Masters built on the edge of CliffHe was far from perfect, but Clifford Roberts was single-minded about the tournament he loved
When Clifford Roberts took his own life in the grounds of Augusta National 40 years ago, his legacy was secure. Through astute guidance and unrelenting authority, he had made the US Masters arguably the most appealing of the Major championships.
Roberts was the quintessential despot. And even at this remove, it is difficult to view the severity of some of his more notorious actions with the amusement they deserve.
A typical example is the mystique surrounding the Masters badge. Augusta National remains the only venue where the possibility of losing or mislaying my media badge was always a source of anxiety. And as if to emphasise the point, I can recall declining offers of $50 for the badge on Mondays after the event, from memorabilia zealots.
So we shouldn't be surprised at Roberts' reaction when famously asked what he would do in the event of a streaker at the Masters. "The first thing I'd do is take his season badge away from him," was his deadly serious response.
Then there was the occasion during the annual Par-3 Tournament when Jackson Stephens, a future chairman, suggested to Roberts that he would like a certain bunker moved from the front to the side of a particular green. There was no response. Several months later, however, the Arkansas billionaire received a note from Roberts saying, "Jack, you were right." Attached was a greenkeeping bill for the cost of moving the bunker.
The Masters is now held at the end of the first full week in April, but there was an occasion when Roberts wanted to shift the tournament's dates. "The problem, Cliff," a committee member pointed out, "is that it means we'll finish on Easter Sunday." Roberts replied: "Well, who's in charge of scheduling Easter this year? We'll get them to move it."
Such single-mindedness, allied to his skill as a former Wall Street financier, made Roberts a very effective partner for Bobby Jones in the founding of Augusta National Golf Club in 1931. He was chairman when the Masters was launched in 1934 and remained at the helm until the end of 1976. After his death in 1977, he became "Chairman in Memoriam".
I never met him but from my first experience of the event, there was no escaping his enormous influence on the Masters. Curiously, stories about him seemed to dominate its extensive literature, even to a greater degree than his illustrious co-founder.
As far back as 1939, with war in Europe looming, Roberts had the confidence to declare: "We have created a tournament of such importance that we are bound to see that it continues." As it happened, the Masters had been running for only eight years when America went to war after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
Though there was a staging in 1942, when Byron Nelson won for a second time, petrol rationing and other restrictions made the closure of Augusta National inevitable. Whereupon the ever-practical club chairman decided to graze cattle on the sacred turf.
Roberts reasoned that the club might profit from the sale of steers which, on the way to maturity, would become four-footed, cost-efficient lawn-mowers. By the time the War was over, however, the club had lost $5,000 on the operation, quite apart from the plants eaten by the temporary guests when the Bermuda grass went dormant.
Yet Roberts remained a practical man. So it was that he duly recouped the loss through the sale of turkeys which were raised on the club grounds.
Later, there were striking examples of his ruthlessness in dealing with those perceived to be threatening his authority. Only 12 months after the heroic effort of sharing second place in 1947, the gifted amateur Frank Stranahan was ejected from the grounds for hitting practice balls on the course, prior to the 1948 Masters.
Some years later, on hearing that certain boisterous Masters spectators were bothering the players, Roberts drove out to investigate. And when he discovered that the culprits were movie star Jackie Gleason and some friends, he took their badges and ordered the Pinkerton guards to escort them off the property. "This is the Augusta National," he told Gleason, "not Broadway."
In 1966, CBS commentator Jack Whitaker incurred his wrath for having the effrontery at the climax of a Monday play-off to refer to Masters fans as "a mob". When I discussed the incident with Whitaker more than 30 years later, he recalled: "I was rushing to get off the air as Nicklaus sank the winning putt and I said, 'Here comes the mob'."
Roberts was so incensed that he instructed CBS to remove Whitaker from future Masters telecasts, though the ban was lifted in 1972.
The most distasteful side of Roberts, however, was his apparent racism. "As long as I'm alive," he was once reported as saying, "golfers will be white, and caddies will be black." In this context, it was 1983, six years after his death, when non-white caddies were finally allowed on Augusta's hallowed greens.
Meanwhile, Lee Elder became the first black competitor in the Masters in 1975, 14 years after the PGA Tour had dropped its Caucasians-only clause. But Charlie Sifford was never invited, despite having met all of the necessary criteria.
A fascinating aspect of Roberts' death was the echo from a seemingly innocent exchange five years previously. That's when Beatle-haired Ben Crenshaw ran into the chairman while heading for the clubhouse.
"How did you enjoy your first round in the Masters, Ben?" Roberts enquired. "Very much, Mr Roberts," Crenshaw replied. "That's fine, Ben. And I think you'll enjoy it a lot more if you'll go get a haircut."
On the morning of September 29, 1977, Roberts had a haircut. Then he went to Ike's Pond on the Par-3 course where he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. At 83, he had been diagnosed with cancer several months previously and had also suffered a debilitating stroke. Remarkably, both his parents had also committed suicide.
Twenty years later, a quartet from Portmarnock GC, enjoyed a rather special treat. Moss Buckley and Diarmuid Moore, along with past captains Seamus O'Shea and Tom Cuddihy, played TPC Sawgrass, followed by three days at Augusta National.
"We stayed in the Clifford Roberts cabin at Augusta as guests of Dick Le Brond, who happens to be an overseas member of Portmarnock," Buckley informed me at the time. "While there, we played the course three times and we also had a round on the Par-3 layout."
He concluded: "Everything was in beautiful condition, just as you would expect."
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