In golf nobody wants to hit an oblique—or even look at one. But if you hit an oblique on the first tee at the Masters you may wallow in shame and degradation the rest of your life. Ghosts are watching. You might also injure several people from Macon who have hot dogs around their necks and binoculars in their teeth. Maybe it's the other way around, although you never know about people from Macon. Anyhow, try not to hit an oblique at the beginning of your round in the Masters, or...SHANKED DRIVE CRIPPLES AUGUSTA FAN, WEISKOPF IN CUSTODY. Something like that. It is hard, very hard, to get off to a good start in the first of the year's major tournaments. You begin by focusing the eyes, clearing the throat and then carefully wringing the sweat out of the palms.
This applies equally to the man who is thinking seriously about winning the Masters as well as to those simply attempting to play well. Next week the golfers come again to the course in America that best combines the game's immense subtleties with scenery so overwhelming and an atmosphere so suffocating that 1974 U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin has said, "You start to choke when you drive through the front gate. On the first hole you just want to make contact with the ball."
A lot of things share in creating the Augusta shakes. The history, of course. All of those double eagles and Ben Hogans and Sam Sneads and Arnold Palmers and Jack Nicklauses. The fact that the Masters is the first of the biggies, two months ahead of the U.S. Open, three ahead of the British Open, four ahead of the PGA. The elegant and imposing clubhouse with its attendant cottages. The mammoth scoreboards. The hallowed bridges and fountains. The statuesque pines. The enormous, golf-wise crowds. Certainly the fact that the players have not only been 12 months without dogwood, but also have been eight months (since the previous PGA) without the massive attention of TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, manufacturers, agents, managers, sponsors and doting corporate types that the major tournaments attract.
As Nicklaus has pointed out, "If you wind up scoring well in one round, you're so besieged by people it's almost impossible to prepare for the next day. It's very hard to handle, particularly for the younger player."
Small wonder, then, that wisdom and knowledge serve the competitors best at Augusta. Joe Bob Talent may do extremely well, but Billy Ray Experience will beat up on him nearly every time. You can look it up.
The tournament has had two lives. Beginning in 1934 there were the early years when somebody had to win. This period extended through the postwar years when Hogan and Snead had a stranglehold on golf, concluding, in fact, with the Snead-Hogan playoff in 1954. It is the 22 Masters played since that have produced the interesting statistics. The tournament has been won not only by a Palmer and a Nicklaus, but also by a Coody and an Aaron; not only by a Player and a Casper but also by a Brewer and a Goalby. Age and enlightenment have collected the green jackets.
Statistics tell us—and all the ambitious Bruce Lietzkes—the harsh truth: of all the major championships, it is the Masters that requires the most experience. The average age of the Masters winner over this second life of the tournament is 32 years. Moreover, the winner is usually appearing in his eighth Masters.
Case histories: a year ago Raymond Floyd was 33 and competing at Augusta for the 12th time; in 1973 Tommy Aaron was 36 and playing in his 11th Masters; in 1971 Charlie Coody was 33 and it was his sixth Masters; in 1968 Bob Goalby was 39 and it was his ninth Masters. What of the immortals who bring down the averages? Arnold Palmer was 28 when he took the first of his four titles and it was his fourth appearance. Jack Nicklaus was 23 when he won the first of his five, but it was his fifth Augusta visit. Besides, Jack always seemed old for his age, despite the crew cut.
All of which brings up this year's Ripe List. People drawing names in office pools should be happy to get any of the following 10 players, even though none has yet won a Masters. Each is among the game's most accomplished shotmakers, and each falls into the proper age and experience category. They are: Tom Weiskopf, 34, 10th Masters, has finished second four times; Johnny Miller, 29, eighth Masters, second twice; Hale Irwin, 31, seventh Masters, fourth twice; Ben Crenshaw, 25, sixth Masters, last year's runner-up; Hubert Green, 30, seventh Masters, has been eighth; Dave Stockton, 35, eighth Masters, has finished second; J. C. Snead, 35, sixth Masters, has been second; Tom Watson, 27, fourth Masters, has finished eighth; Dave Hill, 39, 10th Masters, has wound up fifth; and Tom Kite, 27, fifth Masters, has finished fifth (and 10th) in the past. The list would normally include Lee Trevino, were he healthy enough to enter this year, even though Trevino chooses to think the course has never been suited to his game. Next year's list, Lee.
As for the Unripe List, it features youth and old age. Statistics suggest that 1977 is still too early to take seriously Bruce Lietzke, Jerry Pate, Mark Hayes, Gary Koch, Tom Purtzer, Rik Massengale, Andy Bean or Severiano Ballesteros. Or anyone else who has been to Augusta only once, twice or not at all. These are young men who can play the game and have proved they can win on the tour—and maybe at Nueva Andaluc�a—but in more than a quarter of a century only one player has stolen the Masters as early as his third appearance. That was in 1969 when George Archer introduced a putter he had baked over hot coals. Of the group of youngsters, it would seem that Lietzke ( Tucson, Hawaii), Pate (U.S. Open, Canadian, Phoenix), Massengale ( Hartford, Hope), Hayes ( Byron Nelson, Pensacola, TPC) and Koch ( Tallahassee, Citrus) have the best chance, for they have won on more than one occasion. And Pate of course has even taken a major. But their problem is, they don't have Augusta credentials.