The skies were partly cloudy that night. The moon was hidden, but an eerie glow illuminated the quiet grounds. By 2:20 a.m. on Sept. 29, 1977, the air was thick and still, and the temperature hovered around 65°. For the late-shift security guard at Augusta National, the routine had been just that, routine. But at 2:27 the guard noticed something out of the ordinary. Mr. Cliff, as they all called him, was out of his suite. The guard greeted him but said very little. You said little to Mr. Cliff, and he said little in return. That was the way things worked. One cross word, and the 84-year-old's iron fist would come pounding down. Former employees and more than a few former members could attest to the severity of Mr. Cliff's wrath, and people did whatever was necessary to steer clear of any run-ins with Mr. Cliff. The guard also noticed that Clifford Roberts wore a trench coat and trousers over his pajamas. The old man had recently suffered a stroke, so the night watchman was careful to pay particularly close attention to how and where Roberts moved. Everything seemed in order—odd, but in order—so the guard went back to his post, and Roberts disappeared.
Roberts's Yankees had won their 99th game of the season earlier that Wednesday night, but he had been doing other things than watching baseball. There were last-minute items to prepare, a note to write, some tidying up to do. He took the gun out after 2, and just before 2:27 he put on the trench coat and headed out the door for a middle-of-the-night stroll.
The par-3 course is situated just east of the clubhouse, in an area that was a parking lot until 1958, when George Cobb designed the nine short holes. Before Cobb arrived on the scene and when the area was wooded and isolated, Ike suggested a fishing pond be added. Cliff could now take pride in having obliged his longtime friend. They had spent many hours together, Cliff and Ike, talking policies and world affairs, playing golf and bridge, and painting. Ike loved painting.
The walk down the hill to the pond was relatively short, although after Roberts's stroke, walks of any distance were more arduous than before. Then, of course, there was the cancer. Fortunately he hadn't suffered any truly debilitating effects other than some memory lapses and a cumulative weariness brought on by a lack of sleep, which reportedly was caused by his unwillingness to take his medication. Roberts's health had deteriorated to the point where he was a virtual prisoner in his clubhouse apartment, the walk to his office being too much for him to bear in his weakened condition.
On what was to be his last day, he had the club barber, Johnny Johnson, come to his apartment and give him a haircut. This was late afternoon, and they talked for an hour, until about 6 p.m. Then he called his wife, Betty, who was at home in Beverly Hills, Calif., and asked her to come to Augusta. She said she couldn't come immediately because she needed a day to make arrangements for closing the house.
Sometime during the evening he called in a Pinkerton guard who was operating the switchboard. Roberts produced a gun and asked the man the proper way to shoot it, saying he had heard noises outside his apartment.
It was dark, even though a floodlight shone on the path leading toward the pond. The night sounds were still as he made his way, wearing galoshes and no shoes and without benefit of a cane. This area was safe, away from the main course where spectators would have undoubtedly discovered the spot and created some kind of macabre landmark. This was also more helpful to the staff. Emergency vehicles could access the pond with ease, investigators wouldn't disturb any of the high-traffic areas around the clubhouse or [he golf course, and it would be an easy spot to clean up. He knew every blade of grass, every knoll, every trickle of water on that 365 acres, and, in every respect, this was the perfect place. The Smith & Wesson .38 was the right choice as well: powerful enough to accomplish the task, but not overly so. He didn't want any gruesome disfiguration, but he also wanted to succeed. He always wanted to succeed. Roberts made it to the water's edge at a little before three in the morning. He took out the pistol, put it to his head, and in the methodical and cold-natured way he lived his life, he ended it with one final, resounding retort.
Roberts's body tumbled into a creek bed and was not found until 8 a.m. Dr. James Mitchener, the Richmond County coroner, said that there was "no reason to believe this was anything but a self-inflicted wound," although for years caddies at the National perpetuated the notion that something more sinister had occurred. Nevertheless, the shroud of secrecy surrounding Roberts fueled speculation of all kinds. He was a Wall Street investment banker and a partner of Reynolds & Company, which later became Dean Witter Reynolds. He was the chief financial adviser and campaign finance chairman for the only president to serve two full terms between FDR and Reagan, and yet, when he died, The New York Times had to call the Augusta Chronicle to get information for his obituary. He was a ghost, a shadowy unknown. Everyone saw him during Masters week as the official voice of Augusta National at all press conferences and in all matters relating to club policy. But for 51 weeks a year the steely-eyed Roberts went about his business in intentional obscurity.
Inveiglement and obfuscation in all things personal and an obsessive, unyielding control of all things relating to his club—those were the trademarks Roberts became noted for in life and were the reputation he left behind in death. Even the statement put out by the club the day Roberts's body was found reflected the cold and dispassionate legacy he left behind: "It is with great regret that the Augusta National Golf Club announces that its chairman, Clifford Roberts, died during the night. Death was caused by a self-inflicted wound. Mr. Roberts had been in ill health for several months. Funeral services will be private. No flowers are requested." No mention of Betty, his third wife following two divorces, was offered by the men in the green coats.
The Augusta Chronicle ran front-page headlines the next day: ROBERTS FOUND DEAD, with heaping accolades, such as MASTERS UNIQUENESS STANDS AS TRIBUTE TO ROBERTS'S WORK. Deane Beman, the Tour commissioner, said: "The PGA Tour has lost a great friend, but more than that, the game of golf has lost a great champion." On a more genuine note Jack Nicklaus said, "I've lost a great friend in the passing of Cliff Roberts. He was most helpful to me in my golf career, and our friendship goes back many years to my amateur days." While they were printing those words, the joke (as sick as it was) around the Chronicle was that Roberts the autocrat had "controlled everything down to the last shot."