LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Friday at The Masters

Published 9:30 am Friday, April 8, 2022

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AUGUSTA – Sixty years ago, in 1962, Arnold Palmer had won two Masters tournaments and was often referred to as “the Pennsylvania strong boy.”  Writers frequently commented in their columns about his “blacksmith forearms.”  The only player of note with greater distance off the tee was a younger Jack Nicklaus.

Seasoned Masters’ observers considered a highlight of Masters’ week, to be Arnie’s decision whether to go for it or not with his second shot on the 15th hole which then measured 520 yards.  It was a high drama scene.  After a long drive up the right side of the fairway, Arnold would study the distance intently.  f he reached for his three-wood, a roar, tantamount to that of making of a 25-foot birdie putt to win the tournament on Sunday, would resonate throughout the premises. 

With the passing of time, technology would “rear its ugly head,” and we noted that Nicklaus in 1963, turned on his driver and flew the ball so far on the 15th, that he had only a seven-iron shot to the green. In 1997, the year of Tiger’s first Masters victory, he reached the hole known as Firethorn with driver and a nine iron.

In recent years, most players were connecting with the 15th hole, using irons for their second shots. Now we are back to more Arnold like decision making. With officials adding 20 yards to the 15th hole this year, the players are likely to be using wood shots to clear the pond in front of the green.

The only hole which has not been lengthened is the par 3, 12th hole which was 155 yards in its beginning days of designer Dr. Alister MacKenzie.  It is 155 yards this week. 

In 1962, the course measured 6,925 yards. Today, it is 7,510.

After he was invited to join the club, Nicklaus became an active member and eventually began using the member tees. One day, he walked off the tee at the 15th hole, turned around and looked back to the championship tee and said, “You mean I won from back there?”

One of the relaxed times of the week comes when the honorary starters hit their tee shots early Thursday morning and then repair to the press building where they field questions which generally land in the nostalgia category.

Thursday, Nicklaus, Gary Player and newcomer to the honorary starter threesome, Tom Watson, talked about everything from Tiger Woods’ return to the field to the champions dinner which included two highlights: One, came when Watson asked Nicklaus to recall what went through his mind when he walked up the 18th fairway in 1986 to win for the sixth time. “You could tell the guys (former champions) wanted to hear the inside (from Jack).   

The other had to do with defending champion Hideki Matsuyama who doesn’t speak much English but had prepared himself to speak without notes and from the heart. “After the speech was over,” Watson said, “he goes, ‘Whew,’ like that. Simultaneously everybody got up to give him a standing ovation because we really appreciated the effort that he put in it to go through several minutes in English when he had a hard time doing it.”

There were frequent references to the international influence which has been brought about by golf and also the Masters, especially with Player who is the first international player to win this tournament.

I was sitting by former U. S. Senator, Sam Nunn, who finds this particular press conference each year, a highlight of the week. He agreed when it was suggested that it would be nice if the United Nations enjoyed a similar atmosphere. Seeing Verne Lundquist, now the dean of Masters announcers, on the grounds is always a time for laughter and storytelling. Verne, a seasoned raconteur, will be spending next weekend in Athens where he will be honored by the UGA chapter of the National Football Foundation. He will also be the keynote speaker at the awards banquet of the nation’s No. 1 chapter.  One of Verne’s favorite Masters stories has to do with Steve Melnyk who, at one time, was a member of the CBS network crew at Augusta. Melnyk was working the 12th hole when he got the que from Pat Summerall.  Melnyk was prepared and ready.

“Thank you, Patrick,” Melnyk began, waxing fulsomely. “We are at the par 3 155-yard 12th hole. The tall Georgia loblolly pines are standing sentry to the waters of Rae’s creek as they meander by. Nick Faldo is on the tee.  He has chosen a seven iron. The wind is rushing from his rear.”