Thursday 23 November 2017

Masters hopefuls spring into action on a trail blazed by amateur Carr

US Masters invitee and Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose
US Masters invitee and Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose

Dermot Gilleece

For the first time, this year's invitees include the Olympic gold medallist from Rio de Janeiro. And as if to emphasise the distinction it draws between the game's aristocrats and humble aspirants, the currently inactive Rory McIlroy is exempted under no fewer than five categories.

With its 81st staging, the US Masters holds a special place in golfing thoughts at this particular time of year. In fact, next Wednesday happens to be the golden jubilee of a breakthrough for Irish challengers, whose number has grown steadily over the years to 14 - nine of them professionals.

On February 1, 1967, two months prior to the great event, a typewritten letter addressed to Joe Carr, arrived at "Suncroft", his home overlooking the second green of Sutton GC in north Dublin. Originating at 75 Poplar Street NW, Atlanta 3, Georgia, it began: "Dear Joe - To my great delight I have just found on my desk your letter to Cliff Roberts saying that you will play in the Masters this year."

The letter went on: "Please be assured that it will give us all, especially me, much pleasure to welcome you. I hope you will have your game in the best possible condition and that we may be able to cause you to have a good time. With best regards . . ." In spidery handwriting, it carried the signature "Bob Jones."

Though Christy O'Connor Snr, as an ever-present member of the British and Irish Ryder Cup team at that time, would have had a perennial invitation to the Masters, Carr was the first Irishman to make the journey. Ironically, the next from these parts was Christy O'Connor Jnr, who played in 1977 on the foot of his Irish Open triumph at Woodbrook two years previously.

Carr's appearance there would have been seen as nothing extraordinary for one of the game's most decorated players. Yet it caused quite a stir among the Georgia pines. Notification of his special invitation came from Roberts, the notoriously authoritarian chairman of the host club.

"On my arrival, I also accepted the offer of club membership, which I relinquished after five years," said Carr. "Though I could afford it at the time, the annual subscription of about $7,500 was difficult to justify for what was generally only a yearly visit."

For his debut, Carr was honoured by being paired with no less a figure than Jack Nicklaus (below), who was aiming for an unprecedented third successive Masters triumph. But, lo and behold, things went badly for the Bear, who gained the unwanted distinction of becoming the first defending champion not to get through to the weekend. Where Carr carded rounds of 76, 74 to make the cut, Nicklaus shot 72, 79 to miss by one.

"Playing with Jack was a wonderful experience," Carr went on. "There was a gallery of close on 5,000 watching us and they're shouting, 'Go get him Jack. Go, go Jack.' Of course whoever played with him was supported as well, which meant I got shouts like, 'And you too, Irish'."

Later, on realising that he had squandered the opportunity of something unique in '67, despite his eventual six Augusta triumphs, Nicklaus said: "I just happened to play like a dog that year, especially with that second-round 79. But I never thought about winning three in a row. The hardest thing was to win it the first time. After that, it became a lot easier."

After the Bear's departure, the entire course was electrified on the third day when Ben Hogan, at 54, recaptured much of his old magic in a stunning homeward journey. Having turned in 36 while struggling with aching shoulders and legs, he suddenly rolled back the years in an inward 30 which contained birdies at the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, and 18th, and pars at the other three holes.

His 66 was the lowest round of the tournament and though his record inward 30 was later equalled by Gary Player in 1978 and Nicklaus in 1986, it was 1992 before it was eventually surpassed by a 29 from Mark Calcavecchia.

"I've never seen anything like the excitement," Carr later told me. "Everybody, including myself, went out on the course when we heard what he [Hogan] was doing. I remember he had to hole an awkward putt on the 18th for his 30, but he managed to get it in. It was one of the most spectacular scenes I have ever witnessed in golf."

Sadly, the mood deserted The Hawk on the following day, though he still shared 10th place behind Gay Brewer in what would be his last Masters. Two months later, he made his US Open swansong at Baltusrol where, interestingly, he was tied 34th behind Nicklaus, two strokes ahead of Brewer. Later that year, he underwent the last of four operations on a damaged left shoulder, by way of demonstrating that even a flawless technique was no protection against injury.

Carr went on to make the cut again in 1968, when his partner for the opening 36 holes, Arnold Palmer, proceeded to do as Nicklaus had done by missing the cut. The Dubliner recalled: "The consequence of this was that when we sat down to eat on that Friday night, Roberts said: 'Well, now, we're thinking of inviting Carr back next year, but who in the name of God will play with him?' So they gave me Sam Snead in 1969 and neither of us made the weekend." Still, he remains the only Irish amateur to have played all four rounds in the Masters.

His Augusta appearances also became especially memorable for Carr for his visits to Bobby Jones and his wife, Mary, in their cabin in the club grounds. By that stage, the great man was in the advanced stages of a crippling back illness, syringomyelia. On one such occasion, Mary asked their guest how he had played. "Before I had a chance to answer," said Carr, "Bob interjected, 'Mary, if Joe had done well, he would have told you long ago.' As it happened, I had just shot an 84."

Carr went on: "He bore his illness with astonishing grace. Indeed he was as excited as the rest of us with Hogan's spectacular farewell to the Masters in 1967."

By a remarkable coincidence, this year's tournament dates of April 6 to 9 are exactly the same as they were on that occasion, when the course measured 6,980 yards, compared with the current length of 7,435. The biggest change, incidentally, is to the seventh, which has been stretched from 365 to 450 yards.

As for the field: Justin Rose has two other exemptions, apart from the Olympics, and Sandy Lyle and Larry Mize are among past champions who are competing once more, though Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam are not.

Shane Lowry qualifies this year through a world-ranking of 43rd at the end of 2016 and as a top-four finisher in last year's US Open. Will there be further Irish? Former Mullingar GC captain Mick Duffy certainly thinks so, given that he has backed Pádraig Harrington at 300/1 for a coveted green jacket.

Currently 123rd in the World Rankings and with another top-50 cut-off point coming on March 27, the Dubliner clearly has much work to do in simply getting there. But the Masters seems to instil remarkable optimism into punters and players alike.

And the countdown has begun.

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