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Small Wonder
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
April 08, 2008
HERE'S A subjective list of the most influential figures in Augusta National history, going backward: Tiger; Jack; Frank Chirkinian, the CBS golf producer; the King (Arnold Palmer); President Eisenhower; the mid-century triumvirate of Nelson, Hogan and Snead; architect Alister MacKenzie; Bobby Jones. And then there's the figure, far less known, who towers over that tensome: Clifford Roberts, the club's Chairman in Memoriam. The life and death of Roberts imbue everything at the Masters. (Among other things, the man was a perfectionist.) Augusta's sublime Par-3 course, which opened 50 years ago, was built at Roberts's insistence, and this year the Wednesday Par-3 contest, another of his children, will be televised for the first time. A homecoming, in a manner of speaking. On a weekday morning in September 1977, during the club's off-season, Roberts, 83 and ill with cancer, was found dead near the edge of his little course, a short note to his wife, Betty, in his breast pocket. It's a death that still stirs debate within the old guard, especially in the mind of the former chairman's personal waiter.
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April 08, 2008

Small Wonder

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But the poignant, lovely setting can't mask that the death was violent. "Gunshot wound to the head," it says on Roberts's Richmond County death certificate, which shows Bahamian citizenship, a common tax shelter.

Rayford Wigfall, Roberts's personal three-meals-a-day waiter at the club, remains haunted by what he saw on the morning of Sept. 29, 1977. When he went to Roberts's suite in the clubhouse to open the drapes and take his breakfast order, no one was there. An across-the-club search for Roberts, led by Phil Wahl, began. At around 9:30 a.m., Wigfall heard a housekeeper, Annie Smart, scream after finding Roberts's lifeless body on the side of a work road near the Par-3 course. Wigfall says he was the first person to respond to the scream. "I saw no gun," Wigfall, 70 and retired, says. He acknowledges that he could have missed it, but he doesn't think so. "I looked from his head down to his feet. I was right over him." Owen's thorough book, written with club cooperation, says the gun was found beside the body. But if Wigfall is correct, that there was no gun beside Roberts when his body was first discovered, one plausible explanation would be that some never-identified person or persons assisted Roberts with his death and took the gun. If so, Wigfall was unimpressed with the work. Roberts "was wearing a London Fog all-purpose winter coat, buttoned up all wrong," Wigfall says. To Wigfall, that doesn't fit. Roberts was fastidious in all matters. Look at his tournament. It will give you an idea.

Wigfall receives a pension check from the club, $108.35 a month. When he's a little short, some employees leave an envelope with some cash in it with the security guard at the Gate 6 entrance on Berckmans Road. Wigfall worked at the club for 30 years, and even when he had trouble with the law (shoplifting at Dillard's, that sort of thing) Augusta National took him back. It's all part of a world—the secretive and paternalistic private club, led by an autocrat—that's now just about dead. Who today would build a perfect little nine-hole par-3 course as a gift and never tell a soul about his intentions? Nobody.

When Roberts was ill, Janice Wahl once said to him, "Mr. Roberts, I want you to know, when my children and I said our morning prayers today, we prayed for you."

"Hmph," Roberts responded, as she tells it. He paused. "Well, goddam. You know, I have always believed in the prayers of children."

"I don't think Mr. Roberts believed in God," Ray Wigfall said the other day.

What then, he was asked, did Mr. Roberts believe in?

He answered in a word: "Himself."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

For an interactive map of the main course, go to GOLF.com/masters.

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