Jesup’s Sand Greens Golf Course was a million miles from the Augusta National Golf Club. But a Trailways bus took a buddy and me to Augusta in a little over three hours. I had as much business being at the Masters golf tournament as a hippo trying to hula-dance. But I was there—for the first time—in 1963. And before we witnessed Jack Nicklaus beating Arnold Palmer for his first green jacket, I, too, had scored a long list of firsts.
Six months earlier, I was introduced to golf with a $35 set of used clubs and a 30-minute lesson by O.A. Hunter. And just before that, grass had replaced sand on the greens. As a 14-year-old, I thought the perfect Saturday was playing 18 holes in the morning and climbing the hog-wire fence to walk to Friday’s Truck Stop for a hamburger steak, fries and a chocolate shake before resuming the next two rounds on the nine-hole course. (Captain Joe’s is now where Friday’s was.)
I didn’t know anything better existed, until a visiting youth minister, the Rev. Dan Shaddock, said, “Why don’t you bring a buddy and come to the Masters? I have two tickets—Wednesday through Sunday—and y’all can stay with me and my wife, Mary.” Little did I know that a Masters green jacket was the Holy Grail of golf. Still, I jumped at the chance. I invited Pete Hires, a lifelong friend, to join the adventure.
But first, we had to ask permission from our parents and our high school principal, C.E. Bacon. Our parents didn’t hesitate, but we fretted about missing school. When Pete and I broached the subject with Mr. Bacon, he said, “Boys, go to Augusta. I’ll count both of you present. You’ll learn more there—in those five days—than you’ll ever learn here.”
With cardboard suitcases, we climbed aboard the Trailways bus and roared toward Tobacco Road into Richmond County. Everything we saw was jaw-dropping. Caddies in white coveralls were lugging around clubs for the pros. Pete and I fell in with Arnie’s Army. Arnold Palmer was king in those days, winning in 1958, 1960 and 1962.
Our favorite observation point was backed up to the Amen Corner’s azaleas. Julius Boros had a silk-smooth swing and tied Sam Snead for third prize: $7,000. South Africa’s “Man in Black,” Gary Player, tied for fifth, picking up $4,000. Today’s multimillionaire players would hardly bend over to pick up Gene Sarazen and Ken Venturi’s paychecks of $750.
Until 1963, I had never ridden on a city bus. The transit was our wheels to and from the preacher’s downtown apartment. And I’d never been in a pawnshop. We pooled our wadded-up dollars to buy a pair of used binoculars. We wanted to see it all. I’d never seen that many people—anywhere. Another first was watching people drink beer. I can still taste my first pimento cheese sandwich, Masters-style.
Cold, blowing rain and falling pine trees made the 2023 Masters tournament an exceptional challenge. But Spaniard Jon Rahm walked away in his green jacket. And he slipped his $3.24 million paycheck into the coveted coat’s pocket. That’s $630,000 more than last year’s winner, Scottie Scheffler won. The Augusta National Golf Club paid out a record $18 million to this year’s roster of winners.
Fifty years ago, the young Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, bested Palmer by five strokes to earn $20,000. Palmer tied with Don January for ninth place and took home $1,800. Times have changed.
In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of my first Masters, a friend gave me two tickets to the tournament’s Saturday competition. I handed them to our sons, Alan and Eric.
“Fellas,” I said, “to commemorate my first trip to the Masters, I’ll also spring for two bus tickets to Augusta.”
Alan and Eric laughed and said, “Thanks, Dad, but times have changed.”