with a best finish of fifth in 1957, is that’s a myth.

Thomson’s first Masters was in 1953, but a year earlier while playing in the US he was seated next to the late Bobby Jones, founder of the Masters along with Wall St investor Clifford Roberts at a dinner, that the Masters first entered his consciousness.

Certainly he knew all about Jones, the greatest-ever amateur golfer who never did turn professional. He won the original Grand Slam which was winning the open and amateur championships of the US and Britain in the same year – 1930 - and immediately retired from tournament golf.

It’s an enduring record and never has the modern-day Grand Slam of the Masters, US Open, British Open and USPGA championship been achieved.

When Thomson first met Jones, the latter was in a wheelchair suffering from syringomyelia disease, first diagnosed in 1948. It is a crippling disease of the spinal cord that develops into paralysis of the lower half of the body. It’s rare.

The only person I’ve ever known to suffer it was the late Peter McFarline, cricket writer for The Age who died in 2002.

According to Thomson, Jones certainly hadn’t lost his enjoyment for life and was good company. He enjoyed a few fingers of whiskey per glass and he talked of the Masters that he and Roberts had created in 1934.

“I’d never heard of the Masters frankly. It was a low-key event prior to the late ‘40s and early ‘50s and he told me his dream was to have 30 professionals, 30 amateurs and 30 foreigners in his field. Really it had started as a picnic for Jones and his mates in 1934,” Thomson said.

“Yes, I’d never heard of it and that would go for practically everybody in Australia. There was no publicity machine for it so the news didn’t get out. It was a best kept little secret for Jones and his mates – and very private.”

Jones and Roberts purchased an abandoned garden nursery in Augusta, Georgia and formed a club – Augusta National – and work began on the course in 1932. The business plan called for 1800 members with each paying sixty dollars a year. When the first Augusta Invitation Tournament was played in 1934, it had just 36 members of the desired 1800. Remember it was during the early years of The Great Depression.

Indeed, the club couldn’t even pay the inaugural winner – Horton Smith – his $1500 prize money or that of any of the other top finishers until 17 of its members came to the party with their cheque books.

And, so began the Masters, but at first Jones didn’t even want to play. He’d retired a proud man and didn’t want to sully his reputation but it was Roberts who persuaded him to playing, saying he couldn’t have a party and not turn up himself. So, Jones played on a ceremonial basis until 1948 with a best finish of tied 13th in the first Masters.

Thomson takes up his recollections of the Masters, saying, “In the early 1950s the scribes, as I call them, found themselves most welcome. Instead of having to chase stories I think they were fed stories. Consequently they wrote glowingly of this tournament where they had a ticket to sign for free sandwiches, bourbon and cokes or whatever they wanted.

“It was that change in attitude towards the media that made it what it is. The media should be thankful to Jones and Roberts for spoiling them. What it did was raise public awareness of the tournament that, in reality, was only an invitational tournament.,”

“When I first played, it wasn’t a big field and there were very few people in the gallery, it had the sort of feel of a state open here in Australia. And, Augusta was a hick town. My accommodation when I first played was at a hotel called the Bon Air. The plumbing leaked and it hadn’t been painted since pre-War. Someone went through in the middle of the night and stole every second person’s wallet. It left a sour taste in the mouth. You virtually had to take your own cake of soap, it was a terrible place,” Thomson said.

Now the world watches every second week of April. To borrow words from Rudyard Kipling, triumph and disaster accompany it every year, especially on the back nine of Augusta. The course is the most familiar of any around the globe, even surpassing the spiritual home of golf that is St Andrew’s Old Course.

Because of television we feel like we know the course intimately. Amen Corner that is the 11th, 12th and 13th holes – or to give them their names in order White Dogwood, Golden Bell and Aazalea – where the water of Rae’s Creek comes into play.

It has become the tournament every talented golfer aspires to play. The genial and now late Australian amateur Harry Berwick did want to play but when an invite arrived for him to play in the 1957 Masters after he’d won The Lakes Open and New Zealand Open the previous year he declined it. He just didn’t have the money to afford the trip and was worried his friends at the St Michael’s club in Sydney would do a whip around to send him on his way. Years later, he showed the gilt-edged invite.

Now, it’s time for a confession. Through the years, beginning in 1970 at St Andrews, I have covered 18 British Opens – yes, the same number of majors Jack Nicklaus has won – and a handful of US Open but never the Masters, yet I can run you through those disasters and triumphs, the strokes of genius and those that weren’t from those whose gut tightened in the final nine holes.

Thomson referred to the media being spoiled at Augusta National and it is here, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll tell you the publicly untold story of my fellow columnist at Golf Australia - Martin Blake.

Yes, it is public knowledge that he has covered the Masters as it is a perk each year that 40 of the assembled troops in the media centre are drawn by lot to play the championship course on the Monday after the green jacket has been handed to the winner by the previous champion in Butler Cabin.

Blakey was beside himself and he wrote a totally self-indulgent piece that won him yet another award in the golf industry media awards last year. He broke 100 – pretty terrific really for a bloke whose handicap is just outside single figures - but what he didn’t mention was that he nearly decapitated himself the previous evening.

His work done on the Sunday evening, he was in a state of euphoria about what lay ahead the next day. His preferred strong drink is red wine and, late in the evening, waving his invite to play, danced on the table at the rented digs unaware of the rotating fan above just a couple of centimetres from his bouncing head. Those who’d adhered to “responsible drinking” rescued him.

Bloody hell, Blakey has not only been to Augusta, he’s played the course. I’ll just turn on the TV as usual this coming week to watch yet another Masters as I always have since it’s been shown here in Australia.

With that, let’s leave you with a few of the quotes about the Masters – and Augusta through the years.

I’ve never been to Heaven and, thinkin’ back on my life, I probably won’t get the chance to go. I guess the Masters is as close as I’m going to get – Fuzzy Zoeller.

I get so sentimental and starry-eyed when I get to play here that I can’t play. Sometimes I wish it didn’t get to me so much – Ben Crenshaw.

I start choking as soon as I drive up Magnolia Drive – Gary Player.

My car starts choking as I drive up Magnolia Drive – Lee Trevino.

If you let it, the Masters will play you, instead of you playing it. Augusta can pamper you right off the bottom of the scoreboard – former US Tour player Joe Inman.

When you get on this Augusta course, it’s a given fact that you’re going to get nailed. The variable is how you accept it. You’re got to remember that you’re not God’s only child of misfortune – Inman again.

On the last nine holes of the Masters, there going to come at least one point when you want to throw yourself in the nearest trash can and disappear. You know you can’t hide. It’s like walking down the fairway naked – Hale Irwin.

If you get caught up in all the history, and your own daydreams, you could choke your brains out – Peter Jacobsen

I suddenly realised who I was and where I was – Johnny Miller, on finishing bogey, bogey in 1971 to miss a playoff.

For an amateur, standing on the first tee of the Masters is the ultimate laxative – Trevor Homer, 1974 British amateur champion.

The Masters is golf’s equivalent of suspended animation – American sportswriter Thomas Boswell.

This is where the golf world gathers – a special place set aside for beauty and springtime. Spring was designed like an old set of MacGregor irons – to rejuvenate the soul – former USPGA Commissioner Dean Beman.

I’ll probably never win here unless the put the pins on the tees and the tees on the green. Then it would be a fader’s course, not a hooker’s course. I hit it low left to right. This course rejects me like a skin transplant – Trevino again.

Somewhere in those first one-to-four weeks that followed, it hit me. I can’t remember the exact moment but I’m sure I was laying in bed. I thought, ‘My God, I did win that sucker.’ – 1982 champion Craig Stadler.

Dignity is the keynote of the Masters tournament where the game is elevated to the high position it deserves. I am very happy and very proud to play a small part in it – Ben Hogan.

As far as I’m concerned, there will never be another tournament to equal it – Arnold Palmer.

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Golf Australia