Roberts never attended college and barely made it through high school after a heated argument with the principal. He sold suits, joined the Army (where he was first introduced to Augusta when Uncle Sam shipped him to nearby Camp Hancock) and sold oil leases in east Texas. At 27 Roberts—the classic overachiever from the even more classic dysfunctional family—made $50,000 in oil speculation. The year was 1921, and the whiz kid from Morning Sun had made his mark. With the money Roberts bought a partnership in Reynolds & Company and began earning the epithet, the Boy Wonder of Wall Street. He was a high roller, with all the intimacy of a block of ice.
Throughout his tenure as chairman of Augusta National, Roberts would spend upward of four months a year at the club, leaving his wife behind in New York. While he was serving his country in France, as a member of the Signal Corps, Roberts fell into a romantic but peculiar affair with a woman named Suzanne Verdet. He visited her numerous times, long after becoming Wall Street's wonder boy. The most memorable visit was in 1928, when Verdet talked Roberts into staying in Paris for an extra day. The plane Roberts would have taken back to London crashed in the English Channel, killing all on board. Roberts let it be known that Verdet had saved his life. But he never married her, never moved her to America and never formalized the relationship in any way, but years later, when she needed 24-hour nursing, Roberts took care of all of her expenses. He continued to take care of things after his death: Verdet's financial needs were provided for in Roberts's will.
Through Roberts's hard work and rigid perfectionism, the Masters spawned some of golf's most lasting innovations: tee-to-green gallery ropes, grandstands, the over-under scoring system that shows how a player stands to par, pairing the field in twosomes rather than threesomes and complementary pairing sheets. All these were Masters firsts. Roberts had the good sense and management skills to listen carefully to suggestions, and he understood the importance of being the first on the block with a new idea. He established a series of committees to study and recommend changes, improvements and innovations. Committee heads were members, and each reported back to him with a list of suggested improvements. The over-under scoring system, for example, was the brainchild of CBS's Chirkinian. Aiken, S.C., native Bobby Knowles, who served on the scoring committee for years, then came up with the idea of making under-par numbers red and over-par numbers black. That particular innovation is usually attributed to Roberts.
Some changes came straight from Roberts, no committee needed. Byron Nelson recalls the first year of gallery ropes: "The ropes were all white. I was out on the course with Cliff, and he looked around at the white ropes and said, 'That doesn't go in this place at all. The ropes should be green.' This was just before the tournament was to start, but in a couple of days the ropes were changed to green."
In 1966 Roberts unilaterally added two bunkers to the left side of the 18th fairway, right in the spot most players were hitting their tee shots. The 18th became a premium driving hole overnight. However, because of some semantic hang-up Roberts referred to the bunkers as bunker, singular. After a few years and more than a few corner-of-the-eye looks, Roberts began calling the traps a "two-section bunker," meaning he was right all along. It was the rest of us who couldn't count.
Clifford Roberts was cremated and his ashes are buried on the grounds of Augusta National, although the exact location is not disclosed, and all club officials involved were sworn to secrecy. The .38-caliber Smith & Wesson sat in a room untouched until 1988 when Augusta National general manager Jim Armstrong came across it and two others during a routine physical inventory. One of them happened to be the pistol Roberts had used 11 years earlier to commit suicide. Assuming they were excess baggage, Armstrong sold the guns to his chief of security, Charlie Young, who was a gun dealer, for around $200.
Young knew what he had and made a sizable profit when he sold Roberts's gun to official Augusta National photographer Frank Christian Jr. for $1,000. Christian, whose father had also been the club's photographer, had known Roberts for years and didn't want the gun to end up on display or at auction. To keep it off the open market, he bought it himself.
Enter golf collectibles dealer Bob Burkett, who offered to buy the gun. Said Christian, "He [Burkett] came down to buy my golf ball collection and a number of other things. He asked if I would consider letting him sell the gun. He said he had a source that could put it where it would never be seen. He said it would be very confidential."
Burkett, owner of Old Sport Golf antiques and collectibles in Atlanta, says of the deal, 'At the time I was representing a Japanese museum group that had agreed to purchase the gun and move it into a private museum in Japan. Unfortunately, when things got tight in Japan, the group stiffed me, leaving me with over a hundred thousand [dollars worth] in collectible merchandise, some of which I still own."
Along came a New Jersey man named Richard Ulrich, who approached Burkett with a claim that he had some Japanese investors who would buy the gun if Burkett would allow Ulrich to put it on the market. Anxious to get rid of his excess inventory, Burkett agreed. "The guy didn't have any Japanese clients," Burkett says. "What he had was an auction catalog, printed in English, that he sent to Japan. A week or so later the catalog filters back to America, and Frank Christian and Charlie Young lose their jobs."