This is Masters week. Although technically I’m a credentialed member of the media, my presence will be confined to my computer screen here in Grand Rapids and, like millions of others around the globe, to my television.
Due to the pandemic and safety protocols implemented, the 2020 Masters on-site media operation was significantly reduced, restricting the number of on-site media members. When I received the notification to that effect, I wasn’t surprised or even miffed. In fact, it was expected.
As consolation, I will have access to the Masters Digital Media Hub allowing me to take advantage of many media resources, “including video and photography, interview transcripts, statistical information and Tournament notices.” In a nifty touch, Press conferences will also be streamed on its Digital Media Hub.
Though these resources will be state-of-the-art when it comes to virtually covering the Masters, they’ll never match being there in person. Besides not experiencing the tournament and its unmatched attention to detail, beauty, drama and steadfast traditions, I’ll miss meeting and bantering with my media colleagues, friends and patrons.
The Masters is an annual gathering, a convention of sorts, of those who love and follow the game. With that in mind, I’m sharing a few stories about some of my favorite surprise meetings of such persons at the Masters:
Tennessee Ernie Ford—Although his name and place in American culture has faded with time, the singer and TV host in the ‘50s and ‘60s was a huge celebrity and major figure in entertainment. With his deep base-baritone voice, Ford is best known for the no.1 Billboard hit “Sixteen Tons,” his short-run comic role on “I Love Lucy,” and hosting his own variety TV series. Check out this cover by Jeff Beck/ZZ Top & 16 Tons
In 1984 during my first year as a golf writer at the Masters, I happened to be sitting next to Ford’s dinner table at a Augusta restaurant. Luckily, in recognizing him I also recalled a recent news item about the entertainer. At an appropriate moment, I mustered up the gumption to catch Ford’s eye and said, “Mr. Ford, I just want to congratulate you on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom.” (Along with the Congressional Gold Medal, it’s the nation’s highest civilian award. Tiger Woods received it last year.)
Immediately, Ford’s eyes lit up and he broke into a huge smile saying, “I was never more humbled or more nervous about receiving it.” He then went on for a good ten minutes talking to our table, which included my brother and some friends from Blythefield Country Club who had rented a house for the week, inquiring about us and our day at the tournament. As I dimly recall, my brother even addressed him by his trademark nickname, “The Ol’ Pea Picker.” In true down to earth form, he took it all in good humor and laughed. Whew!
Peter Lynch—The legendary mutual fund manager at Fidelity Investments was a guest one year at the annual USGA cocktail party and dinner during Masters week. Due to the long coattails of my friend and colleague Jack Berry, then the Secretary-Treasurer of the Golf Writers Association of America, I attended as well. During the hospitality hour, I spied Lynch’s unmistakable shock of white hair and, with Berry, went over and introduced ourselves.
After mumbling a few lame words about being a (lowly) Fidelity customer, I asked Lynch how he was enjoying the Masters. “Well, my first day is tomorrow and I can’t wait,” he said. When he learned we were golf writers with a number of Masters under our belt, Lynch grilled us on how we covered it, what to do, where to sit, and who to watch. He told us he grew up as a caddie in Boston and that being at the Masters was a life long dream.
Later, I read where his initial hiring as an intern at Fidelity was due to him caddying at Brae Burn CC outside Boston for Fidelity’s president at the time. What I remember most about Lynch besides his approachable manner, was his intense almost boyish curiosity about the Masters and what it meant to him as a golfer.
Jim Thorpe—The PGA Champions Tour player, winner of the 2004 Farmers Charity Classic at Egypt Valley CC in Ada, MI, walked into the Augusta restaurant and came over to the table where Greg Johnson, then the Grand Rapids Press golf writer, and I were sitting. A former college football player, the physically imposing Thorpe recognized us since we both covered and interviewed him at that tournament. He was in Augusta as part of a corporate outing.
For the next 20 minutes, Thorpe regaled us with side-splitting stories and brutally frank and funny comments about some of his Tour brethren and golf in general. One Thorpism: “There’s only one color that matters in professional golf: green, as in money!” Catch me at the 19th hole sometime with a brew in hand, and I might share some others. Don’t be wearing a wire. P.S. Always loved Thorpe’s nickname, bestowed on him by Tour caddies: The Walking Muscle.
Senator Sam Nunn—The former U.S. Senator from Georgia is a member of Augusta National GC, serves on the Masters Press Committee, and is a regular presence in the Press Building. Several years ago, I read an article about Nunn’s widely admired post-Senate efforts with the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a charitable organization working to prevent catastrophic attacks with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. He co-founded the NTI and was its CEO for 16 years. Talk about a commitment to a worthy cause with frightening implications!
Anyway, a few years back, I met the green-jacketed Nunn in the Press Building and I brought up the NTI in our conversation. He was appreciative that I was aware of his work and provided me an update with its progress. But like Lynch, he then changed the subject back to golf and wanted to know my “player picks” for the week. It was the start of a modest but genuine kinship.
In recent years, Nunn and I have shared meals at the dining center of the Press Building (I know, tough gig.) Come next week, I’ll regret not chatting with the former Senator. In this crazy year, my topic list might’ve severely tested his friendly demeanor and listening skills.
What’s that fitting quote? “We meet the people we’re supposed to when the time is just right.”
Photos courtesy of TEF Enterprises, Fidelity, PGA TOUR and NTI.org