AUGUSTA, Ga. – At 9:45 on a fresh March morning in 1934, a professional golfer of modest esteem named Ralph Stonehouse stepped to the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club and, with the swing of a driver, wrote across the sky the first words in the history of one of golf’s grandest tournaments, the Augusta Masters.
Stonehouse played in two Augusta Masters without earning a dime and then faded back into life as a club pro, but what he unwittingly set in motion struggled to maturity and then blossomed into what it is today.
The curtain goes up on the 75th Masters today and by week’s end, something wonderful will have happened. It always has. It’s a place where magic is real.
Boys dream of playing in the Masters, men dream of winning it. Six hundred and 42 men have tried to win it, 42 have succeeded.
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Tradition lies so heavily on this place and this event that the Augusta Chronicle this week ran a story and photos about one of the 61 150-year old trees on the famed Magnolia Lane that had fallen during a Monday night storm. And it was newsworthy that lightning had cut power at the company that provides the pimiento cheese sandwiches that have become a part of the Masters experience.
In the old, white clubhouse sitting atop a hill, an ancient four-wood and an equally aged golf ball sleep in a glass case. They are the club and the ball Gene Sarazen, who favored knickers and was known as the Squire, used to score a double eagle on the 15th hole in 1935. It led to a tie with Craig Wood and forced a playoff, which Sarazen won. Those relics are the centerpiece of all that has transpired out there among the azaleas and dogwoods.
Virtually every great and near-great golfer from that time until today has played in this tournament, from Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones to Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
There was a golden era in the late 1940’s and 1950’s when Ben Hogan and Sam Snead won five of six Masters between them. For those who were there, the image of Hogan limping up the last fairway, snap-bill cap pulled low, shirt buttoned at the neck, cigarette clinched in his lips, eyes fixed on the task ahead, is a lasting one. And Snead with his straw hat and the best swing God ever gave a man lives in the grainy reruns of our minds, as well.
There was another golden time, the late 1950’s until 1966, when Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player won eight of nine Masters between them. We dubbed them the Big Three but they were bigger than big, they were a gift from the golf gods.
Over the years, the course has been altered, trees have been planted, subtle structures have risen, this and that have been tweaked in a restless pursuit of perfection but at its heart, it’s unchanged. It’s the Masters.