We’re talking Magnolia Lane, we’re talking the entrance road to Golfing Heaven that is Augusta National in Masters Week. It’s still there, you know, despite the turbulent Covid-19 period in which we live. And yes, so much is different about the 2020 Masters, not least the time of year and the absence of the multi-thousands of patrons who traditionally line the fairways of this iconic golfing venue.
However, we hope and trust that James Sugrue and the other amateurs playing The Masters can still feel a special tingle of excitement when arriving at Augusta National. The normal – some would say appropriate – reaction is a sense of awe, one which is typically the experience of amateurs and professionals lucky enough to play the Masters. Shane Lowry admits he felt a lump in his throat when driving up Magnolia Lane for the first time in 2015. Pádraig Harrington always has plenty to say, but he was moved to reverential silence on every blessed yard of the most famous entrance road in golf in 2000.
Today was, better than most ?? ? pic.twitter.com/9gca7sSXOW
— James Sugrue (@JamesSugrue2) November 7, 2020
Arguably the only golfer in history who did not buy into the myth and magic of Magnolia Lane as a first timer was Tiger Woods. He probably still doesn’t put any store by the short 330 yards jaunt up the Lane to the clubhouse, but he certainly was not bowled over when he was waved through the gates on Sunday, April 2, 1995.
An amateur invitee courtesy of his 1994 US Amateur Championship victory, Woods was just 19. Honed from an early age to be a winning machine, he was no starry-eyed youngster blinded by the magic spell which Augusta National weaves on players, patrons and millions of television viewers worldwide. He had been invited by some members to play the course as he rose to national and international fame through the ranks of junior golf, but declined because he had set his heart on playing Augusta National only when he had earned his qualifying spot.
That moment had finally arrived courtesy of his US Am win. So, there he was on a Sunday evening 25 years ago, motoring up the most famous driveway in golf, with his buddy Notah Begay. In his book “Unprecedented – The Masters and Me” (Sphere) with Lorne Rubenstein, Tiger related his first impression – “underwhelmed.”
“I was surprised by how short the drive was, only about the length of the range that we used then. I’d thought from watching the tournament on television that Magnolia Lane was much longer, and that it went up a hill to the clubhouse.
“Or maybe I was underwhelmed because the club had excluded black golfers from playing for so long. Twenty years had passed since Lee Elder became the first African-American to be invited to play the Masters. That was forty-one years since the first Masters, and Charlie Sifford, for one, ought to have been invited because he had won on the PGA Tour, but he never was.
“My dad said a couple of days later that Magnolia Lane didn’t impress a black golfer because of this history. I’d grown up hearing about the history along with learning that the Masters was the most popular tournament in the world. I had wanted to compete in the Masters ever since I got serious about golf. All of this was probably playing on my mind as we drove down Magnolia Lane. I had complicated feelings, but most of all, I was eager to get to the clubhouse and onto the course for my first round at Augusta National.”
The complicated feelings are understandable as Woods, the son of an African-American father and a Thai mother, knew all about the overt and nuanced aspects of racial prejudice that existed then, and which are still so prevalent in the modern era. Jack Nicklaus, by contrast, has often spoken of how memories of his first trip to the hallowed ground sparked a lifelong love affair with Augusta National.
He was 19 in April 1959, and qualified as a US Walker Cup team member. On a more basic level, being young, and loving his grub, Nicklaus and Walker Cup team mate Phil Rodgers availed of the excellent steaks on offer for a nominal price of two dollars. A starter of shrimp cocktail and two, possibly three excellent steaks, is not the diet of champions, but more important, the two youngsters were warned that if they kept that up, they would be charged for the extra steaks.
The mild admonishment reined in the appetite somewhat, but when it came to the golf, Nicklaus was left craving more of the fare offered on a demanding layout. Reflecting on his missed cut in ’59, Jack said he had learned a hard lesson despite reaching 31 greens in regulation during the first two rounds. It was no consolation that eventual champion Arnold Palmer hit only 19 greens in regulation throughout the entire tournament. Jack ruefully reflected that “typical of a first-timer, I too often failed to position the ball in the proper areas.”
Tiger fared better on his Augusta debut. He was the only amateur to make the cut in ’95 and finished tied 41st to earn the Low Amateur prize. They each had another shot at it before turning pro, Jack twice, and Tiger once more in 1996. Their glory days were to come as professionals but Nicklaus and Woods, apart from all their other records at Augusta, are in a group of just 13 golfers who made their Masters debut as amateurs and went on to become Green Jacket winners.
The full list is: Cary Middlecoff, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Craig Stadler, Mark O’Meara, Jose Maria Olazabal, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Trevor Immelman, and Sergio Garcia.
Woods had the shortest gap between debut and victory as a professional – amateur invitee in 1995, Masters champion in 1997. Nicklaus did it in four years – amateur invitee in 1959, Masters champion in 1963. Sergio Garcia and Trevor Immelman were in the Masters class of 1999 when the Spaniard and the South African were in their final year as amateurs. Immelmann had to wait nine years after his debut before winning a Green Jacket. Garcia’s famine went on for much longer – 18 years between first experience of Augusta National and eventual victory.
By my count, 428 individual amateurs have received invitations to the hallowed ground in Georgia each April in the 83 stagings from 1934 to 2019 inclusive. Six more are on the invitee list for 2020, and happily for Irish fans, Mallow’s James Sugrue, winner of the 2019 Amateur Championship in Portmarnock, is one of them. The others are: Andy Ogletree (US Amateur Champion); John Augenstein (US Amateur runner-up); Lukas Michel of Australia, (US Mid-Amateur Champion); Abel Gallegos of Argentina (Latin America Champion); Lin Yuxin of China (Asia-Pacific Champion). Yuxin can draw on his 2018 experience of the Masters which came with his first Asia Pacific title, but reality suggests that the only pressure to perform comes from within the six individuals.
They will be successful if they make the cut and thereby get into contention for the Low Amateur Silver Cup prize Winning a Green Jacket? Not going to happen. No amateur has ever achieved the immortality that would come with such an achievement and that is not a coincidence. Professionals have always had an edge on their amateur counterparts right from the inaugural staging of the Augusta National Invitation Tournament as it was then called, in 1934.
This, despite the enduring association of the course and the event with the co-founder of Augusta National, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, the greatest amateur of all time. His 1930 Grand Slam of US Open, US Amateur Open, British Open, British Amateur is unmatchable. Let’s not forget either that Jones won, in total, seven “professional” Majors – four US Opens and three British Opens – in addition to five US Amateur titles and that one British Amateur. To their credit, the Lords of Augusta have never wavered in their adherence to honouring the amateur game, a legacy that is a tribute to Jones and Clifford Roberts, the men who founded the club. They included 12 amateurs in the field of 72 for the inaugural event which was won by Horton Smith, thereby setting a trend that has lasted to the present day.
Of the 428 individuals from the unpaid ranks, a good number of the amateurs played multiple times, including Dick Chapman, William C Campbell, Charlie Yates and Robert Sweeny Junior. Chapman heads the list with 19 between 1932 and 1962. Campbell made 18 appearances between 1950 and 1976. He was the only man in golfing history to head the USGA (President 1982 and 1983) and to be Captain of the R&A (1987).
Yates played 11 Masters from 1934 to 1947. Sweeny, the 1937 British Amateur Champion who won a Distinguished Flying Cross medal with the RAF’s Eagle Squadron in World War 2, made nine Augusta appearances between 1936 and 1961.
Ireland’s Joe Carr was a three-time Masters invitee, and Garth McGimpsey played there twice. Amateurs have come close to winning at Augusta. Frank Stranahan was tied-2nd in 1947. Ken Venturi finished solo second in 1956. Charlie Coe was joint runner-up in 1961. Those were the halcyon days of amateur golf. The pro game was hard and demanding with nothing like the financial rewards available even to journeymen in the modern era.
Many of the top amateurs preferred to combine a career in business with their golf and could often match their professional counterparts in terms of scoring. The quality and prestige of the non-professionals was reflected in the number of amateurs in Masters fields through the Forties, Fifties, Sixties and into the Seventies. In 1957 101 players started, 21 of them amateurs. There were 18 amateurs in 1961 alongside 70 professionals.
The 1966 tournament had 103 competitors, of which a record 26 were amateurs. Tom Watson had his initial Augusta experience in 1970. It left him with indelible memories, most of them good, but in 2016, 46 years later, he spoke about his regret at not making the cut and having a tilt at the Low Amateur prize.
“My very first Masters as an amateur, guess who I played with? Gary Player. And I remember I hit a 9-iron on the 4th hole and he said: “Man, you hit the ball a long way and I thought, “Oh man, nice.”
That moment of praise from the great South African came in the Par-3 Contest. When the real action began, Watson, then 21, played alongside Doug Ford, the 1957 Masters Champion, on the Thursday and Friday.
“I keep on telling this story. I had the cut possibly made. I shot 77 in the first round and didn’t play very well. The second round, I think I was a couple under par going into number 13 and I hit a driver right around the corner, just miles. I had a 6-iron to the green and if I birdie the hole, I am going to 3-under-par for the day.
“The cut is going to be 147 and I am going to be under the cut. I push my second shot into the water and make seven, make double (bogey) and I still hate that hole. I hate doing that because it cost me as an amateur making the cut here,” said Watson.
Watson’s reminiscences illustrate the indelible impression made on a player in his first Masters. If Nicklaus, Watson, and Woods could not break the barrier, surely we can discount the likelihood of an amateur victory at Augusta, probably for all time. However, two current players with genuine prospects of joining the 13 amateur debutants who became Masters Champions are Bryson DeChambeau and Viktor Hovland. DeChambeau was the Low Amateur winner in 2016, and Norway’s Hovland matched that feat last year.
Both of them have stepped up to become winners on the PGA Tour, with Hovland claiming the Puerto Rican Open title earlier this year. DeChambeau, the recently crowned US Open champion, has gone to another level with his bulked-up body and the astonishing carries and length, particularly off the tee. His performance at Augusta is eagerly awaited. And what about Rory McIlroy? Well, he can achieve a modern Grand Slam when and if he wins The Masters, but he never played Augusta as an amateur.
Somehow, I don’t think that statistic would cause Rory to lose any sleep.
Listen to our Masters preview Podcast featuring James Sugrue, Paul McGinley, Graeme McDowell by clicking the cover below or click HERE
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