It was not Iron Man's year. The odd ones never are, those being the years when Arnold Palmer loses the Masters. But until Willy Peterson brings Jack Nicklaus in twice more, Nat Avery—Iron Man Avery—will continue to be the most distinguished man among all of those who play whist on the dirt floor and sleep on the wooden benches in the caddie pen of the Augusta National Golf Club.
All Iron Man wanted to do last week was keep his man playing well from tee to green. Four times in the past Iron Man had done it, and four times Palmer had won the Masters. These successes helped earn Palmer hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they did not hurt Iron Man. He collected a total of $5,000 from Arnold for the four championship years and, as a caddie's wages go, that is the equivalent of being a leading money winner. Once, he almost got big rich when Winnie Palmer, excited in a moment of victory, accidentally wrote him a check for $14,000 instead of $1,400. Iron Man called her up and complained, "Miz Palmer, I can't get this check cashed."
Also, Iron Man became famous, certainly the best known caddie in America since Joe Horgan used to pick his spots in the old days—and usually picked Walter Hagen.
"Got to keep my man straight from tee to green," said Iron Man before the Masters began. He was standing in his white coveralls and green cap and white tennis shoes by the putting green while Palmer practiced. In Augusta people know Iron Man, and they gather around him to peck into Palmer's bag and ask how well the man is playing.
Several young boys surrounded Iron Man and stared up his thin, sloping body, at the fuzz of a goatee on his chin and into his solemn eyes. Iron Man, who is only 27 but appears much older, tried to ignore the boys, but they persisted in asking questions. How's his putting? Did Iron Man ever help him select the proper clubs?
"What you think I do?" said Iron Man, offended. "Jes' tote the bag?"
The questions continued and finally Iron Man had enough. "Man, I got to concentrate," he said. "I ain't got time to talk. We got to get out there and get after it."
A good caddie understands his man the way a groom understands his Thoroughbred. He not only knows the distance his player has in every club, he knows the way his golfer likes the wind to blow, a pin to be positioned, a putt to break and when he wants to be spoken to. Iron Man Avery knows Arnold Palmer because last week he was carrying Arnold's bag for the 11th time at Augusta, having started when he was only 16 and Palmer was a rookie pro.
"Most caddies on the tour are real quiet," Palmer explained, "but Iron Man and I have been together for so long that we kid around a little." In 1964, a happier year when Arnold won his fourth Masters, there was a moment in the final round when Palmer missed a short putt and gave hope to his foes. Going to the next tee, Iron Man said, "Boss, you ain't chokin', are you?"
Palmer enjoys repeating this story because Iron Man has become a minor celebrity at Augusta and likes to see his name in the papers. "This year," Palmer said, "I had a new plan for Iron Man. I told him not to say anything to me out on the course except, yes sir, whenever I asked him if I had the right club. Well, on Thursday and Friday he said no three times. He was wrong all three."
Iron Man did not think this was very funny, and Saturday was even less humorous. That was the day the Masters ended early with Jack Nicklaus shooting his 64 and taking a huge eight-stroke lead over Palmer. Iron Man was crestfallen because 1) he could not believe Palmer could play so well and not score better and 2) he could not believe the weather had permitted such low scoring by his man's adversaries.
"My man ain't give me none of these," said Iron Man, demonstrating the direction of a wild slice with his hand. "We done cold hit it straight, but we ain't found the hole. We hit all those greens, but we got five three-putts so far, man. What we need is some wind to shut off these birdies." Nothing shut off the Nicklaus birdies. Sunday night Iron Man offered his last quote on Nicklaus and the 1965 Masters: "That man not real."
It will be a long summer and fall for Iron Man. He will caddie at the club until it closes in mid-May, he will try and win the course's caddie championship for the fourth time, he will work again with the maintenance crew and then start caddying in October when the course opens. AH that time he will be thinking about Palmer and 1966—one of those even years when the paycheck is bigger.