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Thirty-four years of Masters memories


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's different this time. Thirty-four consecutive Masters but my last as columnist for the Times.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's different this time. Thirty-four consecutive Masters but my last as columnist for the Times.

Some things never change at Augusta National, which is both good and bad. Since 1968 I've seen Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Watson graciously grow old on green, glorious Georgia slopes.

Now, in a fresh century, the reigning vigor of Augusta's springs is Tiger Woods, annually blossoming among Masters dogwoods, a still-ascending power with physical/mental propensities and apparent competitive gusto to seize plateaus beyond Arnie, Tom, Gary and even Jack, as well as history's Hogan, Sarazen, Snead, Nelson and Jones.

But none of these icons -- from elegant old achiever Bobby to contemporary colossus Tiger, including six-time Masters winner Nicklaus in between -- approaches the bigness of the tournament itself, or the unique, powerful and sometimes controversial Augusta National Golf Club on Washington Road.

My first Sunday here, at an April sunset so long ago, I ended up chasing Tommy Aaron in a National parking lot, ravenous to know what had happened. The old Florida Gator had fouled playing partner Roberto De Vicenzo's scorecard, costing the gentleman Argentine a playoff chance against Bob Goalby.

"What a stupid I am," Roberto said in fractured English. His post-round responsibility had been to catch the mistake of Aaron, where "4" had been marked for the 71st hole, not the birdie 3 De Vicenzo had accomplished. Roberto, by rules of the sport, signed the card and had to accept the higher number.

Goalby buttoned the fabled Masters green jacket while Roberto stylishly limped away. Five years later, Georgia-born Aaron won here, and De Vicenzo never again came close.

Jones -- the aristocratic Grand Slammer from Atlanta, 1930 champion of both Opens and the Amateur championships of America and Britain, a brilliant Harvard mind and renowned lawyer -- had become wheelchair-bound by the time I showed up for the grand Augusta happening he invented in 1934 with New York investment banker Clifford Roberts.

I shook a magical hand that had lost its grip. My throat went dry, the heart fluttered. Roberts wheeled Jones about the National's acres. Even as he was dying, Bob functioned with mass dignity.

Roberts, a Masters titan as tough as he was creative, faced media probings into the '70s because this cornerstone of the Old South, with its then all-white membership, had never invited a black golfer.

In 1971 I was an Associated Press reporter, doing my fourth Masters. Roberts again faced the question. "When one qualifies," he asserted, "we will welcome our dark-complected friends." As a wireservice guy, I rushed Clifford's quote into international circulation.

That afternoon, the Chicago Daily News led its sports section with an eight-column banner headline on Roberts and his "dark-complected friends" comment. Augusta National being a rigid and private ship, I somewhat expected to be ejected from the Masters grounds -- Permanently -- when I got Thursday morning word of the global use of those combustible Clifford words. By noon I was approached by Charlie Coe, a club member and extraordinary amateur golfer who finished second to Player in the 1961 Masters. Coe was one of the green-blazered insiders who conducted interviews in the media center.

"You write that story on Mr. Roberts?" asked the gruff Oklahoman. Figuring my fanny was headed for Washington Road, I answered, "Yes, Mr. Coe, I did." Charlie put a strong paw on my shoulder and said, "You done good."

That afternoon I received a letter signed by Roberts on club stationery, hand delivered by his secretary. It thanked me for "professional handling of a tough subject." After thinking I had allowed Clifford to make himself look foolish, he somehow saw it as appropriate.

Thinking can be different here.

Roberts soon became sick and troubled. In 1976, at 83, amid the peaceful solitude of Augusta National on a day months removed from the Masters, he drove a golf cart to an especially gorgeous golfing swatch, then used a pistol to take his life.

A sad, legendary twist.

Back in '71, on Sunday, Charlie Coody unexpectedly edged Nicklaus and Johnny Miller for his only major championship. An hour later, Coody elbowed his way into the overtaxed World War II era Quonset hut where media worked to answer happy questions.

Jack was still on the interview stand. Coe marshaled the interview. Unaware of Coody's entry at the side of a jammed enclosure, Coe said to Nicklaus, "Well, Jack, I'm sure you know we all hoped you would win." We being the Augusta National membership, it was presumed. Coody shrugged and carried on, having been put in his Masters place by a house man.

Before long, a black golfer met Roberts/Masters qualifications. Lee Elder won his chance at Augusta National. Reporters stalked his every step. Elder's nerves became immediately obvious.

As he removed winged-tip street shoes, changing to golf spikes, Lee spoke with us note scribblers. It became time for practice. Elder excused himself, then put his winged tips back on. Arising to approach the range, Lee looked down and laughed, then switched again to his spiked shoes.

Elder shot 74-78, missing the 36-hole cut. Nicklaus won again. But the door was ajar. In 1997 Woods went crashing through, winning the Masters by an astonishing 12 strokes. Carving a new era.

Along the way, since the Goalby-De Vicenzo adventure of '68, my long-fortunate eyes have soaked Nicklaus barging past four-time champ Palmer to become the Masters all timer, including a most delightful and unlikely win at age 46 in 1986; enjoyed the highs of Watson-Crenshaw-Faldo-Ballesteros; and dealt with the splashing lows of Weiskopf-Norman-Sneed.

Primed now for another.

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