Tony Lema—somewhat surprisingly, since his long game is well suited to Augusta—agrees that the course should be tightened somewhat, but he brings up another point. "It wouldn't give anyone else a better chance," he says. "Those three would still win."
It goes without saying that Arnold Palmer likes the course just as it is. "I think it is pretty tight now," he says. "Tee shot position is already very important. When you hit a bad drive you may not realize it at the time, but you are being penalized exactly according to the size of your error. You may wind up missing the green with your second shot or getting on so far from the pin that you three-putt. The penalty is assessed at the other end. You know who will be hurt by fairway traps, don't you? Well, not the ones who've been winning."
The fact that the Open has had so few repeat winners Palmer finds easy to explain. "You have to be a good golfer to win the Open," he says, "but luck is a big factor there. You can drive the ball into the fairway, it takes a bad kick and you have an impossible lie in the rough."
Nicklaus tends to agree. "The good thing about Augusta," he says, "is that if you play reasonably well you will do reasonably well. Less is left to chance."
In spite of the talk about changing Augusta National, Nicklaus and Palmer have nothing to fear. The two men who run the Masters—Clifford Roberts, the New York investment banker who serves as tournament chairman, and Club President Jones—are not about to tear up their fairways to plant trees, grow rough or dig holes for sand traps. They would as soon paint a mustache on the Mono Lisa.
"This is a members' course," says Jones with a good deal of vehemence, when asked if he thought tightening the course would make the Masters a better tournament. "I do not know whether it would or not, and I do not care. We built the course for the enjoyment of our members, and we intend to keep it the way it is."
"We listen to every suggestion," Cliff Roberts said recently, "and we make improvements, but what we are not willing to do is to put in some temporary, unusual set of conditions that do not ordinarily exist. We do not grow any unusual rough. We do not narrow the fairways. We play the course just as it is, and I think it is a great tribute to the course that more often than not the golfers who are generally recognized as the ablest players are the ones who win the Masters. We do not want a set of conditions that will prevent the best player from making the best score. We don't have to spend money building bunkers or maintaining them. We don't have to look at the ugly things the year round. If the best players don't come to the top at the Masters, that's when we are going to get disappointed. When the obvious flukes and the unknowns begin winning the Masters is when we will begin wondering what is wrong with our golf course."
Cliff Roberts has made an excellent point. Excluding the Big Three, only one U.S. Open champion since 1953 has won another major title. But the Masters is scarcely the only important championship Palmer, Nicklaus and Player have to their credit. The list includes three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and three British Opens, as well as almost $1.5 million in official prize money. They are the decade's finest golfers, and they ought to win the Masters.
Yet the nagging question remains. Is it for the best that fortune has conspired to fix one of the world's greatest golf tournaments so that only three men have a real chance to win? Or is the U.S. Open, with its varying demands and its sometimes fluky winners, a better contest? To this Cliff Roberts simply says: "They are different kinds of shows. You pay your money and you take your choice."
The latest word on this year's choices at Augusta is offered on the following pages, where the Big Three are considered along with the men likeliest to surprise them. Or perhaps this is the year Gene Sarazen wins and the fix-Augusta talk dies forever.