Masters brings back memories of past champions


AUGUSTA – Last week was one for reminiscing about milestone victories — principally, Jack Nicklaus winning his sixth Green Jacket here in 1986 and Gary Player becoming the first international winner fifty years ago.

In the last 25 years — since Nicklaus won his 18th major — all Masters, except 1997 when Tiger Woods won by 12 strokes over Tom Kite (270 to 282), have been decided by five strokes or fewer. There have been eight playoffs during this time, and more often than not only one or two strokes separated the competitors who finished first and second.

It was also 77 years ago last week that the Augusta National founders reversed the nine holes, making the first nine holes then the final nine that we are familiar with today.

There are truly no easy holes at Augusta, although modern technology has made the par fives play like par four holes today for many of the players.

Amen Corner, followed by the influence of water at the 13th, 15th, and 16th holes, have created opportunity for some and heartbreak for others.

Nobody knew that television would some day play such a defining role at the drama of the back nine on Sunday at the Masters, but the current first nine holes could not possibly provide the dramatic finishes that the Masters has become known for.

Sunday, there seemed to be more contenders with a legitimate chance to win the event than ever before as the drama played out over the final holes. Ken Venturi gets credit for coming up with the phrase, “The Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday.”

For many years, this has been the case annually. Sunday was no different as Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to claim his first major. And if you haven’t noticed, in the last five majors the only American to win was Phil Mickelson, here a year ago.

What about Tiger Woods? Like it was with Jack in 1986, Tiger should never be counted out. His game is not what it was when eight-foot putts in recent years seemed to be “gimme’s” for him. He was the Tiger of old on Sunday, making putts and seemingly headed to come-from-behind to win a major, something he has never done.

However, the result of personal problems, inconsistency in his game, and the young guns who are no longer afraid of him are making his challenge much greater. They are fearless and they will make it difficult for him to ever dominate again.

Jack Nicklaus brought up an interesting subject earlier in the week, which he has touched on previously. Today’s young golfers all have a variety of coaches. They have a swing coach, a nutrition coach, a brain coach, and a workout coach. Can you imagine what Ben Hogan and Sam Snead would think of such?

None of those coaches have ever hit a golf shot under pressure. The old guys — who never wore their hats indoors, by the way — figured out what was wrong with their game and swing themselves. This brings to mind an anecdote from Jack Grout, the pro who taught Nicklaus in his youth.

Once when Jack had a concern about his swing, a call went out to Grout. Nicklaus asked if he could come see him that afternoon. Jack hopped on a plane, flew to where Grout was, and walked out on the practice tee and said, “I want you to tell me if I am hitting over the top.” Grout threw a couple of balls on the practice tee. Jack hit the balls. Grout told Nicklaus, “You’re not hitting over the top.” Jack thanked Grout, went back to the airport, and flew home.

As an aside, they are crying in their beer in Belfast, Ballycastle, Ballynahinch, Carrickfergus, Donaghadee, and Magherafelt today, but they should take heed. Rory McIlroy will make them toast a major victory before long.

[For 36 years the sideline radio reporter for the Georgia Bulldogs, Loran Smith now covers a bigger sideline of sports personalities and everyday life in his weekly newspaper columns.]