Big names expected to rise atop the leaderboard for Masters weekend

Masters-12th hole

AUGUSTA — Stocking caps for the competitors, and shorts and short-sleeve shirts for the heartiest of spectators accented the scene early Friday morning at the Masters as hog-killing weather enveloped the Augusta National Golf Club — but without subduing the anticipation and energy of thousands of spectators who are newcomers to this event, same as some of those in the field. Everybody wants a piece of the Masters these days.

In another day you could walk up to the club, buy a ticket for $10, move inside the gates and walk in the shadows of players like Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. There were no gallery ropes until 1949. You could buy a season badge as easy as sack of guano to fertilize your garden. Then along came television and Arnold Palmer. It wasn’t long before tickets had to be purchased in advance. No daily tickets, except for the practice rounds, were sold. Initially, a season badge allowed the badge holder admission all seven days, but to allow more fans to enjoy the Masters experience, badge holders were restricted to the four rounds of competition.

All the while, the golf course stood the test of time as seasoned veterans seemed to win more often than not. The 1950s saw the waning days of Ben, Byron and Sam. Along came 60s — Arnold, Gary and Jack. Time marches on. There was Ben Crenshaw, Tiger and Phil. Then Bubba and a polite and well-mannered Texan name Spieth.

This year’s tournament has been a tribute to Palmer and why not? Perhaps, no previous winner brought more fans through the gates. It is fitting that the club passed out buttons this week which proclaimed, “I am a member of ‘Arnie’s Army,’” noting that the army officially mustered in 1959. When Arnold mustered out from here last April, after taking a debilitating fall earlier in the year, he looked frail and un-Palmer like, having been, in his prime, a picture of perfect health, an Adonis whom we never expected to age.

It has become second nature every year at the Masters to recall clubhouse conversations and scenes over the years. The locker room where the players congregated was an impressionable setting to eavesdrop. Snead, given to ribald humor, was accommodating with most writers unless he was suspicious. His West Virginia hillbilly slang still resonates in my mind. He was different, but we summed him up as “colorful.” Even though he had spent time in the company of Hollywood personalities and millionaires, he seemed most at home discoursing about the tour, the tournament and his latest fishing outing among down home folk.

Once, I saw him walk into the old locker room and kick the lintel above a door, which was at least two feet above his head. It would be difficult to imagine a golfer ever being more agile and athletic than Snead who never won the U.S. Open, a reminder that we should never forget that there always will be unfathomable story lines in sport and begs this question: How could Orville Moody win the U.S. Open and Sam Snead not? Sam always said that “it was not meant to be.”

When Spieth hit it in the water at No.12 on Sunday in the final round a year ago, I could hear ‘Ol Sam saying in one of those locker room conversations: “You never hit it short on that hole. Always hit it long.” If you reflect back on the history of the tournament, those who lost an opportunity to win the Masters at Amen Corner, more often than not, hit their tee shot short on No. 12.

The biggest buzz to take place on the grounds came when Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard after he shot 65 in 1968. Roberto made birdie 3 at No. 17, but his playing partner, Gainesville’s Tommy Aaron, inadvertently wrote down 4, allowing Bob Goalby to win the tournament outright as opposed to a playoff when De Vicenzo had to accept a higher score as the rules dictate. Aaron, who had not won an official tour event at that time, was keeping Roberto’s card that day.

In all the excitement that ensued, De Vicenzo became distracted and signed his scorecard without double-checking, hole by hole, which is a longtime tradition for most players. Aaron was severely criticized by many reporters, but I can remember Jack Nicklaus speaking out on behalf of Aaron. I can hear Jack saying emphatically and repeatedly, “It’s not Tommy Aaron’s fault.” Anyone who knows the rules of golf realizes that Nicklaus was right. You are responsible for your own score in golf.

There is a photo in the new press building which shows Nelson and Ben Hogan posing for the photographers before their 18-hole playoff in 1942. The generous smiles don’t reflect their attitude toward one another, according to the senior writer on the grounds this week, Dan Jenkins. “They were caddies and rivals as kids in Fort Worth [Texas],” Jenkins says, “but they were never real close. Hogan and Sam Snead were close friends.”

Always good to enjoy lunch with Verne Lundquist and member Bill Griffin early in Masters week. While Verne no longer will be the play-by-play face and voice of Southeastern Conference football, he will continue to help CBS broadcast the Masters, the PGA Championship in August and college basketball as well. As a result of giving up SEC football, Verne plans to have back surgery in late summer and recuperate in the fall. “This will be quite a change for me,” he said. “[My wife and I] will really miss being on the campuses of the league, and we will miss the many friends we have made. We will miss those friends more than anything.”

Bill Griffin hosted former Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak and Kubiak’s friend Kelly Raper for breakfast Friday morning. Kubiak remembers playing Georgia in 1980 in Athens one week before his Texas A&M Aggies had upset Penn State in the home opener at College Station, 25-9. “When we lined up for kickoff, we heard the P.A. announcer saying that freshman tailback Herschel Walker would be receiving the kickoff. “I turned to a teammate and said, “Who’s this guy?”

“After running up and down the field on us and gaining 150 yards or so, we knew who Herschel was. He was one of the toughest running backs I ever saw play. You marvel at a guy who has that kind of speed and power.”

Kubiak is keenly appreciative that former Bulldogs running back Terrell Davis has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “We got a couple of negative reports about him around draft time (1995), but I called Greg Davis (former Georgia assistant) who told me that Terrell had been hurt which affected his performance, but that he had an exemplary attitude and loved to compete. We drafted him in the sixth round, and he turned out to be one of the best picks we ever made at Denver.”

Meanwhile, the wind kept up its menacing pace at the Augusta National with a leaderboard which reflected names which are not exactly household. Household names at the Masters, however, likely will set the pace for the weekend. Stay tuned.

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