The scarlet letter: the old champions, such a part of the Masters scene, are no longer welcome – The Masters 2003

Bob Verdi

Gary Player says he will be “disappointed and sad, but not bitter” when he reports to Augusta National Golf Club in April to tee it up in his 46th Masters. His last. And he didn’t even get The Letter.

Player, 67, still has a fire in his remarkably flat belly. Thus, he had intended to compete until he was 70. But that all changed last spring when club policy changed. Chairman Hootie Johnson–by now you surely know the name–announced that the lifetime Masters exemptions given to and so cherished by former champions would be eliminated as of 2004 for those beyond age 65.

Even before that surprising revelation from an institution so steeped in tradition, three golden oldies–Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford Jr.–received mail essentially disinviting them from participating anymore, period. They were all well past 65 and had appeared in body at the 2001 Masters, but the club believed they failed to compete in spirit, so they played their swan songs without knowing it–a gesture that precipitated a period of turmoil at Augusta National. It was as if the first batch of crabgrass had been found on the hallowed grounds, with Martha Burk planting more as we speak.

“What a shame,” says Player, who won green jackets in 1961, 1974 and 1978. “All that history. This is an invitational. So unique. And now, the Masters will feel like any other tournament. The Masters has been a huge part of my life. It is the best organized tournament in the world, and even after I was done playing there, I had planned to return every year, so long as I was physically able. To attend the Champions Dinner. Perhaps, to be a ceremonial starter on Thursday mornings. You know, hit it off No. 1 and then go in. But I’m not sure now. You don’t go where you don’t feel welcome. Never say never. The way things are now, though, I don’t think I’ll ever go back. This might be it for me.”

Johnson, of course, is involved in an ongoing controversy about Augusta National’s all-male membership. But if the chairman’s unyielding posture on that matter begat a serious perception problem, his first public-relations miscalculation might have involved the in-house revision regarding former champions. In addition to the age limit, Johnson introduced an attachment legislating that players “actively participate in tournament golf.” Originally the requirement was 15 events per annum. (Forget Jack Nicklaus.) A week later, in a press release dated May 1, Johnson allowed, “We were not thorough with our research” and the number was reduced to 10. Johnson admitted “a mistake.” So, adds Johnson, was The Letter. Johnson says if he “had a mulligan,” he would have saved the stamps. Eleven months in advance of the 2002 Masters, Brewer, Casper and Ford were informed on Augusta National Golf Club stationery that their lifetime-exemption status had veered significantly from quo. The letters welcomed all of the above to visit as usual, play practice rounds and the Par-3 Contest, attend the Champions Dinner and enjoy customary courtesies, including a $5,000 honorarium. The letters were signed by Will F. Nicholson Jr., chairman of the competition committees.

Two of the three recipients took their medicine. “It could have been handled better, but I was at the point where I wasn’t going to play anymore, anyway,” says Casper, 71, the 1970 champion who shot 87-80 in 2001. “We have 11 children and 22 grandchildren, so the Masters has always been kind of a family outing for us.”

“I was done, too, but it could have been done in a more diplomatic fashion,” says Ford, 80, the 1957 champion. He last posted a score (94) for the first round in 2000. “I always thought I’d go there if I didn’t go anywhere else, and I still feel that way,” Ford says. “I thought the galleries liked to see us old bastards play, but it’s those guys’ tournament. They’ve always done things their own way. I can live with that.”

Brewer did not take as kindly to the postman knocking. “When I won that green jacket in 1967, I earned it, and with that, the right to a lifetime exemption,” he says. “They took that away from me, and I don’t think it’s right. I’d gotten to where I couldn’t walk the course. Knees couldn’t take it. But that’s not the point. I don’t go where I don’t feel I belong, and that’s why I didn’t go there for anything last year. The dinner, the Par-3, nothing.” Shortly before the 2002 tournament, Brewer, who turns 71 in March, received his form for Masters badges, perhaps the toughest ticket in sports. He requested four, they arrived in due time, but he gave them to friends.

A letter vs. a phone call

“The letter was a mistake,” Johnson says. “It would have been better to make a phone call. But the decision was not a mistake.” Johnson indicated that the action regarding Brewer, Casper and Ford was a reaction to their penchant for starting rounds and not finishing them. Ford quit after one hole in 2001, his fourth consecutive withdrawal. In 1999, Casper took a turn to the clubhouse after No. 9 of his second round. He was joined by playing companion Brewer, who also withdrew in 2001. In 1998, Brewer opened with a 72 at age 66, his second-best round since 1983, although he followed with an 86.

“We’d been considering a modification before the trend started,” Johnson says. “We still have a lot of former champions playing, and all our former champions are always welcome for the week.”

Brewer didn’t feel that way when he read the letter, and his mood hasn’t improved. “When I got that thing in the mail, I want to say I called Hootie three days in a row,” he recalls. “The first day, I asked him if he knew about this letter signed by that other guy, Nicholson. He [Johnson] said he did. Next day, I called to remind Hootie that I pulled out in 2001 because I spent the night after the first round in the hospital. I thought I was having the big one, a heart attack. And that was before I got the letter. Don’t know whether Hootie believed me or even cared. Next day, called Hootie to tell him he might be hearing from my lawyer.”

Brewer decided to pass on that potential hassle. But despite repeated entreaties by pal Casper to join the old gang, Brewer drove to Kentucky for Masters week. During the annual Champions Dinner that Tuesday night, Casper says he sat down with Johnson, who “sort of apologized.” Johnson concurs: “I told them all there that night I could have handled it better.” But the wounds were palpable, and they evoked a wry, macabre brand of humor. When Arnold Palmer announced during the 2002 Masters that it would be his farewell playing appearance, he was asked why. “Because I don’t want to get The Letter,” said The King. And he’s an Augusta member, as is Nicklaus.

“Exactly,” says Player. “That’s why I’m so sad and disappointed. I’ve had my cake. I don’t need another piece. But put yourself in the position of these former champions who were led to believe they could stop playing on their own terms, only to find that is not the case. This is unfortunate. Or, put yourself in the position of someone who will just start going to the Masters.

“When I first started playing there, a kid out of South Africa in 1957, I was awed by being in the presence of those heroes,” Player says. “That was one of my great joys through the years. Thank God I talked to Gene Sarazen before he passed on. Now, if you go there, there will be no Arnold Palmer, soon no Jack Nicklaus. And why? It is not like the former champions took spots of other deserving players, or that they held up play.”

When Player speaks, it is as though he lost a dear friend. The sound is not of an axe grinding but of a fertile mind percolating. “Now, if Hootie wanted to be a leader, to make a mark,” he goes on, “he could have instituted a restriction on the ball: `At the Masters, we will take 10 percent off the ball.’ I guarantee every player would go for it. That would make more sense than buying parts of neighboring golf courses to make Augusta longer, which just played into the hands of a few big hitters.”

Like a number of legends, Player sees technology running amok. “In years to come, Tiger Woods will look like a pea-shooter,” he says, adding that he is puzzled why Johnson didn’t consult former champions about course alterations. “At these dinners every year,” Player says, “there are 15 architects wearing green jackets. Nicklaus, Palmer, Crenshaw, Faldo, Floyd, Casper, Seve, myself … on and on. Hootie did take me around before these latest changes to point out, `We’re putting a new tee there.’ But there wasn’t any exchange of ideas.” Player came along during the storied tenure of Clifford Roberts, he of firm hand. “I will say this about Clifford Roberts,” Player says. “He asked, and he listened.”

Player believes the age restriction was unnecessarily sudden or suddenly unnecessary, and that it could have been grandfathered in, a modification Johnson says was not considered. Or, Player suggests, the Masters could have opted for a score limit: If you can’t break 85, take a seat. “And if you ask around, 95 percent of the others in my position will agree,” says Player. “Look, without the Masters, Augusta National would be just another very nice course in Georgia, as there are nice courses throughout the world. I would be amazed if the members at Augusta are happy with some of the things going on there. Are Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and President Eisenhower spinning in their graves? Also, I think women should be admitted as members. They make up 30 percent of the galleries. Just my opinion. Doesn’t mean I’m right.”

There is the possibility Player will vent this April at Augusta, especially if it’s his last supper there. Whether Brewer will attend is uncertain. “Really haven’t decided,” he says. “I’m still upset.”

Just before Christmas, Brewer received a package at his Florida home. The parcel included four high-quality drinking glasses from the 2002 Masters, with an enclosed card. From Hootie Johnson.

COPYRIGHT 2003 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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