Columnist: How The Masters has changed

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 7, 2016

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

AUGUSTA — The Masters is not what it use to be. Father time has taken care of that which means every year we poignantly realize that the ole timers are not so old anymore. You compare birthdays and realize if you were a former champion, you would be hitting from the forward tees.

Jack Nicklaus does that when he, as a member, comes here for friendly matches. After walking off No. 15 recently with a group he was hosting, he turned around and looked at the championship tees and exclaimed, “You mean I won from back there!”

In his prime, Nicklaus could hit the ball further than anybody. He seldom entered the long drive contests, which once were popular pre-tournament staples, but when he did, more often than not, he won the competition.

“You can’t imagine what an advantage a guy like that has over someone like me,” said the late Jerry Barber, whose physical dimensions were 5-5, 137. “He can hit it over trouble that others have to play through. He was speaking of the mounds and hills that have long been a feature of the Augusta National Golf Club.”

Barber, who won the 1961 PGA championship, wasn’t complaining but was pointing out the difference between his game and that of the power hitters. “When they are hitting five irons and you’re hitting three woods, that’s a hell of a difference.”

Driver, wedge is an ongoing combination on the tour today as every player seems to have the long distance habit. In the ’60s, I can remember how exciting it was for Arnold Palmer to move his tee shot in position to go for the green on his second shot at No. 15. He would walk briskly to where his tee shot ended up, survey the distance, check the wind and dramatically take his time before making a decision, never a foolhardy one, but nonetheless a gamble which carried risk.

When he reached for his three-wood, gallery emotions, hoots and cheers rose to a crescendo that resounded over the golf course. If you were playing the first hole, just getting your round underway, you knew what was taking place.

Golf equipment manufacturers have made the game easier, via technology, for everybody, including the weekend players. But it has robbed us of the anticipation of the excitement that came with Arnold Palmer’s go-for-broke decisions on No. 15.

If today’s players don’t dazzle us with their assortment of wedges and their putter, the game offers less drama than in Arnold’s time. That’s why, we hold contempt for Father Time. But, we can remember Arnold and the way it was. What a wonderful memory if you joined his Army in his prime years at Augusta.

Some scenes and/or stories from the past, worth remembering:

A big, burly and oversized guy shaking hands with Gary Player one year with such exuberance that he literally crushed the little South African’s hand causing him to play the Masters with a troublesome soreness. In their prime, golfers are likely to give you the “dead fish” handshake for good reason.

Gene Sarazen saying that there were 23 people who witnessed his double eagle in 1935. Playing in his group was the great Walter Hagen and having just walked up was club founder Bobby Jones.

“I had two good witnesses,” Sarazen cracked, ‘Jones and Hagen.’”

Over the years, Sarazen said there are hundreds, “maybe thousands,” who claimed to have seen his remarkable shot.

Sarazen recalled a funny incident when, during a taping of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, the network was hosting a group of Japanese businessmen who kept hearing references to the “double eagle man.”

“They thought I was an Indian chief,” Sarazen said.

The buzz that came about when Gary Player became the first foreigner to win the championship in 1961. There are a dozen foreigners who could win this week and it would not turn any heads. Golf has truly become international.

The daylong time chairman, Cliff Roberts, walked into the old lower clubhouse and said aloud: “Who’s in charge of Easter?” He didn’t understand how it could be that if Christ was born on December the 25th, why did his death not come on the same date? With Easter dates changing from year to year, Roberts was flummoxed and frustrated as he planned for future Masters tournaments.

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.