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Herbert Warren Wind
April 20, 1959
Huge crowds at Augusta ushered in a new era in golf, and a new high in stretch drives was set by Art Wall with five birdies
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April 20, 1959

Historic Masters

Huge crowds at Augusta ushered in a new era in golf, and a new high in stretch drives was set by Art Wall with five birdies

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Since its genesis in 1934, the Masters golf tournament has produced, almost annually, extraordinarily exciting finishes. One only has to say the names Horton Smith, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ralph Guldahl, Jimmy Demaret, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Billy Joe Patton, Jack Burke, Arnold Palmer—and the multitude of Masters-oriented fans can immediately fill you in on the year and the manner in which each of the above cut loose with a closing rush which sometimes nailed down a triumph once and for all and at other times all but turned the shape of the tournament inside out. As those who read Bob Jones's close-up description of the Augusta National (SI, April 6) know, it is the implicit strategy of the 18 holes—and especially of the second nine on which water hazards stretch before or skirt no fewer than five of the greens—which evokes the spectacular. On the last day particularly, a challenger in pursuit of the leader must take his chances and the leader can make no sizable error, for no course, unless it be St. Andrews, rewards the successful bold stroke with such an instant dividend or punishes a poor stroke at a crucial spot with the crushing all-but-finality with which the Augusta National does.

It is safe to say that even the Masters has never seen so sustainedly spectacular a finish as Art Wall put on in roaring from out of nowhere to win this year's event. As everyone knows, Wall birdied five of the last six holes. Even in this day when the somewhat less than exacting requirements of many circuit courses have brought sort of a Gresham's law into golf scores and made incredible clusters of birdies seem credible indeed, to play the 67th, 68th, 69th, 71st and 72nd holes of any tournament in birdies still rocks the imagination. To manage such a sequence over a course like the Augusta National and under the accumulating pressure of a major competition—why, unless it were already done and written into history, one would scoff at it as being as improbable as the feats of the Merriwell boys and as never-never as the daydreams of Walter Mitty.

There have been quite a few Masters, however, it should be said before proceeding further, which have just moved along from start to finish without there being any unusually dramatic moments above and beyond the quiet and steady drama always afforded when fine golfers play fine shots on fine holes. This is all anyone really has a right to ask of a golf tournament. If you like golf, it is satisfaction and enjoyment aplenty. For the first three rounds, the 1959 Masters was that kind of a tournament. On the fourth and final day, moreover, nothing out of the ordinary happened either as the hours wore on, and the leader, Arnold Palmer, to be followed some 25 minutes later by his closest pursuers, Stan Leonard and Cary Middlecoff, approached that bend in the course which has so often been fateful—the corner where the 155-yard 12th crosses Rae's Creek and where the beautiful 13th, a 475-yard par 5 doglegging to the left, swings back and twice crosses a narrow arm of Rae's Creek. It was at this corner last year, to be sure, that Palmer in effect won the tournament, eagling the 13th with three stalwart shots despite the anxiety of not knowing whether, after that famous imbedded-ball controversy on the 12th, he would eventually be accorded a 3 or a 5 on that hole.

It was about this time in the afternoon that many old Augusta hands began to feel restless. There was no logical reason why anything had to happen, but, at the same time, the 1959 Masters, they felt, had been almost too pacific. It would be much more like the Masters if something suddenly exploded, someplace on the course. Even as they were ruminating in this abstract vein, it happened, right in front of them. Palmer mis-hit his six-iron to the short 12th just a shade—hit it a little fast so that the draw he was playing for didn't take. The ball splashed into the creek about four feet short of the abrupt bank before the green. He dropped before the creek and from the spongy ground played his third a bit too firmly. It bounced over the shallow green and into the rough behind the apron, ironically close to the spot where his ball had been imbedded a year before. More to the point, Palmer's third finished in a clumpy lie. When Arnold jabbed it out, it jumped well off-line to the left and he was faced with a nine-footer, which he missed. Six. At that stage in the tournament, the biggest 6 you can imagine. It completely washed away Palmer's comfortable lead.

And then everything began to happen, all over the place. To begin with, Palmer, who is a wonderful athlete, with the reserves of self-control and heart that mark a champion, immediately composed himself and played a superb birdie 4 on the 13th.... Quick computations by all the bookkeepers present in terms of how Palmer now stands with Leonard (out in 39) and Middlecoff (out in 37). He's even with Middlecoff and a shot ahead of Leonard. He has par in for 286, keeping in mind, as always at Augusta, that the 15th as well as the 13th is an eminently birdieable par 5 and, morevover, that the wind is with the players on both holes.... A quick check at the scoreboard behind the 12th tee. Billy Maxwell, whom no one has thought about, has ripped off four straight birdies and is at the 17th tee with pars in for 288. And what is this! Another early starter, Dick Mayer, completely unconsidered, has closed with a 68 for a total of 287. A burst of shouting from the 13th green where in the shadowed distance Wall has holed a 15-footer for his birdie. Out in 34, he has picked up a lot of strokes on the leaders (despite a bogey on the 10th) but not enough to be truly in contention.... Another look at Palmer, on the 14th, hitting the cup with his run-up chip from below a swirling dip and holing a four-footer for his par with confidence. Back to the 11th, Middlecoff and Leonard, traveling at Middlecoff's attenuated pace, having at length arrived there. A par 4 for Leonard. A 5 for Middlecoff when he misses from five feet. On the 12th a lovely shot by Leonard to within eight feet of the pin—a wonderful chance for his birdie. An iron by Middlecoff that is a little too strong. The punctuation of a wild shout from the 14th green. Wall has holed a long one for another birdie, the grapevine explains. Now he may have an outside chance.... A trip to the scoreboard and more hurried computations, Palmer has indeed picked up his birdie on the 15th. He has par in for 285. Wall—par in for 287. Middlecoff, recovering neatly for his 3 on the 12th, has par in for 287. Leonard, after missing his bird on the 12th, par in for 287.

So on and on it went. When the 1959 Masters erupted, it erupted all over the place and kept on erupting the rest of the long afternoon, turning the spectators into ambulant mathematicians as they scurried from fairway to fairway trying to watch four men at one time and keep track of how they stood, while inside the wide roped-off fairways the contending players, looking a little larger than life, moved expressionlessly from hole to hole on the long journey home. On the 17th Palmer was to lose part of what he had retrieved when he missed a three-footer for his par, and on the 18th he was to miss a vital birdie putt from four feet; Wall was to keep on coming, coming, coming with never a letup in his unbelievable rush until he stood as the man to beat when he came to the 18th tee; Leonard, sorely in need of birdies, was to be able to muster no more of them after barely missing an eagle from 12 feet on the 13th; and Middlecoff, always so terrific when the TV camera is recording his play, was to provide the final dramatic moments by eagling the 15th and then failing by the smallest margins on the last three holes to pick up the one birdie he then needed to tie with Wall. I wonder if there has ever been so heavy a storm of brilliant tournament golf after so protracted a calm.

Art Wall's finish of birdie, birdie, birdie, par, birdie, birdie has no parallel in a major American tournament and probably in any major tournament. We will come back shortly to a more detailed description, but there are a few other aspects of the recent Masters which prompt some comment so let us turn to them for the moment.

First, there is the matter of "the cut." Until 1957, as you may remember, all the contestants in the Masters played the full four rounds. That spring, however, the tournament introduced a change of format; only the players with the low 40 scores (plus ties) at the end of the first 36 holes would qualify for the last 36. That first year a fairly large number of name-players, among them Hogan and Middlecoff, failed to survive the cutoff, and quite a hue and cry was raised both by the competing field and the spectators. Last year hardly any of the stars of the first magnitude were eliminated by the cutoff figure of 149, and, largely because of this, the controversy over the wisdom of reducing the field abated to mild and glancing opinions. This year the cut lopped off three players who had been viewed as possible factors in the winning or losing of t he Masters, Ken Venturi, Billy Casper and Jimmy Demaret. The tournament found them far off their best form, and in Venturi's case, the young man, it appeared, might have done himself a disservice by pointing too hard and too steadily for this championship he has set his heart on winning. However, despite the fact that the star casualties were low, no one, not even the players who made the cut, was happy about its existence.

A brief look at the scores at the halfway mark helps one to understand this strong anti-cut sentiment. The leader after the first two rounds was Arnold Palmer with a total of 141 which gave him a two-stroke margin over the second man, Stan Leonard, the sturdy Canadian veteran. Behind them seven players were grouped at 144, eight more at 145, three at 146, seven at 147, 10 at 148, and the final five at 149. This is pretty close packing. The last qualifiers were separated from first place by only eight shots and separated from third by only five shots. Since quite a few golf tournaments have been won by men who have come from 10 or more shots off the pace on the last two rounds—Art Wall was to make up a full eight shots on Palmer and nine on Leonard on the last round alone—the cut seemed much too drastic. In any event, we had the unique situation this year where each of the 42 players who qualified for the last two rounds was a very possible winner, and it could be argued with reasonableness that quite a number of players who missed the 40-and-ties cut were arithmetically far from out of contention.

If there must be a cut in the Masters, surely it would be an improvement if it were relaxed somewhat, to qualify for the last 36 holes, say, the low 60 scores plus ties. This is the pattern which the National Open employs. Of course, the moment you mention the Open, it makes you wonder whether any cut in the Masters is necessary or salutary. In the Open the field has to be cut after 36 holes because on the third and final day the remaining field plays 36 holes and there just isn't time or room for more players to complete two rounds. The Masters, on the other hand, is a leisurely four-day affair, 18 holes a day. There is ample time on the Saturday and Sunday just as there is on the Thursday and Friday for the whole field to play, unhurriedly, for the Masters begins with a select field of less than a hundred. (150 will start in the Open.) All the contestants in the Masters would welcome the chance to play the full four rounds even if this meant a very early dew-sweeping starting time on the last two days for those way out of the running. The older champions, the Sarazens and Picards and Woods and Shutes, feel as keenly about this as do the youngsters and the absence of the heroes of earlier decades on the last two days is not a small point, for it is their active presence which has given the Masters its especial flavor and made it much more than simply a very fine tournament.

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