During Masters week, almost nobody works harder than the seven sportswriters on the staff of The Augusta Chronicle. During this Holy Week, when Augusta's schools are closed and its stores stay open late, a short shift for a Chronicle sportswriter is 12 hours and a light load is two stories per day. For eight consecutive days, The Chronicle publishes a special Masters supplement and as many as 16 broadsheet pages devoted entirely to the tournament. To fill these pages, the seven Chronicle sportswriters type tens of thousands of words. Much of the rest of the paper's 104-person editorial staff also contributes. From time to time during Masters week, you'll see Ward Clayton, the paper's sports editor, standing on the veranda of the clubhouse, his belt and pockets weighed down by various electronic gadgets, surveying the scene, fearful that somewhere out there something is happening that one of his writers is not documenting. It could happen.
The nerve-racking thing for Clayton and his writers is that the boss is never far away. The publisher of The Chronicle, William S. (Billy) Morris III, is a member of Augusta National. Not only that, but also he's on the club's media committee for the tournament. One of his functions is to drive contestants from the scorer's tent behind the 18th green to the press building for postround interviews. He does this expertly and gleefully, navigating the large crowds and steep hills with the ease of a NASCAR driver out for a Sunday spin, never losing his broad-brimmed straw hat in the April breeze. Inside the mammoth interview room, Morris often serves as moderator, sitting next to the interviewee, identifying the next questioner with a pointed finger or a slight nod, repeating and sometimes truncating a reporter's question. (When the subject of the interview is Jack Nicklaus, Morris, looking deeply satisfied, is always the moderator because of the long-standing friendship between the two men.) As a moderator, Morris never favors his own typists. Sometimes interview sessions end with the right hand of David Westin, The Chronicle's lead golf writer, stretched skyward like the third-grader in the back of the classroom who needs to use the bathroom now.
Billy Morris could be an invaluable source to his staff. As a member he knows about the inner workings of his club. He knows things his reporters would love to get in the paper. He attends the members' dinner for the new champion on the night the tournament concludes. He sees the players in their raw emotional state as they sign their scorecards in the privacy of the scorer's tent. When members are being kicked out or reprimanded or recruited, he knows about it. But Morris doesn't breathe a word of what he knows to his writers. He loves the club deeply and treasures his membership. He knows his place in it. He knows the rules. No talking is Rule No. 1.
Morris, 64, is trim and pale, and Southern to the core. Although he's not a Southern eccentric, he did ride down Augusta's main drag, Broad Street, on horseback wearing full Native American regalia during a celebration after the Atlanta Braves won the National League pennant in 1991. Ordinarily, he does nothing to bring attention to himself. He owns two jets, many horses, a fishing camp and a plantation, yet somehow he isn't flashy in any way. Morris is careful with his money. Although he built a beautiful museum in Augusta devoted to Southern artists—it's on the Riverwalk, next to the Radisson hotel he owns—his reputation for thriftiness is widespread in the city. He pays his reporters at The Chronicle, on average, about $25,000 a year, and if they want to park in the lot next to the paper, he charges them $10 a month.
He looks meek, but he's immensely powerful, in his native Augusta and across the country. His company, Morris Communications, owns about 35 small and midsized newspapers, most with a Rush Limbaugh-Pat Robertson bent, at least on the editorial page. (The Chronicle, for instance, runs a Biblical verse daily above its lead editorial, which routinely bashes President Clinton, his policies, his appointees and his friends.) The paper reflects Morris's interests. On every Chronicle news rack are the words THE SOUTH'S OLDEST NEWSPAPER, along with a picture of a golfer wearing speckled pants.
In Augusta, The Chronicle gets local pols elected. It is common knowledge in town that if you have political or social or commercial ambitions, and you run afoul of Billy Morris, you might as well pack your bags and start over in Athens or Savannah or Atlanta. Morris's papers have made him a rich man. In 1991, Forbes estimated Morris's fortune at $350 million. But when it comes to his membership at his beloved Augusta National, he falls right in line with the other members: He doesn't make a peep about the club to outsiders. That's the way the club's legendary chairman, Clifford Roberts, who invited Morris to join in the early '60s, wanted it. That's the way it remains.
In his own newsroom, Morris's loyalty to his club is well established. Any story containing anything sensitive about the National is first run by Moms. The people who rise to the top at The Chronicle know what types of stories Morris wants and what types he does not. In 1991, Westin wrote a story about how the handgun Roberts used to commit suicide in 1977 showed up in a Japanese auction-house catalog. He reported the story, needless to say, without any help from his publisher. Morris allowed the story to run because it was accurate and fair, and because nobody at Augusta National said boo when they heard that Westin was working on it. In '94 some people in the newsroom got wind that two local members of the club were asked to resign for taking money to arrange tee times for non-members. The reporters wanted to pursue the story but were told that Morris wouldn't much care for it. Naturally, the story was dropped. Later, Golf World broke the story, Golf Digest published a follow-up and many other publications carried at least a brief item on the two expulsions.
Cliff Roberts clearly knew what he was doing when he invited Morris to join the club. The Chronicle's coverage of the Masters is so positive and so pervasive it can not help but influence the national and international coverage of the event. Today, when so much sportswriting in daily newspapers has become caustic, the coverage of the Masters in The Chronicle remains buoyant. So is the coverage, it so happens, most everywhere else.
Morris is what National members call "a good member," which means he works on behalf of the club, is discreet about the entertaining he does there, doesn't use the club too much and never embarrasses anyone there. Only once did he slip up. In 1997, Morris was introduced to Curt Sampson, who was writing a book about Augusta National and the Masters. As the two men talked, Morris didn't realize that Sampson was treating their conversation as an on-the-record session. Speaking of Roberts, Morris said, "I think he was an atheist. At least, he never set foot in a church here." In '98, when Sampson's The Masters: Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia was published, Morris was horrified to see that quote. He had broken Rule No. 1. Not only had he talked, but also he had talked about the personal life of the club's sacred patriarch.
Morris immediately called Sampson. "He was intensely worried, felt the quote lessened him as a member, said he was losing sleep over the matter, but he was extremely gracious," Sampson says. "I think he was particularly embarrassed because he is one of the club's public faces, and he was doing well in the hierarchy. In the second printing I left the quote, but as a courtesy to Mr. Morris, I altered it slightly and took out his name, because of the polite way he had handled the matter. He had been a complete gentleman. Then I saw him last year at the Masters. As I approached him, he gave me a withering look like 'You bastard' and did an about-face. The time for civility had passed."