Furman Bisher on a Long Lasting Career

WHEN THE CURTAIN RISES on the 76th Masters, the press tent will be without one of its most enduring characters. Furman Bisher, the longtime columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, will be following the action on TV at home while recovering from a recent surgery, thus ending an attendance streak that’s positively DiMaggio-esque—he’s been to every Masters since 1950. We caught up with the Chapel Hill alum recently to scare up a few of his Masters memories—and at 93, Bisher remains a  charming and candid conversationalist.

Furman Bisher’s career followed the classic newsman’s up-the-ladder tale. Born in the tiny hamlet of Denton, North Carolina, he began in 1938 at the local paper of the slightly larger town of Lumberton before moving on to Charlotte (where he landed a massive scoop: the first and only interview with Shoeless Joe Jackson, of Chicago “Black Sox” infamy), and finally the big city, Atlanta.

His recollections of his first trip to Augusta suggest a very different event from the one we know as the Masters. “It just wasn’t that wondrous,” he says. “Back then, you could drive right in—you didn’t need credentials if you could prove you were a newspaperman. The Masters was covered by baseball writers coming north from spring training—guys like Red Smith, John Kieran, and Shirley Povich.”

When asked what he thought had been the best Masters he’d seen, Bisher offers two answers.  “The first was 1954 with Billy Joe Patton,” he says, referring to the great career amateur who passed away in January of 2011. “Billy Joe was sort of a wild hare. He’d have won the thing if he’d just played a little more cautiously on the back-nine par fives on Sunday afternoon.

“I was with him at a dinner a few years ago,” Bisher continues, “and we were recalling how all these people from his hometown in North Carolina came down on the weekend to pull for him—they just drove right up and bought tickets. He said, ‘We’d gotten to No. 13, I couldn’t make up my mind what shot to hit, so I wound up knocking it in the stream.’ On 15, there were all these people yelling, ‘Go for it, Billy, go for it!’ Well, he listened to ’em, and hit it in the lake.

“Patton said, ‘It was probably just as well I didn’t win it. I could’ve handled the money and the fame, but I’m not sure I could’ve handled the women.’” He wound up one stroke out of a Ben Hogan-Sam Snead 18-hole playoff won by  the Slammer, the final major title of his career.

“The other one,” Bisher continues, “was Nicklaus in 1986. Coming into that week, his earnings were about $186 [actually $4,404]. I’d been with him earlier that week walking a golf course he was building near Atlanta, and he’d hardly even mentioned the Masters. One of our writers, Tom McCollister, wrote a piece saying  ‘It’s past Jack’s time.’

“We ran the story on the eve of the tournament and one of Jack’s housemates, John Montgomery, clipped the piece to the refrigerator so every time Jack went to the fridge he’d see it.

“I remember Jack walking into the press room after the final round and saying, ‘Where’s Tom McCollister!?’ Tom tried to hide but Jack said, ‘No, no, Tom, you really did me a favor. Thanks a lot!’ I followed Jack for some of that final round, but it was such a mob scene you couldn’t really see much. I’ve never seen a larger gallery, and they were just going berserk. That was one that thrilled us all.”

Here’s hoping this year’s Masters serves up some action to give an old newsman some fresh thrills.