It’s hard to believe that it has been 32 years since I met the best friend I’ve ever had in the sports media business.
I can’t recall if it was the Tuesday or Wednesday leading up to the 1985 Masters, the first one I had ever covered. It was about 5 in the afternoon that day in Augusta, Ga. – 6 a.m. the following day in Tokyo when the genial broadcaster from Japan, seated across the aisle from me in the attic of the World War II Quonset hut that was the international press headquarters at Augusta National Golf Club, began his morning update shouting rather forcefully into his telephone.
I turned to the guy sitting next to me – Wilton Francis Martin Jr., better known as Buddy Martin, the sports editor of the Denver Post – and spoke these politically incorrect words: “Hey, if he yells ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’ we’d better be ready to get under this table.”
Buddy howled. Like Sam (Humphrey Bogart) and Louis (Claude Rains) in their epic final scene of “Casablanca,” thus was “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” between Buddy and me. It has taken us to press boxes and pressrooms across this nation, places I never would have imagined when I got into this business.
But the best time is always the first, and so it was for Buddy and me. Augusta National Golf Club became our Casablanca. We had adjoining seats in the attic until 1990 when the media moved in a state-of-the-art building. Next week, a new press building, about the size of your neighborhood Courtyard by Marriott, opens for the international press contingent that will cover the 81st Masters April 6-9.
Sadly, Buddy and I haven’t been back to Augusta National in years – me since 1995 when the South Bend Tribune decided that wire copy and Martin’s columns (by then, I was getting Buddy credentialed through the Tribune) would suffice through 2001. That’s when we were working together at the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun and the press coordinator for the Masters decided that there were too many newspapers from Florida receiving credentials and our circulation (30,000, give or take a few thousand snowbirds) wasn’t big enough.
Little did I know that my joke that day in 1985 would begin a mentorship that continues to this day. On that final Sunday in 1985, school was in session as we hustled down from the Quonset hut to Amen Corner – holes 11, 12 and 13 – the equivalent of walking down the stairs of a 20-story building. We took a seat on the press viewing stand to the right of the tee at the par-3, 155-yard 12th hole – named Golden Bell for the species of floral found near the hole where Rae’s Creek passes in front.
It was then Buddy gave me an assignment. “Take out a piece of paper and sketch the green,” he said. “Then chart the tee shots of every golfer.”
I did what Buddy instructed. Later when the last group had passed and we made our way back to the hut – breathing heavily because we smokers were now going uphill – I asked Buddy what I should do with my schoolwork.
“Let me see it,” he said. So I gave it to him and then watched, horrified, as he crumbled it up and threw it into one of the green garbage bags at one of the fairway crossings on our way.
“You don’t need it, and those notes I noticed were taking, you won’t need them either because most of that stuff won’t make your story anyway,” Buddy said. “Let your eyes, your ears and your brain do the editing for you.”
I have rarely made a note of anything in any notebook I have carried at any golf tournament I covered the rest of my life. Buddy was right – my eyes and ears did their job and my brain retained what I saw and heard. My notebook would be needed only needed for post-round quotes.
Buddy and I stayed in touch and we hooked up again the following spring in the attic for another week of gathering stories for our readers back in Colorado and Indiana. When we arrived on Monday and took our seats, Buddy decided to make things fun for the 40 or so other writers and broadcasters who shared the attic with us.
On the eve of the 1986 Masters, just prior to the Champions Dinner that was hosted by defending champion Bernhard Langer of Germany, the Attic Rats fraternity, made up of past and present media personnel who were assigned seats there, was born.
Among our cult were the famous – Buddy, his pals Dan Jenkins of Golf Digest and Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, distinguished columnists Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times – the soon-to-be famous like Tim Rosaforte (NBC and the Golf Channel) and Larry Dorman (New York Times), our overseas pals from Japan, England and Ireland, and some never-ready-for-prime-time players like me.
We had t-shirts made – a long-snouted rat wearing a mustache and a French beret sitting in front of a typewriter – and only one requisite: Whenever two Attic Rats came upon each other on the grounds or off, they were supposed to greet each other by sticking their right thumb into their right ear and wiggling the remaining fingers.
We even made one of the players in the field as our Attic Rat Golfer of the Year. In 1986 we nominated 1979 Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller, a New Albany, Ind., native who I had met at a charity outing in South Bend and who had bought champagne for the press after winning the 1984 U.S. Open at Winged Foot in a playoff against Australia’s Greg Norman.
Because of my place in the pecking order, I was sent off to the Champions’ Locker Room to give Fuzzy the good tidings. Thankfully he accepted our invitation for a beer and a group picture. Fuzzy was gifted with a t-shirt and shown our secret sign before the official team photo was taken by Mizell, who sadly drove down Heaven’s Magnolia Lane in 2016. Masters press secretary Hazel Salmon, our unofficial housemother and one of three females in the photo, hung the picture in the cafeteria of the new press building when it opened in 1990. I trust it will find its way to the new press building.
Zoeller, by the way, repeated as Attic Ray Golfer of the Year in 1987 after he took on the club for its course preparations prior to the tournament. “Congratulations, you’ve now because only the second golfer to repeat at Augusta National,” I told Fuzzy, alluding to Jack Nicklaus being the only golfer at the time to record back-to-back victories at Augusta National.
Speaking of Nicklaus, that 1986 Masters was a memorable one. Written off by almost everyone in the pre-tournament buildup, the 46-year-old Nicklaus kept himself in contention for the first three rounds.
On the final day, Sunday, April 13, Nicklaus was paired with British Open champion Sandy Lyle of Scotland. They were in a group of seven golfers at 2-under-par 214 four strokes behind Norman, who was at 6-under 210, a stroke ahead of two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros of Spain, defending champion Langer, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price and little known Donnie Hammond of the United States. Two strokes behind Norman were Americans Tom Watson, a two-time Masters champion, and Tom Kite.
As has been said and written, the Masters really doesn’t start until everyone reaches the back nine on Sunday. So Amen Corner was the place to be and Buddy and I headed there, leaving our notebooks behind, to let our eyes and ears tell the story.
As we watched the field go through and by watching the leaderboard at the 11th green keep us informed, we saw that Ballesteros was on fire and taking command of the tournament but Norman, Kite, Langer and Watson were hanging tough.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, suddenly began to make his move with birdies at Nos. 9, 10 and 11. Then, as we watched from the press tower by No. 12, Nicklaus bogeyed the hole, and Buddy and I had the same thought – that Golden Bell would toll on perhaps Nicklaus’ final chance to win a sixth green jacket.
But then we heard a roar coming from the par-5 13th. It signaled a two-putt birdie for Nicklaus. Buddy and I looked at each other and decided it was time to get back to the press building. As we hurried back up the hills, we heard an even louder roar behind and to our left – it was Nicklaus making eagle at the par-5 15th. By the time we joined our brethren in the press lounge, Nicklaus almost aced the par-3 16th, sinking another short putt for birdie, and suddenly everyone knew the Golden Bear had come out of hibernation.
All the roars for Nicklaus surely unnerved the usually unflappable Ballesteros. When he blocked his second shot at 15 into the pond fronting the green, the press lounge was going nuts. I felt it was time to admonish the offenders.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please, no cheering in the press lounge,” I said to my brethren, who suddenly became quiet. I sat down, turned to watch the television and interrupted their silence with a scream: “YA-HOOOOOOOO!”
Nicklaus birdied 17 – remember CBS hole announcer Verne Lundquist’s famous “Yes Sirrrrrrrr” – made par at 18, hugged his caddie son Jackie and signed for a back-nine 30 and final-round 65. Then, after Ballesteros, Kite and Norman came up short of tying him, the Golden Bear got help from Langer into his sixth green jacket.
My eyes and ears had seen it and heard it all. Later that night, my brain added the postscript. The previous summer not far from the eastern shores of Lake Michigan near Benton Harbor, Mich., Nicklaus had come to see Jackie play in the Western Amateur.
Nicklaus has a fondness for butter pecan ice cream and so I bought us a pair of waffle cones filled with two scoops of it to eat on the back nine. We talked about his career – his last majors had come in 1980 at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship – and his performance in the 1985 majors seemed to indicate that his best days were behind him.
“Well,” Nicklaus said as he licked his cone, “I’m not done yet.”
And neither is the friendship between me and my best Buddy.
Thank you, my friend.