Once a friend of mine and I were trying to talk his wife into letting us move a TV into the center of an Easter party.
“So you can watch golf?” she said accusingly.
“It’s not golf!” we both exclaimed in harmony worthy of Simon and Garfunkel. “It’s the Masters!”
Before the 2022 Masters, I’m up late drinking bourbon and watching the final round of the 1981 Masters, the first one I ever watched with any interest, as a kid. I don’t remember much about it including who won, so this should be exciting. Except it’s a golf tournament, that’s been over for 41 years.
I watched this before I was a Democrat and before I had any socio-political attitudes that introduced “guilt” into this particular pleasure. That’s probably why I found it so boring. To cut the tedium, I did a lot of putting with my dad’s old putter, on the plush turquoise living room carpet, into a whiskey glass.
Back then, the players didn’t bring their own caddies to the Masters—they had to use the club caddies, who were all Black. All. But I don’t remember noticing that, as I was studying Uncritical Race Theory at the time, along with all my white suburban Ohio friends.
In 1981 Vin Scully was the main announcer. Scully could call you an rapscallion and make you feel like a prince. Ken Venturi was the analyst. Venturi could call you a prince and make you feel like a rapscallion.
Do you know the story of the Masters theme song? This was the year it was written, when Kenny Loggins’ cousin Dave was attending the tournament, and inspired. “I stopped for a minute, looked up at the pine trees and the wind down there was just different in some regards,” Loggins told PGA.com. “Spiritually it was different. That course was just a piece of art. I looked over at some dogwoods and, man, I just started writing the song in my head which is what I do when I get inspired.” According to lore, Loggins got $3,000 for writing it but never had a royalties deal. He’s 74 now.
Our coverage begins with Tom Watson, having birdied the eighth hole, now leading by two. Watson, who along with Jack Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw, also on this leader board, would go on to become a big Trump supporter in old age, is an adorable, gap-toothed Huck Finn character here.
(Since I did become a Democrat, I’ve always kept a mental list of “Possible Democrats on the PGA Tour.” David Duval is the only one I know of. When Obama was running for president in 2008 I pitched a survey story about PGA golfers’ politics to Golf Magazine or Golf Digest. “You don’t want to know,” the editor said.)
[You know I don’t dismiss every Trump-voter as a hopeless jerk: But the country club Trumper? Yeah, that’s hard to take. That’s why enjoying the Masters requires a fair amount of magical thinking.]
Sorry I’m not writing much about this tournament, but goddamn is it boring. At least it was, until I saw this shot of John Mahaffey shambling down the 11th fairway with a putter in one hand and a cigarette in the other. (Please also note the possibility-enhancing ability, in those days, to unbutton a golf shirt down almost to one’s belly button.)
In this time-travel adventure, there is a man named Hubert on the leaderboard. The 1967 Masters champ Gay Brewer is also in the field, because past champions always get to play, no matter how over-the-hill they are. Brewer four-putts the 18th green.
Peculiar: Many of the caddies at the Masters were super animated, using their bodies to urge their players’ balls into the hole—expressing disappointment when they didn’t and antic joy when they did. Check out Nicklaus’ caddy Willie Peterson in 1975. I didn’t notice that when I was young, either. What did I notice?
Anyway: I read that eleven years after Peterson died in 1999, Nicklaus donated money to pay for a headstone.
Tom Watson just dumped one into Rae’s Creek, on the 13th hole, creating suspense having nothing to do with John Mahaffey’s cleavage. Venturi, one of the greatest squandered talents in the history of golf, calls Watson’s mistake “inexcusable.” Johnny Miller, who is on this leaderboard as a player, would eventually take Venturi’s place publicly and without evidence accusing pro golfers of choking. These bastards should have been struck by lightning.
Watson makes par, maintaining his two-stroke lead.
Mahaffey takes a mighty lash with his driver on the 15th and British announcer Ben Wright exclaims, “Goodness me!”
Jack Nicklaus makes a birdie 15 to pull into second place behind Watson.
But Watson hits a four-wood onto the 15th green and makes one of his own.
“That was a glorious stroke,” says Ben Wright. “One he will remember to his dotage.”
(I’m remembering my Uncle David, for whom I was named, and who I loved. A Republican, from Middletown, Ohio. A golfer. A boozer. A funny guy. Was surely watching this action with a big gin and tonic, and a Pall Mall burning in his hand. And whose aging Black cook, Esterlean, was likely preparing Sunday dinner, in the kitchen.)
Nicklaus makes a tremendous long putt on 16, for another birdie to remain two behind. Watson looks sick to his stomach, back on the tee.
“Quiet as a coal mine,” says an announcer whose voice I don’t recognize.
But Nicklaus falters on 17 and Watson makes par on 16 and remains two ahead.
I am looking forward to Jack Nicklaus’ recession from the public stage. And not just because of the shoes he wore in 1981, nor because he endorsed Trump in 2020, saying, “This is not a personality contest; it’s about patriotism. His love for America and its citizens, and putting his country first, has come through loud and clear.” But because he is a mean-spirited, humorless, smug prick who I am sure feels just great about having paid a couple hundred bucks to give his old caddie a headstone.
Watson just hit one into the greenside bunker on 17, for no good reason—the only remaining hope for excitement tonight. “I can’t believe he’d leave it in the bunker on the second shot,” Venturi says. And then Watson makes par, again.
As Nicklaus walks up the 18th fairway, Scully says, “Jack Nicklaus, the familiar figure, striding up 18. It is that time of day, that soft light of a Georgia afternoon, when you get the feeling that the pine trees and the magnolias are standing on their toes to get a better look—and well they might.”
That’s the sort of Masters bullshit we love so well—the linguistic equivalent of the treacly Masters theme song. Sitting Masters bullshitter Jim Nantz was but 22 years old when Scully said that. But clearly, young Nantz was listening well.
Nicklaus narrowly misses a birdie putt on 18, finishing his chances. “Well I’ll tell you one thing,” Scully says, “when he first hit that putt, for one brief shining moment, it was Camelot.”