Letter from St. Andrews: Window into History

The Masters celebrates a big birthday this year—number 75. If it were an American male, it would already have exceeded its life expectancy. As a golf event, it’s even more impressive. On the pro circuit, only the three other majors and a handful of others are older—and none of those entered the world at quite as challenging a time.

In 1934 the U.S. was in the depth of the Great Depression. Fortunes large and small had been lost. Nearly half of the nation’s banks had been forced to close, and those still open were being robbed by either John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde.  Housing starts were down 80 percent and unemployment had reached 25 percent—the American Dream had become a nightmare. Meanwhile overseas Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini were on the rise.

The odds were stacked severely against any enterprise debuting in 1934, but the Augusta National Golf Club had one thing going for it—the odd coupling of Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts. America’s most beloved sports hero had teamed with a stone-faced Wall Street financier and somehow they had thrived.

Oh, there were some uncertain moments. They mis-christened their baby The Augusta National Invitational before naming it properly at age five. And in the tournament’s first year the front and back nines were the reverse of what they are today—but fundamentally it must be said that Bobby and Cliff were one set of single-sex parents who got things right. When in year two little Gene Sarazen hit the “shot heard ’round the world” pro golf had itself a promising new deal.

Then, just as the Masters approached its adolescence, its growth was stunted by World War II. No tournaments were held for three years while  Alister Mackenzie’s big and beautiful golf course, once the site of a magnificent horticultural nursery, grimly joined the war effort as a breeding ground for cattle and turkeys.

When smiling Jimmy Demaret won in 1947, however, it was a sure sign that the Augusta National recovery was well under way. The remainder of that decade and start of the next brought the first great Masters rivalry as a pair of returning GIs named Hogan and Snead gave golf fans a taste of what the coming Cold War would be like.

Then in a remarkable confluence of forces President Dwight Eisenhower brought golf to the forefront of Americans’ minds, television brought it into their homes, and Arnold Palmer brought it into their hearts. The game boomed as never before, and no event prospered more certainly than Ike’s favorite, the Masters.

The years that followed—the 1960s through early 70s—were a turbulent  era, marked by a controversial war in Vietnam,  a counter cultural revolution on on America’s campuses, widespread racial unrest, the assassination of one president and impeachment of another. And even at Augusta, things were occasionally a bit shaky. While Palmer, Nicklaus and Player gave the fans plenty of thrills—combining for eight green jackets in a nine-year stretch—Arnie’s victory over young amateur Ken Venturi in 1958 was marked by final-round controversy involving both a ruling in Arnie’s favor at the 12th hole and the pairing of tournament leader Venturi with Sam Snead rather than Byron Nelson, as was traditional. (Nelson was Venturi’s mentor.) In 1968 the tournament hit its lowest mark when the apparent victor Roberto de Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard and was disqualified. This was also the period when Charlie Sifford became the first man of color to play the PGA Tour and won two official events but never received an invitation to the Masters.

During the next two decades the advent of the personal computer would make the world grow suddenly smaller. On the world political front, Mr. Gorbachev took down his wall, paving the way for an expanded and more powerful European community.

Globalization was also evident Augusta, with the list of international invitees accounting for an ever larger percentage of the field. Nonetheless, Jack Nicklaus remained the man to beat and his only consistent rivals were Americans—notably Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd, and Tom Watson. Curiously absent was any challenge from Europe. Indeed, as the 1970s ended Gary Player remained the only international player ever to don a green jacket.

However, the last major event of the ‘70s was the Ryder Cup, and it was pivotal. Following a suggestion from Nicklaus, the British side—which had become America’s whipping boys, losing 18 of the 22 previous matches—had expanded to include players from continental Europe. There was no change in that 1979 match, the U.S. winning 17 to 11, but in the 14 matches played since then, Europe has won seven, the U.S. six, and one has ended in a tie. At the same time, the tide turned at Augusta as Seve Ballesteros won in 1980, launching a period in which the title would go to foreign players—European players—ten times in 17 years. So rampant was international fever at Augusta that the club agreed to be the golf venue at the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996, until the International Olympic Comittee decided against including golf.

A month after those Olympics concluded, a new era in professional golf began when Tiger Woods said, “Hello world.” His timing could not have been better as America found itself at the crest of a 20-year economic boom, fueled by soaring home prices and a bullish stock market. Technology was among the leading sectors, the digital revolution spawning a vast array of new products and services while also raising ethical/moral questions related to genetic engineering, intellectual rights, and personal privacy.

In 1997, Tiger would win his first Masters as a professional, setting a tournament record of 18 under par that thrilled the fans but rankled the Augusta powers. Technology, they said, had wrought an effect on golf as well, and needed to be either controlled or combated. Their response was to stiffen the challenge of their course, adding 300 yards to the championship tees over the next several years. Their hope may have been to Tiger proof Augusta, but he won again in 2001, 2002, and 2005.

Of course, the major happening of the 21st century was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Ryder Cup that year was postponed, but the following April the Masters returned undeterred—as it should have—and as it does each year, a serene harbinger of warmer days to come.  Indeed, the 2009 tournament approaches—in an economic and geopolitical climate more challenging that at any time since its birth–we should all be grateful for the reminder that is the 75-year-old Masters—the reminder of nature’s power of regeneration and man’s capacity for resilience.



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