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Sports Desk: Masters Memories

Historically, The Masters has had enough high drama to warrant it being described as the classic sporting event – the ultimate in championship praise – but there is more to excite than the competition itself. If you’ve ever been there, you know what I’m talking about.

The heart-thumping birdies and the costly bogeys, the come-from-behind finishes, the history and the traditions remind us that the Masters is an elite event that brings us back year after year with the keenest anticipation. Just as we can’t truly enjoy football without a tailgate party, the TV broadcast must have a pregame show – which sometimes is more riveting and uplifting than the game itself.

If you are a Masters aficionado, you come for the unparalleled competition but are also thrilled by the azaleas at peak bloom, the fragrance of the comforting dogwoods and the inviting grounds, which feature extraordinary natural beauty. The rolling hills, the undulating tundra, the waters of Rae’s Creek meandering through Amen Corner and the wind whistling through the tall Georgia pines – that’s all part of the Masters experience.

People pay big bucks on the scalper’s market just to see a practice round. They travel long distances, some across oceans, for a glimpse of the hallowed Augusta National. For many Georgians, getting there is easy geographically, but gaining entry into the tournament consists of the same challenges as it is does from six states away. Or from Paris or St. Andrews.

I began covering the Masters while in college for the Athens Banner-Herald in 1960 and haven’t missed a tournament since. Like the rest of the golf world at that time, I joined Arnie’s Army, overwhelmed with the emotions and excitement that left me with voluminous notes, unforgettable memories and audiotapes from conversations with Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and many others.

The most fun is the renewal of friendship. Even now, I can’t wait to enjoy a pimento cheese sandwich, a signature Masters treat,  with Dan Jenkins, the Hall of Fame writer and oldest living Augusta correspondent – a seasoned and exalted soothsayer. Dan, an incorrigible college football fan, is the one to whom young writers gravitate for confirmation of facts, a dose of Masters nostalgia and his latest one-liners, such as, “The NCAA ought to be abolished before sundown.” Lunch with Verne Lundquist of CBS and Augusta National member Bill Griffin has a similar anticipation like that of a major holiday. I just can’t wait.

There were the years when I followed the leaders every step of the way for Sunday’s final round, but the most fun was sitting down on the veranda of the clubhouse – once the manor house of an indigo plantation that eventually segued into the Augusta National Golf Club – and having a former champion like Gene Sarazen or Sam Snead take a seat at your table and begin an informal conversation. They were accommodating and nostalgic.

Like Sarazen talking about his famous double eagle at the 15th hole in 1935. He was playing with the colorful Walter Hagen when he stroked his four wood, landed his ball on the green and watched it bounce into the hole. This got him into a playoff in which he defeated Craig Wood, 144 to 149. Sarazen remembered that there were “23 people” who started jumping up and down. “One of those 23 people,” Gene said, “was Robert T. Jones. I had great witnesses.”

Snead’s West Virginia vernacular was as alluring in conversation as his colorful commentary, often laced with ribald humor. He could be insightful, never dull, saying anything that came to mind. Sarazen and Snead have gone on and so has Red Bullock, my high school coach, who settled in nearby Evans and traded a room for a comp ticket.

Furman Bisher, the esteemed Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, knew before Billy Payne did that Payne would become the Masters chairman. I take pride in what Billy has done to upgrade the facilities and the image of Augusta National, while growing the game of golf with kids internationally.

Finding a critic of the Masters would be akin to finding a cigarette butt on the grounds during the tournament. The Masters is the classiest event in sports. Wimbledon and the Kentucky Derby come close, but there’s nothing like the Masters. If Dan Jenkins and Furman Bisher agree, how can I be second guessed?

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