The idea was to scare up two guys, a writer and a photographer, who had actually never set eyes on Augusta National Golf Club before, who didn't possess either a handicap or a pair of funny-colored pastel trousers between them, and to send them off to inspect an American tradition. The Masters is so surpassingly beautiful, so gorgeous in the sight of God and man, that I was sure even if Brian Lanker, the photographer, had to get up before dawn to get the right light, he certainly had the better assignment. I was sure of this even though it was alleged not to be a good year for the azaleas. "I'm sorry," everybody told me from the minute I got off the plane in Augusta, "but it's not a good year for the azaleas." By Friday, I was telling people this. "It's not a good year for the azaleas." No.
One spring, when the azaleas dared to bloom a bit early, Mr. Clifford Roberts ordered men to go out on the course and pack ice around the plants in a Canutian effort to delay their full blossoming until tee time. Roberts, who was the only chairman of Augusta National and the Masters for 43 years, had a very unusual emotional conflict. Some men think they're God. In golf, at least, Mr. Roberts was sure he was God, only he had to go around telling everybody that Bobby Jones was God. It must have worn on him. No wonder he spoke so hesitantly.
The Masters is schizophrenic. Today, 14 years after Jones, his body wasted away to 69 pounds by a degenerative nerve disease, was spared any more agony on this green earth, and more than eight years after Mr. Roberts, perhaps mindful of his dear old friend's slow death, put a bullet in his head out behind the members' cabins and tumbled into the creek bed by Ike's Pond, people still call it Bobby Jones's tournament, when they know it was Mr. Roberts's tournament. Everybody loved Jones, and everybody was scared of Mr. Roberts. They say that when Ike played bridge with Mr. Roberts at the club, sometimes the President couldn't stand it anymore, and he would cry out, "But, Cliff, Cliff, you promised tonight it was just going to be a friendly game."
Mr. Roberts was almost Gatsby-like: Out of the Midwest—Iowa—he went to New York and evolved into something both transparent and mysterious. He became friend, financial adviser and confidant to two legends, Jones and Ike, and isn't it funny? To find them you have to dig in the history books, but to find Mr. Roberts you have to go to the Masters.
Mr. Roberts's place endures at the Masters. The players are props. You either scratch and scramble after one or two of them, hoping for a glimpse of backswing, or you rise early and appropriate one spot on the course, there to stand like a spectator at an automobile assembly line, watching the same miniature action all day without absorbing that a whole car is being constructed all around you. With the Masters, you can truly embrace only the physical place. You can carry only the landscape, the epic beauty, home with you. The people who come to see a tournament rush off to their television sets to follow the final holes, the competition. Folks up north couldn't understand why I departed Augusta on Saturday. But I had seen enough of the Masters. I was also curious to see who might win.
"The azaleas," I explained. "It's not a good year for the azaleas down there."
Next week will bring us the 50th Masters. The tournament was first played in 1934, but during World War II Augusta National was put to pasture for three years, a place for cattle and turkeys, before it was restored by German POWs and reopened in 1945. Apart from Mr. Roberts himself, several factors—some of them designed, some of them pure serendipity—have made the tournament the only significant championship of a private disposition that is left in any sport. Yet while the lay of the land is magnificent and the course a fascinating athletic conundrum—it is fair and relatively easy for everyday players, fair and relatively difficult for superior ones—it was the Jonesian presence that established the Masters. The Grand Slammer was so important to golf that gate receipts at the U.S. Open were nearly halved in 1931, the first year of Jones's retirement. Because the Masters was the only tournament Jones played in thereafter, even though he was never a major factor, Jones drew crowds to see him, just as pilgrims now yearn to see the Masters once before they die, and never mind who's on the leader board.
It certainly helped that the Masters always enjoyed a sweetheart press—heavy on the horticulture—as most reporters tended to follow the example of their beloved leader, "Granny" Rice. Rice happened to be not only one of the five "organizers" of Augusta National, but also the very individual who proposed at the initial club meeting that Mr. Roberts be accorded dictatorial powers, an offhand suggestion happily approved by voice vote. By dumb luck the Masters was scheduled for the time when spring training was breaking up in Florida, and so provided an ideal respite from exhibition baseball.
One of the few people ever to criticize the Masters was Lee Trevino, who declined the club's invitations in 1970 and '71. He publicly dared not to like the course; privately, as a dark-skinned Mexican-American, he felt uncomfortable in what remained something of an antebellum outpost. In a recent interview on San Francisco's KSFO radio, Trevino recalled how Mr. Roberts summoned him to his office and lectured him. Subsequently, Jack Nicklaus visited Trevino in Texas to urge him to be more accommodating. But Trevino said that what finally drove him back to the bosom of Augusta National was the press and its criticism of him.
In his session with Mr. Roberts, Trevino suggested that the whole issue could be settled by simply not inviting him back, but this was a time (circa 1970) when pressure was building on the Masters to invite a black, and it would have been unseemly to turn away a qualified Hispanic. Although in recent years the foreign contingent has diminished some-what, at that time the Masters had a distinct international flavor, leading Red Smith to suggest that Lee Elder should be "invited as an African." Mr. Roberts was not amused.