AUGUSTA – Masters champions keep coming back. Augusta is home. There is no place where they are more welcomed. They are easily recognized in their green jackets, their graying hair and mid-sections more ample than in their days of yore.
You can spot them under the big oak, enjoying a respite in the adoring Masters atmosphere with an accent on yesteryear. It was 35 years ago today that Fuzzy Zoeller became the first rookie to win the tournament since Gene Sarazen in 1935. With a few appearances on the Senior Tour — an aching back has always dictated his golf schedule — he is far from inactive. He promotes his corn based vodka, “Fuzzy’s Utra Premium Vodka,” along with his Indy car, No. 20. For 25 years, he was a fixture at the Kentucky Derby, which takes place just across the Ohio River from his home in Indiana. This May, however, he is spending more time in Indianapolis. “I never had a horse in the Derby, but I am excited about having a car in the Indy 500.”
He took the time Saturday on the best day of the Masters — shirt sleeve weather, azaleas and dogwood at peak color — to reminisce about the magical week he enjoyed in April, 1979. “The best thing that could have happened to me was when Hale Irwin invited me to play a practice round on Monday. When we got down to Amen Corner, he took me over to all the fountains and the plaques. He told me about the history of the Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen bridges. I remember him saying, ‘You probably won’t have time after today to enjoy the history of this place. It was a wonderful experience, and I have never forgotten Hale’s hospitality.”
A two time major champion—he won the U. S. Open in a playoff with Greg Norman at Wingfoot in 1984 — Fuzzy lists to the sentimental side. He was the only former champion to show up on Thursday to see Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player start the Masters with their ceremonial tee shots. “I am a big fan of all three of these great champions,” he said.
As he took a seat near the entrance to the lower grill, he was warmly greeted by members, but most of all the club staff. He has always been a champion of the little man. Beer and hot dogs. Hunting and fishing. Country music.
Fuzzy can’t talk about 1979 without frequently referring to his caddie, Jerry Beard. “He never missed a read,” Fuzzy began. “Every club selection was perfect.” Sunday would see him getting into a playoff with Tom Watson, his playing partner, and Ed Sneed, who did not play badly, nonetheless, bogeyed the last three holes to bring about a playoff. A critical hole for Fuzzy was No. 15 in the days before the equipment enabled golfers to hit it a half mile. “The rule of thumb back then was if your tee shot was far enough down the fairway that you could see water, then it meant you should go for the green. My drive was probably about 280 which meant I was 236 yards from the front edge of the green. I hit a three wood “screecher” to the middle of the green. It carried about 245 yards.” A birdie and three pars meant that he felt good about himself. He had played well, and he knew he would have an invitation to return to the Masters. After signing his score card, the seasoned Watson said to Fuzzy, “Don’t go anywhere, we may have more golf to play. When Sneed bogeyed the final hole, they headed for No. 10 and a playoff. Each player made par at the 10th hole. Fuzzy soon gained the advantage on the second playoff hole when he hit his drive over the crest of the hill. He had an eight iron shot which he hit to four and a half feet. As soon as he handed his eight iron to his caddie, Jerry said, “Right center.” Fuzzy made the birdie putt to win.
“There was no question, I was in the right place at the right time in 1979 ,” Fuzzy smiled. “But it wouldn’t have done me any good had Jerry Beard not been on my bag.”