Just a little over 10 years ago a letter from a proud father in South Africa arrived at the Augusta National Golf Club. It was addressed to Clifford Roberts, who, along with Robert T. Jones Jr., ranks as co-founder and overlord of the Masters. The writer stated that his son had a splendid record (same enclosed) as an amateur and had turned professional. Ever since his son was a boy, the letter advised, it had been the lad's ambition to travel to America and play in the Masters and meet Bobby Jones, his idol, about whom he had read so much. The father wondered if Mr. Roberts would consider sending his boy an invitation. The young man had no money for the trip, but if he received an invitation, the father said, he would "pass the hat" among his friends to raise funds for the plane ticket.
Such letters arrive at Augusta frequently during the months preceding each Masters Tournament. They come from governors of states, mayors of cities. Congressmen and occasionally rulers of countries, all espousing candidates for what has become the most eminent invitational tournament in golf. As is their practice in such situations, Jones and Roberts discussed the letter from South Africa. They made inquiries among various golf officials and checked the young man's background. It was discovered that not only was his competitive record impressive, he was also highly regarded as a youngster of good character. A decision was made to send him an invitation, and Roberts cabled the father: PASS THE HAT.
It was as a result of this correspondence in 1957 that Gary Player first came to the U.S. He made a respectable showing in that Masters, finishing in a tie for 24th after a nervous 77 on opening day. The following year he was invited again, it being an unofficial policy of Roberts and Jones to ask a foreigner for a second time no matter how he performs initially. "We feel that many factors might keep a foreigner from playing his best on his first visit here," says Roberts. "He deserves a second chance."
Although Player did well on the pro tour in 1958, including a second-place finish in the U.S. Open, he missed the cut at the Masters. But in 1959 he moved up to eighth. In 1960 he reached sixth, and in 1961 he was the winner.
"That," says Cliff Roberts, "was one of the most heartening things that has happened in connection with our event. It was the culmination of the development of the international phase of the tournament."
Although it is seldom thought of in that connection, the Masters has been a pioneer of international golf competition. Long before there was a Canada Cup or an Eisenhower Trophy for which the Thais and Pakistanis and Zambians could compete, golfers from half a world away were coming to Augusta to try to shake the aura of invincibility that the Americans had established for themselves in the pro game. Among the first of these was Bobby Locke, who arrived at Augusta for the 1947 Masters on Wednesday, picked up his credentials, inquired about his starting time and teed off the following morning without ever having played a round of golf in the U.S. He shot two 74s while getting used to things, then finished with 71-70 for 289 and a three-way tie for 14th with Lawson Little and Dick Chapman.
In 1950 Roberto de Vicenzo flew up from Argentina to make his Masters debut. Speaking virtually no English, he entered a small restaurant in Augusta to get some breakfast just after his arrival. "A fellow was having breakfast at a nearby table," De Vicenzo recalls, "and I motioned to the waiter, trying to make him understand that I wanted the same thing the other man was eating. Instead, the waiter brought over the man's bill. I did not have breakfast that morning—and I don't make signals anymore." By the end of that week De Vicenzo had fattened up on the competition, closing with rounds of 73-71 that brought him a tie for 12th with Horton Smith. This week De Vicenzo is making his eighth appearance in the Masters, and although he has never improved on his 12th-place finish, he still looks upon a trip to Augusta as something of a pilgrimage. "I feel the responsibility of representing my country as well as all Argentine golfers," he said recently. "This gives me a very special feeling about the Masters."
De Vicenzo is a warm and affable man, but not all the foreigners have shared these characteristics, and whenever an opportunity arises for the American pros to grumble about the number of spaces in the Masters allotted to foreigners they have not hesitated to do so. Once a delegation of leading American professionals tried to persuade Roberts to withhold an invitation to Locke. They felt he had been contentious and uncooperative during his U.S. visits, and they themselves had already barred him from further competition on their own tour. "Gentlemen," Roberts replied, at a time when the Masters was not nearly the success that it is today, "if Bobby Locke is the only golfer who shows up at the tournament, he will take home all the prize money." That ended that.
Roberts is a man with a singular devotion to his club and its tournament and, like many men who are dedicated to a cause, he can be firm to the point of crustiness. "The only excuse for having the Masters," he has said, "is whatever service it can be to the game of golf. Our members make a great sacrifice to put on this tournament, and the reason is that they are very proud of the Masters and what it stands for. We would not hold the tournament if we couldn't do it the way we think best."
It is a matter of pride with Jones and Roberts that the Masters was not only a pioneer of international golf competition but introduced many talented foreign players to American golf. The prototype was Locke. After him came Peter Thomson, the Australian, who is the only modern-era golfer to have won the British Open five times. Thomson, a brisk and sturdy type, has been by far the most formidable golfer on the European and Far Eastern circuits for the past decade. Although he shot one of the lowest nine-hole scores in U.S. competition last year—a 29 at Oklahoma City—he has never played up to his form in American tournaments, and his Masters record has belied his ability ever since he was first invited to Augusta in 1953.