He was loved and hated, respected and scorned, trusted in ways only a handful of people can imagine, yet vulnerable enough to take his own life, leaving only a note of apology to his wife. Former USGA official Frank Hannigan called Roberts "a very sick old man." Nicklaus said, "I loved Cliff Roberts. He was one of my favorites...a great guy." There is one point, however, on which everyone agrees: From the time it opened until the time of his death, Augusta National operated under Roberts's rules of order.
Sam Snead says, "Roberts was a real stickler. One time Arnold Palmer went down there with his dad to play golf. Roberts told Palmer that his dad couldn't play unless he was with a member. There was another time when a senator came there with someone, and they just went out and played. Someone told Roberts that this senator was playing without a member. Roberts stayed around until the senator had finished his round, then went up to him and said, 'Mr. Senator, it's in our bylaws that you have to play with a member here. Well, now that you've played, don't bother coming back.' "
Roberts's rules guided the club through the depths of a depression, a world war, innumerable civil rights protests, 40 golf tournaments and hundreds of innovations that have been copied by clubs and tournaments around the world. Roberts negotiated the television deals, all 21 of them while he was alive, and he wrote personal notes of criticism every year to CBS executives. Roberts was as meticulous with the written word as he was with every other facet of his life. One year as a Christmas gift he sent the media a Masters-green address book with the National's logo on the front. While the address book was unexpected and a very classy touch, Roberts also sent a typewritten note that not only destroyed any goodwill he'd hoped to generate, it fueled more talk than the gift itself. The note read, "You will find that about 20 percent of your friends will annually change their address or phone number and then erasing becomes necessary; therefore, entries should not be made except with a pencil. Always use sharply pointed hard-lead pencils (No. 3), as soft-lead pencils will smear. You will need to list quite a bit of data in limited spaces, so I advise you to print rather than write. To me, the handiest place to carry an address book is in my left breast coat pocket."
There were other obsessions that bordered on neurotic. Roberts wore a variation of the same blue suit every day. His only accoutrement was a red tie—he had 24, all of them identical. He consumed tea and crumpets every morning and fresh peaches every afternoon, and rarely had to place an order for anything. The staff knew what Mr. Roberts wanted, and the food would magically appear before he had to ask. His needs were modest, but the club's menu was altered to fit his requirements. You needn't ask for trench fries. Roberts considered them unhealthy, and they were not served at the club. His office, his appearance and his speech were remarkably mundane. "It was a spartan office," Frank Chirkinian recalls, "very plain, totally inelegant. There were two or three pictures on the wall but nothing to make it a very personal place. There was not a single piece of paper on the desk." Hannigan described Roberts's personal appearance as "button-faced and somber—American Gothic."
Given his total lack of charisma, it's surprising that Roberts ascended to a position as one of President Eisenhower's most influential advisers. Even more surprising is the fact that before joining Ike or Bobby Jones, Roberts did remarkably well as a traveling clothing salesman, a Texas oil speculator and a Wall Street stockbroker. Most who knew him couldn't imagine him selling water in the desert. Says Hannigan, "It took Roberts forever to say anything. He just droned. He spoke in a total monotone, very slowly."
In spite of all that, there are pervasive rumors that Roberts had a great sense of humor. Nicklaus says, "People never really seemed to see it. It was very dry." There were no great belly laughs with Roberts, but there were some well-chronicled episodes of wit, methodically planned, occasionally expensive and always with Roberts in control. During the time when streaking was the rage, Roberts was asked what he would do if a streaker went racing across the course on Sunday during the tournament. He thought for a moment and then deadpanned, "I would take back his season badge."
As for more orchestrated humor, Roberts produced films for the members' annual Jamboree party. One time he staged himself making a hole in one on the 16th. After the ball is shown hopping into the cup, Roberts calmly walks off the front of the tee, steps out onto the lake fronting the green and, without missing a step, strolls atop the water over to the green. He waves for his caddie to follow him, and the looper plunges into the pond. Long before the days of computer video editing, this bit of film magic was pulled off by building a bridge just below the surface of the water. In another of these slapstick classics, a large bear is shown running out of the pines scaring the dickens out of various members as they play the course. In the final shot the bear's head comes off, and there is Cliff, laughing at his handiwork.
Deity or vicious carnivore, the metaphors in these Jamboree films hit closer to home than Roberts or any of the other members would have liked to admit. His presence made people scurry, with or without the costume. A former grounds crew employee said, "Mr. Roberts was a ghost. You'd be working along, and all of a sudden he'd just appear out of nowhere, and if things weren't just right, he'd get mighty hot." Roberts retained control of his environment through power, and he retained power through fear and intimidation. Roberts's self-esteem was secure. In a late-night bridge game during one of Ike's 28 visits to the club, the former general bid a grand slam without an ace in his hand. (For those not bridge-minded, that's like going for a 600-yard par-5 in two after topping your tee shot.) Cliff doubled, and the president went down four, al which point Roberts said, "Mr. President, now you understand why I can't let you run the country by yourself."
The depth of Roberts's power was only eclipsed by his own perception of that power. Negotiations for television rights weren't negotiations at all: Roberts dictated what was going to happen, and the CBS brass did everything but kiss his ring. The Masters coverage was and is as close to a commercial-free environment as exists in television. There are only four commercial minutes an hour (Roberts's rule) as opposed to as many as 12 in an average Tour telecast. Just cutting commercials wasn't enough for Roberts. In 1966 he ordered CBS to begin each Masters telecast with an announcement praising the limited-commercial policy. This announcement would take all of 30 seconds, but Roberts didn't want just any announcer reciting his policy. His first pick for the assignment was Walter Cronkite. After some anxious moments and hemming and hawing, CBS said Cronkite couldn't make it. Cliff then commanded Alistair Cooke to come to Augusta and plug the brilliant policy. Cooke politely declined. CBS scrambled and came up with one of the most respected and recognized entertainers in the business who was also an avid golfer: Ed Sullivan. Roberts coldly replied, "Hell, no. Sullivan uses monkeys on his program."
Every year Mr. Cliff would review hours of tape and critique every aspect of the broadcast. In his trademark fastidious fashion Roberts showed his genuine distrust for the "unfiltered" medium in his annual letters to Bill MacPhail, the vice president of CBS Sports. Excerpts of one such letter, dated April 30, 1963, and written three weeks after Nicklaus won his first Masters, by one shot over Tony Lema, showed Roberts's attention to detail: