A brief history of the Masters and why it matters

The curious fan’s guide to the first major golf tournament of the year

The Masters
The Masters gets underway on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Masters gets underway on Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Last modified on Mon 26 Sep 2016 00.33 EDT

With the Hlcarpenter.com’s unstoppable rise to global dominance** we at Hlcarpenter.com US thought we’d run a series of articles for fans wishing to improve their knowledge of the sports history and storylines, hopefully in a way that doesn’t patronise you to within an inch of your life. A warning: If you’re the kind of person that finds David Foster Wallace too populist this may not be the series for you.

** Actual dominance may not be global. Or dominant

The Masters Tournament is ... the self-styled Most Prestigious Golf Tournament In The World. And also the most prestigious golf tournament in the world.

It’s a claim the R&A might take issue with. Yes, the Open Championship is 74 years older than the Masters, and to many traditionalists – whisper it, but the world of golf has one or two – the Open will always be the original and best. But while the Masters is the youngest of the four majors – the US Open is 39 years older, the PGA 18 – it’s grown to be the most storied of the quartet, simply because it’s the only one where the drama’s played out on the same course every single year.

The stage on which that ever-expanding narrative is played out: Augusta National. The prettiest course in the world, and not just because of the azaleas: they bury the television cables, dye the lakes blue, and colour the burger wrappers green in case anyone drops them. Construction began in 1932 when local hero Bobby Jones – the US Open and Open phenomenon of the 1920s – decided he’d like to have somewhere quiet to play without the world and their caddy scrutinising every click of his niblick. His investment banker pal Clifford Roberts suggested acting upon Jones’s long-held desire to build a US Open championship course in the Deep South. Why not back home in Georgia? Plans for the Augusta National Golf Club were hatched.

The renowned course architect Alister MacKenzie was commissioned to help Jones realise his vision. This he did with some style, as we can see today, though much good it did the poor Yorkshire-born Scot. In its infancy, Augusta National Golf Club’s coffers were empty, and Roberts was unable to pay MacKenzie for his work. The architect and his wife were reduced to cutting each other’s hair to save money. They were also forced to forage for firewood, which gave them poison-oak rash, and the medical bills outweighed any savings on free fuel. MacKenzie died suddenly at the age of 63, in January 1934, a mere two months before the first Masters Tournament.

That first Masters Tournament ... was only staged because Roberts and Jones had been utterly incapable of persuading the USGA to stage the US Open at their fancy new course. And it wasn’t known as the Masters, which had been the monicker suggested by Roberts. Jones vetoed it, on the grounds of modesty. The Augusta National Invitation Tournament it was, then. A decent if not stellar field – no Gene Sarazen, who had exhibition commitments - competed for a $1,500 top prize. Horton Smith won, though only got his cash after a desperate Roberts borrowed a few bucks from some of the wealthier members. Jones finished tied for 13th, in his own championship, on his own course. His imperial phase long over, it would be his best finish.

A year later, Sarazen turned up, and – with apologies to Sandy Lyle, Tiger Woods, Bubba Watson, et al – struck what remains the single-most famous shot at Augusta. Craig Wood had missed out on the inaugural title by one stroke, but looked odds-on to win in 1935, in the clubhouse with a three-shot advantage over his only real challenger. But that challenger was Sarazen, who was still out on the course, in the middle of the par-five 15th having clattered a 250-yard drive down the 485-yard hole. He was playing with Walter Hagen, who upon hearing the news of Wood’s clubhouse mark, cried: “Well, that’s that!” Sarazen shrugged and replied: “They might go in from anywhere.” Whereupon he drew his four-wood back and landed his second on the front of the green, the ball rolling to the far-right corner and into the cup for a double eagle. Now level with Wood, he parred his way in, then breezed the 36-hole play-off. His albatross became known as The Shot Heard Round The World, and one which put the Augusta National Invitation Tournament on the map.

By the time Byron Nelson had beaten Ben Hogan in a tight 18-hole play-off just before the war in 1942, the Masters – Jones eventually accepted Roberts’ big sell in 1939 – was regarded one of the majors. The not-yet-legendary Hogan was desperate to win it – well, any major, really – and came close again after the restart in 1946. Going into the final round, he was five behind Herman Keiser and set about eating into the lead, and going up the last required a birdie to win. He sent a gorgeous second to within 15 feet, but slipped the putt a couple of feet past the hole, then yipped the return. Not even a play-off. It would be some year for Hogan, who again three-putted from close range to throw away victory at the US Open. Choker? Not quite. He then got the major monkey off his back at the PGA, thrashing Jimmy Demaret 10&9 in the final. (The PGA was then a match-play tournament.) Hogan would have to wait until 1951 to win his first Masters, before romping another in 1953, the year of the Hogan Slam (Masters, US Open and Open, the PGA missed only because it ran concurrently with Britain’s big one).

Jimmy Demaret: an aside. This dude has been rather forgotten about. Which is both wholly preposterous, and also not on. The man won the Masters three times between 1940 and 1950! And that’s with some of his best years lost to the war. An Open Championship would surely have been his, too, had he played in it more than once. (When he did, he finished tied very respectably for 10th place.) This is because he was, according to legend, the best wind player ever, arrowing 1-irons so low under howling winds that “you could hang your laundry on them”. He learned to play in Galveston, where, let the record state, you can hear the sea winds blowin’. However he wasn’t so afraid of dyin’. “Get out and live,” he would cry. “You’re dead for an awful long time.” Demaret walked it like he talked it. He wore the sort of outlandish, retina-jiggering clothing which would have made Payne Stewart look like Johnny Cash. He didn’t practice. He enjoyed his beer. And he was best mates with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. “You have a great short game,” he once told Hope. “Unfortunately, it’s off the tee.” Only Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods have a better record at Augusta.

To the television age, and the Big Three of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. All three brought instant controversy, in their own sweet ways. Arnie won the first of his four Masters titles, and his first major, in 1958, but not without a rules brouhaha. Given an incorrect ruling over a plugged lie at 12 by a confused official, he double bogeyed, but then opted to play a second ball, just in case. He scrambled par with the provisional, eagled 13, and then heard the official’s decision on 12 had been over-ruled. The second ball counted, effectively gifting him a bonus two shots! Thing was, his playing partner Ken Venturi claimed Palmer had only stated his intention to play that second ball after holing out with his first, and that was something he’d been required to do before. (Ah, the baroque pleasures of the rules of golf. We’re not finished with these yet.) But the over-rule stood, and the green jacket would go to Palmer – who won by a single stroke. Player won his first Masters a year later, and against Augusta National rules took his green jacket home. Roberts rang Player at his South African ranch to demand its return. Imagine the steam coming out of the official’s lugs upon hearing the rejoinder: “Come and fetch it.” And in 1963 Nicklaus joined the roll of honour, but couldn’t squeeze into the jacket he was given because the Golden Bear was, at the time, a wee bit too cuddly. Augusta National then forgot to make him a new, bigger one. Nicklaus was too polite to say anything, instead cadging a jacket off a friendly member whenever he turned up. The error wasn’t rectified until 1998.

Ah, the Green Jacket. Also known in the local parlance as the Green Coat. A wool and polyester mix with brass buttons, very much an acquired taste, they were given to members in 1937 so patrons – no mere crowd members at Augusta – would know who to approach for information. Sam Snead became the first winner to receive one 11 years later, on the proviso that it was left hanging in the locker room, waiting for whenever they return.

There’d be no Green Jacket for poor Roberto di Vicenzo. On the final day of the 1968 Masters, the reigning Open champion signed for a par four on the 17th, rather than the birdie three he’d actually made. And while the aforementioned business with Arnie 10 years earlier might cloud the issue, in golf, rules are rules are rules. The score you sign for must stand. And so Di Vicenzo missed by one shot the chance of a play-off with Bob Goalby, who slipped on the gaudy green threads without having to swing another club in anger. “What a stupid I am,” shrugged the likeable Argentinian, as hearts shattered all over the world. But it was a bit of a tear-jerker for poor old Goalby, too, for his win would forever have that asterisk of uncertainty placed alongside it. Which was rather unfair, all told, seeing he’d eagled 15 and scrambled brilliant pars on 17 and 18, while di Vicenzo, as well as failing to tot up his scorecard properly, had missed a very makeable six-footer on the last.

Other assorted Masters disasters: Ed Sneed, giving up a five-shot final-day lead in 1979, bogeying the final three holes to slip into a tie-break eventually won by Fuzzy Zoeller; Tom Weiskopf, running up a score of 13 on the par-three 12th, the shortest hole on the course in 1980; perennial bridesmaid Greg Norman, blowing a six-shot lead on the final day in 1996, Nick Faldo swanning off with the spoils; 48-year-old Kenny Perry throwing away the 2009 tournament with bogeys at 17 and 18, then losing a play-off to Angel Cabrera; and of course Rory McIlroy in 2011, leading at the turn on Sunday, before wanging one into the cabins down the left of 10 on his way to a triple-bogey, then leaving another three shots scattered around Amen Corner. Four putts on the 12th!

Ah, Amen Corner. Yes, this bit. Amen Corner refers to the approach at 11, a downhill shot with water to the left of the green and a huge run-off area down the right; the gorgeously evil little par-three 12th, Rae’s Creek snaking in front of a shallow green, shrubbery everywhere else; and the first two shots on the par-five 13th, which basically decide whether you’re making that tournament-defining eagle or getting lowered into a watery grave. This stretch is hellish enough over the first three days, but can really sort the men from the boys on the Sunday. Though disaster around Amen Corner doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of it. In 1988, Sandy Lyle, three clear and apparently coasting to victory, bogeyed 11 then doubled 12 to hand a lead he’d held for most of the week to Mark Calcavecchia. Cue a staunch regrouping over the closing holes, culminating in that bunker shot at 18, the defining moment of one of the most famous wins of all.

But not, of course, the most famous. Take your pick from 78 others, including: Tiger’s record-breaking first victory in 1997, when he obliterated the field by 12 strokes, becoming the youngest winner of all time at 21 and the first black player to win at Augusta; Larry Mize robbing Greg Norman from his supposed Masters destiny in 1987 with that 140-foot chip at 11; Seve becoming the first European to win in 1980; Bubba shaping one from the trees in that epic 2012 play-off with Louis Oosthuizen, who had earlier Sarazen’d an albatross on 2; Phil Mickelson going for broke from behind a tree on the pine needles at 13 to spook Lee Westwood in 2010; Freddie Couples’ ball defying gravity and refusing to topple into Rae’s Creek at 12 in 1992; Tiger’s iconic stop-start chip-in for birdie at 16 in 2005; and ... and ... and yet, there’s only really one, isn’t there ...

It’s Nicklaus in 1986, isn’t it. Sunday, and having sliced a drive into trees down the right of 8, placed “in about 35th or 40th place”, the jig looked up for the Golden Bear. But you don’t win 17 majors (as was) by meekly accepting defeat. Nicklaus spotted a small gap in the branches, and against all odds, clattered a three-wood straight through it. Going on to save his par, the old boy went on a charge. He birdied 9, 10 and 11, eagled 15, then hit his tee shot at 16 to four feet. At which point Seve, the tournament leader, was coming down 15, in prime position. The Spaniard addressed his ball – then stepped away as a cheer pealed across Augusta. Nicklaus had made his birdie. The putt that rang round the world. It was too much, even for a street-fighting genius like Seve, who topped his second into the lake. Bogey. Nicklaus birdied 17 too, celebrating famously, chasing after the putt splay-footed, smiling wide, his putter in the air even before the ball dropped. Home in 30 strokes for a 65, on the final day of the Masters, at 46 years and three months old. An 18th major, perhaps the best of the lot, and the sort of valedictory hurrah from a decaying genius that sports fans only witness once in a lifetime. Unless old Tiger has something preposterous up his sleeve, that is. Over to you, sir ...

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