The 1956 masters will go down in the books as the tournament won by a smiling, tousle-haired fellow named Jack Burke. It will also go down in the memory of golfers for a long time to come as the Masters that a lanky young amateur named Ken Venturi lost.
For three dazzling days Venturi was within reach of a prize no amateur in the history of the Masters has ever been able to seize. But the Masters is a drama in four acts, not three, and on the fourth day it was exit Ken Venturi and enter Jackie Burke.
It is always too glib to state that any 72-hole tournament is won or lost on any one hole. At the same time, the winning and the losing of the 20th Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club last week was decisively influenced by the way the three men leading the field fared on the 71st. The par-4 17th, which measures exactly 400 yards, requires that the drive be accurately placed between two hefty pines which patrol the "landing area" of the uphill fairway and then demands a skillful approach to the slightly plateaued green, especially when the pin is located, as it was on the final day, some 20 feet directly beyond the forward edge of the bland, white trap that guards the entrance to the green.
Late Sunday afternoon, with the wind still prowling over the course as the fourth and final round wore on, the three leaders came to the 17th—Cary Middlecoff, Jack Burke Jr., Ken Venturi, in that sequence and almost in succession. An hour and a half earlier it appeared that Middlecoff, defending champion and perhaps the finest golfer in the world over the 12 months since that victory, had killed his chances on the front nine of catching young Venturi, who had led the tournament from the opening hole and who carried a four-stroke margin into the final round. On the 5th and 7th holes, Middlecoff had suffered two inexplicable lapses, four-putting the 5th for a double-bogey 6 and picking up another double bogey on the 7th when he fluffed a comparatively simple little pitch into the trap he was attempting to pitch over. Computing their relative scores through the 7th hole, Cary had trailed Venturi by six shots. When he came to the fateful 17th, however, he was only one shot off the pace at that exact moment, due in a measure to Cary's settling down and in an equal measure to Ken's sudden loss of form after he had made the turn. With the gate still open, Cary mis-hit his approach to the 17th, his chip was feeble, he needed three putts—yet another double bogey. In the final analysis, this did it. He parred the 18th and finished with a total of 291.
INJUNCTION TO A GHOST
Some 10 minutes after Middlecoff had taken his costly 6, Jack Burke, paired with his sidekick Mike Souchak, came to the 17th. One of the most genuinely appealing persons in golf, the son of a professional who tied for second in the 1920 U.S. Open, Jack, the perennial rookie of the year, has for almost a decade been one of the game's most accomplished players, but he had never been able to break through and win a major championship. The 1956 Masters seemed beyond his grasp too. Four shots behind Middlecoff and a full eight behind Venturi at the start of the final round, Jack had played steadily and well if not brilliantly. Unregarded and unwatched, he had ghosted his way, when the leaders faltered, to within a shot of both Venturi and Middlecoff after the 15th hole. He parred the 16th. On the 17th, helped by a big following wind, he swatted a long drive up the hill. He cut his approach with his eight-iron neatly over the trap to some 15 feet from the hole. He sank the putt for a birdie 3. ("I didn't think the ball would reach the cup," he later commented. "That wind just absolutely took that ball in.") Souchak enshrouded Jack in a bearlike embrace and whipped him on: "C'mon, man, They're still making bogeys out here. Let's go." Burke—and for the first time he realized that he could win—managed his par on the 18th and finished with a total of 289.
Some 10 minutes after Burke had made his birdie, Ken Venturi came to the 17th. For the first three days Ken had been practically the whole story. He had played in the event once before, in 1954, the year that Billy Joe Patton almost did the impossible. Ken qualified for an invitation that year on the strength of being a member of the 1953 Walker Cup team. He had tied for 16th, which earned him an automatic invitation to the 1955 Masters, but had been unable to attend. His enforced absence last April and his solid reputation as one of the country's finest young players were the reasons he drew a special invitation this year from the previous winners of the Masters, who annually select one player not otherwise qualified to play in the tournament.
A cool and careful golfer, the slim young man seemed a certain winner when he arrived at the 63rd tee with a six-shot lead over Middlecoff. Then things began to go sour. He went over par on the 9th when he missed a three-footer. He slipped a shot over on the 10th and the 11th, pushing two fairly short putts off line, and he slipped another shot over par on the 12th, the 14th and the 15th, quite unable to recover his concentration and his poise under the pressure. He got his par on the 16th. Jack Burke was just finishing the 18th when Ken came to the 17th, and he knew he needed two pars to tie. His drive was more than adequate. He hit his iron to the green firmly, a little too firmly, considering the strength of the wind behind him. The ball bobbled over the back edge of the green and rolled some seven or eight yards down the bank. It took him 3 to get down. That, in effect, was the tournament. Ken parred the 18th and finished with a total of 290.
Contested under what Bob Jones called "the hardest playing conditions we've ever had in this tournament," the 20th Masters was as flavorful as ever, thoroughly exciting and basically unpredictable from start to finish. Here, in summary, is the course it took from day to day: