25 Years of Masters Memories
Our reporter revisits the controversies, hijinks and story-behind-the-stories
from an eventful career in Augusta
I thought I was in trouble. Over the first three months of my internship the golf editor at Sports Illustrated, Myra Gelband, rarely summoned me into her office, so when she did on an unremarkable March morning my mind went to a dark place. Had someone spotted me sneaking out that six-pack of Swiss Miss hot chocolate packets to take back to my tiny studio apartment on the Upper East Side? Did the mailroom tip her off that a couple weeks earlier I had sent out an absurd number of copies of the magazine to family and friends around the country so they could revel in the four-paragraph item I had typed up for Inside Golf section. (It didn’t even have a byline, but still.) Instead, a thunderbolt: “We think you’re ready for the Masters,” Gelband said. “What do you think?”
I mumbled the affirmative, was summarily dismissed and then, in the hallway, did a jig. This was way back in 1994 and little did I know I was embarking on a quarter-century romance with the Masters, though, like many long-term relationships, it has also had its share of disillusionment and disappointment. This year will be my 25th Masters. I missed Ben Crenshaw’s emotional triumph, in 1995, when I had returned to UCLA to finish my studies. I didn’t make the trip in 2003, Mike Weir’s breakthrough, as I was doing a stint as an editor out of SI’s New York headquarters and the first lil’ Shipnuck was in utero. (I gently argued with the managing editor, and was overruled, on the headline he employed for the Weir cover which turned out to be less than prophetic: A STAR IS BORN.) And I was banned from the premises in 2013, Adam Scott’s star turn, for having done my job with a little too much chutzpah the previous year. (More on that later.) This milestone Masters feels like the right time to look back. Add it up and I’ve spent nearly half a year of my life in Augusta, Georgia. These have been some of the most exciting weeks of my career, and some of the most vexing. I’ve had a front row seat to gods at play, both between the ropes and inside the press room. I’ve dined on the clubhouse veranda with the sport’s royalty and been escorted off the grounds by persnickety Pinkertons. My complicated feelings toward the Masters is best summed up by something Greg Norman once told me: “I never stopped loving Augusta even though it kept breaking my heart.”
You never forget your first glimpse of Augusta National. Circa 1994 the press room was adjacent to the first fairway; I dropped my computer bag and speed-walked up the hill to the first tee. And there it was, a glorious expanse of green that stretched as far as the eye could see. I felt the same sense of awe as the first time I glimpsed the diamond at Candlestick Park as a little boy.
In those days the Masters was a much smaller, more intimate affair, with a crowded little driving range and cramped clubhouse, both of which would subsequently be expanded. A symbol of the old Masters was the balding, immense security guard who crowded the door to the press center. His name was Ede (rhymes with Snead) Harike but everyone called him Tiny. He didn’t just guard the press room he held court, bussing female reporters and making small-talk with the old-timers in a Southern drawl thicker than U.S Open rough. Watching everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson pay homage to Tiny I became intensely curious about the man behind the panatela. He grudgingly consented to an interview and I typed up a one-page profile that became my first byline in the magazine. (These days Augusta National employs a small army of courteous, anonymous security guards and there is no place for an outsized character like Tiny; even if there were, it’s inconceivable that the club would let him or her do an interview.)
During the roaring ‘90’s, when print media was still king, SI rented a dozen or more houses around Augusta and throughout the week cycled in and out hundreds of VIP clients. Every night we would gather for gourmet meals in one of the backyards and often a retired superstar like George Brett or Bobby Orr was imported to drink with the guests and tell their war stories. I was awed by the scale of the operation and taken aback when the successful businesspeople crowded around a 20 year-old kid and pumped me for Tour news or tips for their Masters pools.
I had been brought in as an intern for the nascent Golf Plus section of SI, which launched in January ’94 and went to a half million golf-mad subscribers. No one was prepared for the rapturous reception it received from endemic advertisers. We could scarcely fill the many editorial pages, and at that first Masters the house set aside for edit staffers was oversubscribed. Thus I wound up sharing a room with two twin beds with the esteemed Sally Jenkins. As I would learn through the years, the décor at these Augusta rental houses is, shall we say, eclectic. In one corner of our room there was a stuffed racoon, teeth bared. Sally was so unnerved she covered it with an article of clothing. (I’d like to report it was a lacey unmentionable but I’m pretty sure it was a t-shirt.)
By day I bounded around Augusta National like a puppy dog, soaking it all up. The golf course was different and more interesting then, with no rough and many fewer trees. The ball skittered all over the place, leading to recovery shots that could be heroic or disastrous. Back then you could plop in the grass below the 6th tee, and every day I wound up there enjoying the warm sunshine that for this California kid was a needed balm at the tail end of my first New York winter. Gelband had once been a cub reporter assigned to help out the great Dan Jenkins, which was how the three of us wound up having lunch on the second-story veranda of the clubhouse. It is an incredible spot, with a view of the first tee and the buzz of activity beneath The Tree. The veranda is just steps from the champions locker room, which was expanded a few years ago, offering more room for the players to sequester themselves with a sandwich. Prior to that these celebrated champions tended to dine on the veranda or in the adjoining indoor space. During that first, momentous lunch I was amused to spy Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal enjoying glasses of red wine with their meal. Jenkins, meanwhile, was great company, muttering zingers out of the corner of his mouth, just as you’d expect. I was more in awe of him than Nicklaus, who at one point stopped by to schmooze.
I had to return to New York City to fact-check some of the incoming stories so on that Saturday evening I said my goodbyes in the press room. As I was leaving Augusta National a shady character on Washington Road offered me $1,000 for my media badge. As a college kid with looming tuition I considered it for a split-second but thankfully declined the offer. That prized badge touched off my career-long hoarding of credentials, the fruit of which now covers a wall in my office and fills a couple of boxes in my garage.
I graduated from UCLA at the end of the winter quarter in 1996 and proceeded directly to Augusta, an upgrade on the traditional Spring Break. By then Golf Plus was a money-making behemoth and we had assembled an all-time collection of golf-writing talent: Michael Bamberger, Rick Reilly, Jaime Diaz, John Garrity, Tim Rosaforte and Gary Van Sickle. The press row banter was fast and furious, with witty observations and historical nuggets interspersed with gossip and half-baked story ideas. Observing the divergent approaches each of these pros brought to the job was better than any J School degree. Reilly taught me that information was the coin of the realm; he was obsessed with getting exclusives of all kinds, whether they were stolen moments in the locker room or quotes in the parking lot. “Never ask questions in the press conferences because you don’t want them to know what you’re thinking,” he told me about the other ink-stained wretches. He had another piece of advice: “Never let them see you type.” It diminished the mystique. Rosaforte worked the phones relentlessly, by turns cajoling and conspiratorial. At the end of many calls he sounded like a sated salesman from Glengarry Glenross: “I’ve been straight with you, I appreciate you being straight with me.” Jaime bled on his keyboard, suffering over every word because he cared so much. He made me feel the weight of our spiritual forebears, the Grantland Rices and Herbert Warren Winds and others; now our words would become part of the historical record, too, and that was a weighty responsibility. The voice in Van Sickle’s articles replicated exactly his sardonic musings in the press room, an aspirational trick that is much harder to pull off than it sounds. Garrity wrote out his stories on yellow legal pads, his long pen strokes as elegant as his prose. His leisurely pace was a reminder that for all the running around we did to report the stories it was still critical to make time and space for ruminating and reflecting. Bamberger was a mystery, often disappearing for long chunks of the workday only to emerge with a great piece set in the caddie yard, or at The Patch, or some other unexpected venue. He showed me the value in always looking at things from an unexpected angle.
As seriously as we took the craft plenty of fun was had, too. Our rental houses—now we were up to at least two just for the writers—were in the West Lake development at the edge of town and we had access to the eponymous country club. We’d roll into the clubhouse for breakfast, charging it all to a nebulous master account, then proceed to the range to inspect each other’s action and implement swing theories in real-time. In the evening we often played a twilight 9 before dinner, and then stayed up late talking and snacking. Some of the rental houses had basketball hoops and games of H-O-R-S-E were common. (Garrity from the free throw line is as automatic as Ben Crenshaw stroking two-foot putts.) One dark night Jaime and I were hot-rodding through Westlake’s winding streets—they’re named for golf courses and the SI houses were always on Medinah Lane—when he took a turn wrong and smashed into the curb, damaging the bumper on his rental car and sending a hubcap shooting toward the stars like a UFO. I pulled over and, upon seeing Jaime’s stricken visage, began laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe. But he was worried about getting dinged by Hertz so Jaime made me pledge that, if it came to it, I would back up his story that he had swerved to avoid a deer. I knew then I was a made man.
The 1997 Masters was momentous for a lot of reasons, beginning with how many quarters I saved: I was living in New York again, in a building with only one coin-operated laundry machine, so I borrowed a second golf travel bag from a pal and stuffed it with months’ worth of dirty laundry, which I then washed in the rental house in Augusta. My mom actually helped fold it as she came to that Masters as my guest. I had a received a second place in the annual writing contest conducted by the Golf Writers Association of America and there was no way my proud mother was going to miss the awards dinner. The GWAA writing contest dates to 1957 and the gala dinner is now held every Wednesday night of Masters week. It is the Academy Awards of golf writing and, yes, I know how ridiculous that sounds. But everyone does get dressed up and there is undeniable star power as the player of the year from PGA, LPGA and Senior Tours show up to receive their award and give speeches, along with recipients for the Ben Hogan Award (for a player who overcomes a physical hardship), the Charlie Bartlett Award (for a player who contributes to the betterment of society) and the Jim Murray Award (given to a player who is particularly cooperative and agreeable with the media). The first-place winners among the scribes in the various categories are called up to the stage at the front of a vast room to say a few heartfelt words.
“That’ll be you some day,” Mom whispered at one point.
Gawd, I hoped so.
The ’97 Masters was my first time seeing Tiger Woods play in person. During the first round, as he began his famed back nine rally, my mom and I raced down the hill and caught Tiger as he stood over the ball in the 14th fairway, miles from the green because he had clipped a tree with his drive. He smoked a long-iron and in my mind’s eye I can still see his ferocious action and the majestic arc of the ball. On the do-or-die par-5 15th hole, Barb and I scurried down the right side of the fairway to stake out a good vantage point. Just then Woods’s drive trickled to a stop right in front of us. After he played an expert wedge that set up a game-changing eagle, my mom produced from her purse a contraband camera and I discreetly snapped a picture of her pointing at the divot.
For my first five Masters my stories wound up in Golf Plus. Reilly owned the “game story” that appeared in the national edition of the magazine, furthering the lineage of excellence that began with Herbert Warren Wind and was passed down to Dan Jenkins. (This was the sportswriting equivalent of playing centerfield for the Yankees after Mantle and DiMaggio.) But in 1998 Reilly began writing the back-page column and other folks were given at-bats on the game story. It is a unique challenge. Every reader already knows the outcome so the mandate is to provide perspective and analysis while capturing the electricity of the event. The story has to take golf fans to places they can’t go on the telecast or what’s the point? The deadline pressure is crushing: by the time you do interviews and sit through press conferences and wolf down a greasy dinner it’s usually around 9 p.m. and the story is due 10 hours later. For me, adrenaline and Coca-Cola are the fuel for pumping out the required 2,000 or so words. The hours can feel like minutes; I’ve watched the sun rise over Augusta, Georgia a few too many times.
In 2000, I was tabbed to write my first Masters game story. The lead SI writer had always enjoyed a tremendous luxury: trunking. Since it’s impossible for one scribe to be everywhere at once, a more junior staffer was assigned to follow the winner throughout their Sunday evening responsibilities and celebrations, gathering material that would be funneled to the typist of the game story. This dogged reporter was supposed to shadow the player until they slammed the trunk of their car and drove off. At the 2000 Masters, Rick Lipsey was trunking for me. Hours after Vijay Singh stroked the winning putt, he was walking with his agent to a car parked near the Augusta National clubhouse. Lipsey trailed at a discreet distance but close enough to hear Singh say with some heat,”Kiss my ass, everybody.” He then disappeared into the night, wearing a spiffy new blazer. It was a tantalizing quote that would have added a lot of juice to my story. But Lipsey couldn’t be positive about the context. Was this Vijay’s karmic kiss-off to the ghost of Bobby Jones and a club that had been so resistant to welcoming men of color? Was Singh gloating about having reached the pinnacle of the sport despite a cheating scandal and innumerable naysayers? Or was he merely repeating the punchline to a joke that Fred Couples told him during a practice round? In the absence of certainty I elected not to use the quote, but a day later Singh’s words ran in the Augusta Chronicle, as one of its reporters had been doing his own trunking in Lipsey’s shadow. My beloved editor Jim Herre, a hypercompetitive former newspaperman, was pissed to have been scooped and it’s one of the few times we ever had cross words.
I spent 2002-03 working alongside Jim as an editor in SI’s New York headquarters but was back on the beat and writing the game story for the ‘04 Masters. Sometimes you get lucky with the reporting. I had a strange feeling that Phil Mickelson was going to win that Masters and walked most of his first two rounds with his swing coach Rick Smith and Amy Mickelson, filling up my notebook. When Phil made his walk-off birdie—still the loudest explosion of noise I’ve ever heard on a golf course—I had a ton of good material for what would become my first Masters cover story. In the delirium after the winning putt Smith grabbed me and shouted,”What a great story and you get to tell it!” That’s one of the fun parts of the job—you’re not a protagonist in the drama but close enough to it to feel a deep connection.
Phil’s triumph was the beginning of a run of memorable Masters, including Tiger’s nerve-jangling victory in 2005 and Mickelson’s dominant win the following year. But what I recall most vividly from that stretch is Zach Johnson’s surprise victory in ’07. He had taken the clubhouse lead with a final score of +1 in some of the most brutal conditions ever visited upon Augusta National. As the final few twosomes tried furiously to catch Johnson, CBS somehow lost track of the clubhouse leader. Seeing this, I bolted out of the press room. (For all the walking and talking reporters do throughout the week, the bulk of most Sundays are spent watching the action play out on TV so you don’t miss anything.) Johnson wasn’t on the range or the practice putting green, but I found him sitting in front of a television in the locker room along with his agent. There was only one other reporter there: Bamberger, of course. We exchanged knowing glances.
Johnson was asked how he felt watching his fate play out on TV. “My legs are numb from the knees down,” he said with a laugh. “I’m not sure they’re still attached to my body.” In the end, only Tiger Woods had a chance to catch Johnson, and to do so he would have to hole his approach shot on 18 for an eagle. As Woods sized up the shot Johnson broke up the room by saying what everybody else was thinking: “He’s done stranger things.” While Woods went through his pre-shot routine, Johnson buried his head in his hands. He looked up as Tiger’s approach fluttered well right of the flag. Just like that, the dimpled pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa had won the Masters. There wasn’t a camera in sight and Bamby and I were the only ones there to record the moment. “I honestly cannot believe this is happening,” Johnson said. He was reaching for some garish running shoes for the jacket ceremonies when a club official said firmly,”Let’s keep the golf shoes on.”
After the jacket ceremonies, the champ is brought to the press room while his family is escorted to Butler Cabin to begin celebrating. Once the interviews are over the winner is given 20 minutes or so to spend with his family and then they are all walked over to a grand room in the clubhouse for dinner with the Augusta National membership. Only a few months before the Masters I had done a big feature on Johnson and spent a lot of time interviewing his father Dave. I found him milling around in front of Butler Cabin and he invited me in. I knew this was wading into a grey area. There is not a sign on the door of the cabin that says NO MEDIA but certainly the lords of Augusta wouldn’t be pleased I had penetrated an inner sanctum. Yet how could I say no? Staff reductions meant I now had to do my own trunking. Being in Butler Cabin was great color for my piece, especially when Zach finally walked through the front door and his wife Kim squealed,”Don’t you just look so handsome in green!” (After my article came out I didn’t hear a peep from Augusta National which I took as tacit approval for my hustle.
It is important to note that reporters root for their story, not the players themselves. Most of my colleagues were underwhelmed when the 2009 Masters came down to Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry but that was as peaceful as I’ve ever felt watching a final round because in the preceding 18 months I had been to both player’s hometowns to report long features; I could recycle some of the most colorful material and harvest the best of the unused stuff from the Word files on my desktop. For the trip to Cordoba, Argentina I worked alongside a talented bilingual SI reporter named Luis Fernando Llosa. When Cabrera forged a share of the 54-hole lead at the ’09 Masters I rang Llosa in New York and, with Herre’s blessing, told him to get his butt on a flight to Augusta early the next morning. Somehow we arranged a badge for Luis and he arrived just as Cabrera was teeing off in the final round. He followed along with his people throughout the round, conducting interviews all the while. When Cabrera prevailed I told Luis to take off his credential and follow the new champ everywhere he went and that if any green jackets tried to talk to him he should answer only in Spanish. As I typed my story in the press room Luis was texting me constant updates from the off-campus victory party. It led to probably my favorite lead of any of my game stories: Early Monday morning, hours after he had stolen the 73rd Masters, broken the heart of all of Kentucky, dusted Tiger and Phil, avenged an embarrassed countryman’s epic screwup and cemented his own legend, Angel Cabrera was whooping it up at a rented house in a stately Augusta neighborhood. Two dozen people had turned up for the party—friends, players, caddies, friends of friends. Already a fútbol chant had rang out in the night: “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Pato, Pato!” Cabrera’s nickname has long been El Pato, the Duck. For the final round, Cabrera had worn his trademark Sunday yellow shirt, which turned out to match quite nicely with a green jacket. Now, holding court at his party, the Argentine was barefoot, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. Cabrera’s appetites are like his drives—prodigious. Earlier in the evening a quaint Masters tradition had compelled him to eat a champion’s dinner with the Augusta National members. Eschewing the lobster macaroni and cheese and other delicacies from the buffet, Cabrera settled on an irresistible item called the Tiger Woods Cheeseburger. The burgers were smaller than expected, so a famished Cabrera ate nine of them, washed down by gulps of red wine. Back at the house, as it neared 2 a.m., he took lusty sips of his favorite drink: Coke mixed with Fernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic spirit brewed from grapes and more than 40 herbs and spices. Suddenly a song broke out, to the tune of Happy Birthday: “Saco verde to you/Saco verde to you.” Saco verde, of course, means green jacket. At the song’s end Cabrera disappeared into a bedroom and then emerged wearing a huge smile and the prized blazer, size 46 regular. Everybody screamed, and the party raged on.
Knowing that Luis had Cabrera locked down I was free to trunk Perry. I found his family waiting in a parking lot adjacent to the clubhouse, still dazed by the day’s wrenching conclusion. No tournament breaks hearts quite like the Masters. Perry’s 24-year-old daughter, Lesslye, was taking it the hardest, sitting on the ground alone, clutching a handful of tissues and dabbing at tears. A few months earlier Kenny had walked her down the aisle when she married a local boy in a ceremony that attracted much of Franklin, Kentucky. “She’s so torn up,” Sandy Perry whispered to me about her daughter. “She keeps saying,’This can’t happen twice to him. It’s not fair. He’s too good a person, he’s too good a father. It’s just not right.’” Sandy turned to me and said,“I need a hug.” I’m supposed to be an impartial observer but in that moment it felt like the right thing to do to give her an empathetic squeeze.
The following Masters was my first since embracing Twitter, and I chafed at the onerous policy prohibiting reporters from using cell phones on the golf course. It cut us off from our followers on social media, whom we were there to serve. It also made it impossible to communicate with editors and fellow writers as we tried to coordinate coverage in real-time. Back then there were special viewing platforms set aside for reporters and a few of us beseeched club officials to let us discreetly use our phones there, out of view from TV cameras and spectators. The lords of Augusta were unyielding. During the first round in 2010 I stashed my phone in my back pocket and tweeted a few times from on-course bathroom stalls. I was feeling rather sly until a security guard spied the bulge in the back pocket of my chinos and grabbed me by my badge. He was fixing to call in my infraction but somehow I successfully begged for mercy. That was the last time my cell phone left the press building but my skirmishes with tournament officials were just beginning.
In 2011, boy wonder Rory McIlroy led by four strokes through 54 holes and I had gathered so much good material on his impending coronation my story basically done by lunchtime on Sunday, needing only some brushstrokes of color and a little play-by-play from the final round. I made the fateful mistake of tweeting about how much I was looking forward to a stress-free workday and then Rory promptly imploded, touching off an utterly wild final round during which eight different players were tied for the lead at various points. It felt like my brains were leaking out of my ears, especially since colleagues and electronic followers were giving me the razzing I deserved. When Charl Schwartzel roared to victory I was in bad shape, since I had basically nothing on him in my notebook. In the Sunday evening scramble I did get a tantalizing tidbit from a South African caddie, who told me Schwartzel liked to hunt big game and that he might have once shot a charging rhino. This is the kind of tale that can make a story but the details were sketchy. I couldn’t ask Schwartzel about the rhino anecdote in the champion’s press conference because then every other reporter would have the goods, too. So I waited for him outside the press building. But the green jacket charged with driving the champ to Butler Cabin to rendezvous with his family waved me off and sped away. I sprinted across the grounds but couldn’t get to the cabin before Schwartzel disappeared inside. Now I faced a dilemma: should I burn 20 or 30 minutes of precious writing time to wait for him or cut bait and start typing? I was so desperate I decided to stick around. But when Schwartzel emerged after the agonizing wait I had an even thornier problem: he was in a rapt conversation with Billy Payne, Augusta National’s imperious chairman. Did I dare interrupt? There was only a split-second to decide, as it’s a short walk from the cabin to the dinner with the Augusta National members. I was already fully committed, so I went for it. I mean, if Schwartzel can stare down a charging rhino surely I could handle Payne. Or so I thought.
“Mr Chairman, I’m sorry to interrupt but I’m a reporter and was hoping to ask the champ a quick question.”
Payne’s posture stiffened and he fixed me with an incredulous glare. “Son, this is neither the time nor the place,” he said, all the honey suddenly drained from his drawl. I hadn’t noticed a club official lurking in the shadows but Payne called out to him and said he would like me to be removed from the grounds. Immediately. The man grabbed me by the elbow and spoke into a walkie-talkie. Within seconds I had been loaded into a golf cart with a security guard who was instructed to drive me to my car. I meekly said I needed to retrieve my computer. During the ride across campus my mind reeled. It was going to be utterly humiliating to have a Pinkerton perp-walk me in and out of the press room. So when we arrived at the press building I said I had to use the bathroom but instead strode quickly down a hallway and then up a stairwell, losing my tail. I packed up my computer in a huff and blew out of there without a word to anyone, jogging to my car to make sure I stayed one step ahead of the law. In all of the excitement none of the Augusta National folks had asked to see my badge, which I had stashed in my pocket before lurking outside of Butler Cabin. I had escaped unscathed.
Still, I arrived at the following year’s Masters feeling spiky. During Payne’s traditional Wednesday press conference he did a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting about Augusta National’s grow-the-game initiatives, conveniently ignoring that the club’s retrograde all-male membership practices reduced every female golfer to a second-class citizen. I ripped Payne in a column that GOLF.com put at the top of the homepage beneath an incendiary headline. The next day a green jacket with whom I had built some rapport pulled me aside and said,“You should know the chairman was displeased by your article.” Good.
That Masters was won by a young upstart named Gerry Lester Watson, Jr., better known as Bubba. I had never interviewed Watson or his people and didn’t see him hit a shot in person at that Masters until the 72nd hole. Once again I was scrambling for background on the winner but this time I had an ace up my sleeve. Three months earlier, at Kapalua, my friend Stephanie Wei, the pioneering golf blogger, had befriended a couple of fetching Canadian gals who were on vacation. We were all having drinks at the Ritz-Carlton when Bubba’s then personal trainer, who went by the nickname Fish, invited himself over. He wound up pairing off with one of the Canucks. Bubba, a regular at the Tour’s Bible services, frowned upon this kind of cavorting from members of his inner-circle so I was sworn to secrecy about the dalliance. Now, with Watson on the verge of a victory that would land his photo and my byline on the cover of SI , I weaved through the crowd on the 18th hole, determined to find Fish. When I did, I informed him that we were going to walk into Butler Cabin together. He was agreeable: “Right on, bro.”
The scene in the cabin was a gold mine. Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddely were there to partake in the celebration and I chatted with both. I was getting tons of good material from Bubba’s mom when a tournament official named Buzzy Johnson—incredibly, no relation to Hootie Johnson—recognized me and sidled over. “Hey Alan, you know this is a private party, right?”
I assured him that I had been invited by one of Bubba’s best friends. Unimpressed, he said I had to leave. But on the TV I could see that Watson had ended his press conference so I knew he was only minutes away from arriving at Butler Cabin. To make the scene really sing in my story I needed to place Bubba among his loved ones. I told Buzzy I had to return my drink to the bartender—Butler Cabin is much bigger than it looks on TV—but after doing so I darted into one of the adjoining bedrooms and then slipped into the bathroom. From my experiences with Zach Johnson I knew that when Watson arrived a roar would go up in the cabin. As soon as I heard it I flushed the toilet for verisimilitude and bolted from the bathroom. Well, I tried. Blocking the doorway, arms crossed and eyes aflame, was Jim Armstrong, the general manager of Augusta National.
“Sorry, Jim, I had to tinkle.”
“You’re outta here,” he responded, but just then the new Masters champ walked into the bedroom escorted by a major domo carrying a couple of green jackets in different sizes for Bubba to try on. It was a good scene for my story, and after a little small talk with Watson I once again got a ride on a security guard’s golf cart back to the press room. I recreated my escape route from the year before and slipped away, again avoiding an unceremonious expulsion in front of my peers. But a couple months later the hammer fell: a letter from Augusta National to Herre informing him that I would not be credentialed for the 2013 Masters because I had committed a “procedural violation” by entering Butler Cabin. I was peeved but in my heart of hearts knew the ban was justified after years of playing fast and loose with the rules.
The plot thickened in early 2013 when I took a first-place award in the GWAA writing contest. (Mom was right!) The winning story was, of all things, a detailed oral history celebrating the thrilling final round of the 2011 Masters. I asked Herre what I should do. “Go to Augusta and plant your flag,” he said. So I flew across the country to give a 2-minute speech.
At the GWAA dinner there are always a handful of green jackets in attendance, including the chairman of the media committee, who presents to any reporter covering their 40th Masters a commemorative plaque made from the wood of the felled Eisenhower Tree. (In press room parlance this is known as “getting a piece of the tree.”) To the green jackets–and hundreds of my peers—I offered some defiant words, pointing out that Grantland Rice helped found Augusta National and Herb Wind coined the phrase Amen Corner. Reporters, I noted, are the myth-makers who have always burnished the Masters legend. “Don’t tell us how to do our jobs,” I said, looking right at the table of Augusta National members. “Don’t tell us where to stand or when to tweet. Give us the freedom to tell good stories which entertain golf fans and remind them why they love the Masters so much.”
My phone was in my back pocket and as I spoke it began vibrating wildly as folks in the room were texting and DM’ing me various versions of Hell yeah! It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
In the ensuing years I have tried harder to behave and grow into a more respectable elder statesman. (Though I need to cover 43 more Masters to tie Jenkins’s record, at which point I will be, gulp, 90 years old.) As I’ve stopped jousting with the green jackets the stories have felt like they’re writing themselves. In 2015, when Jordan Spieth was -14 by lunchtime on Friday, I was basically done that evening and thank goodness he didn’t blow it. (Alas, Spieth’s self-immolation in Amen Corner the following year did necessitate a Sunday night rewrite.) During the final round of 2017, I interviewed Sergio Garcia’s father-in-law in an antechamber next to the locker room. I was kneeling next to a coffee table atop which there was a slender book entitled The Wit & Wisdom of Bobby Jones. When the interview was over I leafed through the pages and was captivated anew by the words of the great Jones, who was as handy with a typewriter as a mashie niblick. I stuffed the book in my pocket and that night built my cover story around Jones’s musings and how they pertained to another tortured champion, El Niño. (I returned the book to the exact same spot on the same coffee table the following year.)
And who among us will ever forget the astonishing events of the 2019 Masters? That Sunday afternoon I wiggled into a spot right behind the 18th green and I could feel the noise in my chest when Woods tapped in to finish off his victory. He had climbed the tallest mountain imaginable. Tiger and I turned pro in the same year, 1996, and it’s been an endlessly fascinating journey chronicling his rise and falls and rise again. The Masters will always define his legend and I have loved writing about the victories, the controversies, the bitter defeats—all of it.
As riveting as the Masters competition can be I’m still bothered by the accompanying artifice, with the treacly piano music and endless hagiography inducing in me a reflexive eye-rolling. The Masters is a helluva golf tournament but that’s all it is, and Augusta National is literally the last place I’d want to take a buddies trip for fear of committing a faux pas that would make the azaleas blush. Words are my life and I don’t like to be told how to use them. Patrons? Nah, they’re just fans to me.
Despite the meticulously curated artificial reality, the messiness of real life still intrudes. In 2018, when Patrick Reed won, I couldn’t not write about his controversial college career, which featured an arrest for underage drinking and accusations by teammates of various unsavory behavior but ended with him leading Augusta State to two national championships. I also delved deeply into his bitter estrangement from his parents, who still make their home in Augusta. On that fateful Sunday I spent a lot of time talking with Jeannette Reed as she tried to process the pride and heartbreak of her son winning a Masters to which she and her husband were not invited. I needed to give Patrick a chance to speak his piece, too. I rarely ask questions in press conferences (Never let them know what you’re thinking) but the champion’s presser was my only shot, as I was loathe to stake out Butler Cabin again. I sat in the front row to be as conspicuous as possible but when I raised my hand to be called upon by the green jacket presiding over the press conference kept ignoring me, which after a while began to feel intentional. (Having read all of the above, can you blame him?) I craned my arm ever higher and eventually started wiggling my fingers in desperation but the moderator still refused to make eye contact. I was about to stand atop my chair when he finally called on me. I asked Reed if it was bittersweet to win in his adopted hometown without his family being a part of it. He offered a terse non-answer and then gave me a prison-yard stare. It was an uncomfortable moment for both of us. Only a week earlier I had left SI to go full-time with Golf Magazine and the story I typed that evening wound up becoming the first post on GOLF.com to receive a million page views. I still have the bottle of Dom sent by my boss at the time, David DeNunzio. (Okay, the bottle is empty, but I do still have it.)
If that article stood out perhaps it’s because unvarnished truth is becoming rarer on the beat. The inexorable contraction of the golf media has led to fewer reporters willing to ask the tough question. When I started out, every big city newspaper had a golf writer and they were grizzled pros. They’re all gone now, relics of another age. Golf World is extinct and Golfweek is a lie, publishing only monthly. Golf Channel recently laid off hundreds of staffers and largely shuttered its website. The legacy titles still standing are increasingly compromised by an over reliance on endemic advertisers and financial entanglements with the PGA Tour and USGA. In recent years a handful of upstart new media companies have filled the void. Their practitioners excel at social media and podcasts and video storytelling but the written word is not a big part of the business models. In press rooms today the actual reporters are often outnumbered by the PGA Tour’s digital media staffers.
At the Masters, the working conditions continue to grow more challenging. The cavernous new interview room is a dud, a soulless space with all the energy and intimacy of a research library. Tournament officials are increasingly trying to funnel all the player interviews to a shared flash area, which is anathema to an old-school reporter trying to gather his own material. Over the preceding decades I conducted countless one-on-one interviews in a little player parking lot adjacent to Magnolia Lane or on the front porch of the clubhouse, but four years ago I got chased away from both spots by overzealous security guards. Steaming, I sought out the green jacket running the flash area and demanded an explanation. He said that new rules had been implemented, another manifestation of Billy Payne’s vise-like grip on the tournament.
“The chairman doesn’t like to see reporters on that side of the clubhouse,” he said.
“The chairman doesn’t understand how we do our jobs,” I shot back.
He gave me a shit-eating grin and spoke the most honest words ever to come out of a green jacket’s mouth: “Well, he doesn’t have to.”
No wonder my hair is going grey. Last November, when Covid forced a reduction in the number of on-site reporters, I was startled to look around the mostly vacant press room and realize that at 47 I was older than most of the other scribes on hand. (Thank goodness my ride-or-die Bamberger is still on the beat; we had three or four long, enjoyable dinners together throughout the week.) Masters Wednesday felt particularly empty since the GWAA dinner had been cancelled. Yes, the night often drags on way too long, and you’ve never seen a homelier collection of neckties, but I’ve come to treasure the dinner because it’s the one time all year we come together to celebrate our besieged craft and its proud heritage. Alas, the dinner has been cancelled again this year. Instead, the winners in the writing contest will receive their spiffy plaques by mail. I’m awaiting the arrival of my 12th first-place award, a record. Along the way I have passed all of my heroes: Bamberger, Jenkins, Wind, Reilly, Diaz, Garrity, Tom Callahan, Dave Kindred, Dave Anderson, Blackie Sherrod and so many others.
All I ever wanted was to be a sportswriter, going back to when I edited the school newspaper at Washington Junior High in Salinas, Cal., a dusty farming town. It’s a long way from there to the grandeur of Augusta National. Despite the familiar misgivings, I’m excited to make the journey again this year. We all change, but the Masters never really does. That’s what’s so maddening about the tournament, and so beautiful.