Walk over to Bert Yancey, that tall fellow with the visor pushed back into his reddish-blond hair and the pencil stuck behind his right ear, and ask him about the Masters golf tournament. Go ahead. Ask Bert Yancey anything at all about the Masters.
Do you want to know how many rooms there are in the clubhouse at Augusta National? Ask Yancey. Want to know the silverware pattern in the contestants' dining room? Yancey can tell you. Want to know who manufactures the flagsticks or how long they are? Yancey knows.
For as long as he can remember, 30-year-old Bert Yancey has had this thing about the Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club. As a kid growing up on golf courses around Tallahassee, Yancey says he had only one real ambition. He wanted to be invited to play in the Masters. It became an obsession with him. He vowed never to attend the Masters as a spectator or play the Augusta National course until he received his invitation to compete in the tournament itself.
Finally, in 1967, mostly as a result of winning the previous year's Portland Open, Yancey qualified. For several days, Bert recalls, he lived with a feeling of "complete joy." He would be playing in a tournament, say the Tucson Open, and doing poorly, when suddenly he would think about the Masters and then hit his longest drive straight down the middle of the fairway. "It is difficult, really difficult," he says, "to describe what playing in the Masters meant to me then and means to me now."
Characteristically, when Yancey got his first invitation he immersed himself in the Masters. To start, he and his wife Linda, who doubles as his putting coach, moved in with the Masters themselves, Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Masters, that is, who live just across the road from the second hole at Augusta National. When he wanted to practice, Yancey never had to wait for a ride or worry about leaving his wife without a car. He simply walked out the front door, across the street and onto the course.
Then, instead of practicing with his best friends on the tour—Frank Beard, R. H. Sikes and Harold Henning—Bert joined veterans such as Jay Hebert and Ken Venturi. "They had been coming to Augusta for years and they knew what the course was like and what the Masters was all about," Yancey explains. "I wanted to pick their brains."
Bert asked Byron Nelson, an old Augusta Master, to walk the course with him one day. Nelson counseled him on the dos and don'ts. "He told me not to get greedy on the 12th—that little par-3 can be a killer," Yancey says. "He told me that two pars and two bogeys during the four rounds would be the average on 12. He was right, too."
While playing Augusta National during his practice rounds, Yancey tried to think like Ben Hogan. "That man played position golf from the tee," Yancey says, "and then he hit for the center of the green. He had a plan for the golf course. So I stood on the tees and tried to figure how Hogan would play every hole. I knew Hogan would get the best angle off every tee, so I tried to find the best angle. And I promised myself that—like Hogan—I would play for the center of the greens at all times. Augusta, it has been proved, is not a gambler's course. The greens are not very big. There is no reason to hit the ball at the flagstick on every hole. You can hit the ball into the middle of a green and have only a 20-foot putt to the cup no matter where it is."
When he returned to the Masters home at night, Bert even took a part of the Augusta National course with him. He made scale models that show the contours and the most likely positions for pin placements on all the greens. He attached the models to a large board, and every night he stared at the board and tried to make himself a part of them.
"You must have a mental attitude about the Masters, especially if you want to win," Yancey says. "I felt then and I still feel now that if I had a mental picture of every green, if I knew the intimacies of every green, then I could step up to my ball and hit it exactly where I wanted to. I mean, I could be 150 yards away and not even see the pin, but I would still know where I wanted my ball to land. That was the type of mental attitude I wanted about the Masters."
For two years now Yancey has proved that his approach to the Masters is the right one. In his first round of that 1967 tournament, Bert shot a five-under-par 67 to lead the field. He still led after 36 holes but was in a three-way tie for the lead after 54 holes. Then, in the final round, he shot a one-over-par 73 to finish third behind Gay Brewer and Bobby Nichols. Last year Yancey played steady golf for the first three rounds and was two under par for 54 holes. In the final round he shot a seven-under-par 65 to finish at 279, a score that would have won 25 of the 32 previous Masters and tied for the lead in three others. But not 1968. Yancey's 279 put him third again behind Bob Goalby and Roberto De Vicenzo.
Yancey has now played 144 holes at the Masters in 13 under par. Only three other golfers who have played in at least two Masters have been able to keep their aggregate total score under par. They are, not surprisingly, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Yancey's average of 70.37 a round is lower than any of theirs by more than a full stroke.
Now Yancey is about to play in the tournament for the third time and he feels ready to win. "I think you've got to feel that way or else you won't win it," he says. "For instance, I did not feel ready to win the U.S. Open last year even after I led for three rounds. I would have been glad to take the Open, of course, but I don't believe I was mentally ready to win it. Then I blew it that last round. I don't want to take anything away from Lee Trevino, but I really blew the Open. I was five shots ahead during the third round and suddenly I was four shots behind during the fourth round. The Masters will be different. It is the only thing I have thought about for almost a year.
"Despite what some players say, the Masters is not just another tournament. It comes only once a year. Miss it, blow it—and you must wait another year. As the start of the Masters approaches, I begin to get real careful about everything. I stop lifting suitcases. I watch my diet and avoid the extras. I don't stay out late at night. And I really work on my putting. If everything else is right and I can get my putts rolling during the Masters, I know I will beat anyone's brains in."
It was not until the 1967 Masters that most people knew there was a Bert Yancey. The pros on tour knew him, though, and knew that he had a meticulous golf game. His swing was silky smooth. His long irons were played with precision. His short game was played with finesse, and his putting was right up there with the best. "I'd rather have Yancey's stroke than a license to steal," Jackie Burke says.
Despite the quality of his game, Yancey has yet to prove that he can hold up under the severe tension of a major championship. Three rounds, maybe. Four rounds, no. After all, he led both the 1967 Masters and the 1968 U.S. Open for the first three rounds, yet failed to win either. Some people feel that the experience of last year's Open, when he finished with a 76 after three sub-par rounds, may prove so shattering that he will never win anything again. So far he has not. Last month at the Citrus Open he led again after three rounds with a 70-66-70 before a finishing 77 put him in a tie for 10th and revived bitter memories.
Yancey's ability to hold up under tension is questioned because of his experiences in the summer of 1960. Bert was a cadet at West Point then, just starting his senior year. During the summer he was an adjutant working with the incoming plebes on field maneuvers. He had considerable responsibility, and soon he began to crack under it.
Bert already was depressed about a number of things, and then he had to go without sleep for three nights and four days during one stretch of beast-barracks training. "Soon I started to ask all kinds of nebulous questions," Bert says. "Like who is God? And what is love? Anything without meaning."
Yancey woke up one morning in a hospital. He had suffered a nervous breakdown. The Army transferred him to Valley Forge hospital. "I had the whole bit there," he says. "Mine was not a mild nervous breakdown. They gave me shock treatments." After nine months in hospitals, Yancey was discharged from the Army. He went to Florida to work with his brother Jim, one of the country's best greenkeepers, at a course in Miami. "It was obvious that I was not well even then," Yancey says. "I was still doing things that had no meaning. One day I just started to walk off in a straight line toward the edge of the Everglades. My brother stopped me just in time."
Jim Yancey finally called his father in Tallahassee and told him to "come get Bert—he's not recovered." The elder Yancey flew to Miami to escort Bert home. "I got on the plane and felt I was a kamikaze pilot," Bert says. "This was it. I was not going to live beyond the flight. The stewardess came around and gave me a grapefruit-juice cocktail. I thought that was the potion they gave kamikaze pilots so they would have a happy death."
Then the plane landed in Tallahassee. "When it hit the runway, I was well," Yancey says. "It was reality, like waking up from the worst dream. I had had this tremendous feeling of death—and of accepting death—only hours before. And now life was apparent. To this day I don't remember most of what happened those previous 10 or 11 months."
Yancey has a continuing curiosity about the nervous breakdown. When he meets former West Point classmates during tournaments, he questions them about the events of his last summer as a cadet. "I search them," he says. "I want to know about it. I'm not afraid to talk about it."
Well again, Yancey spent the summer of 1961 working on his golf game, and then he joined the '62 winter PGA tour. He stayed on the tour through the spring of 1962 with very little success, took a job as a teaching pro, then quit to study pre-medicine at Florida State. "I wanted to help people," he says. A semester later, Bert withdrew to take an assistant pro's position in Philadelphia. Bert and his wife remained there during 1963, and in August of that year he signed a six-year contract with 10 wealthy Philadelphians who were willing to underwrite his expenses on the tour against a substantial share of the profits.
"It was really unlikely I would play six years if I could not make expenses," Yancey says. "If things did not look promising after two years, I'd have done something else."
The contract, which expires this August, has been a touchy subject around the Yancey household. Linda thinks the syndicate should have accepted Bert's offers to buy up the contract. She feels the syndicate has made a substantial profit already on the $220,000 Bert has earned the last six years.
Yancey disagrees with Linda. "We have a gentleman's agreement," he says, "and I will honor it. I have been ready to go on my own for a long time, sure. However, I don't feel badly that I signed the contract. If they had not backed me, I might not have made it out here."
During his early days on the tour Yancey always seemed to be having something bizarre happen to him. For instance, at the U.S. Open in 1964, he removed his shoe and sock to hit a shot out of some water. When he emerged he found blood gushing from his foot. He had stepped on a piece of jagged glass. Yancey was taken straight to a hospital and had to withdraw from the tournament.
Three years later, at the Buick Open, rain caused a delay in the tournament. Yancey, wearing wet clothes, was playing bridge to pass the time. He was sitting on a metal box when a bolt of lightning struck, knocking him to the floor. "I'm lucky I wasn't killed," he says. He went on to the finish in a tie for second.
In between these incidents, Yancey began to play good golf. He won three tournaments in 1966, another in 1967. His earnings rose from $12,000 in 1964 to some $65,000 the last two years. This year he is 13th on the money list with $12,000 so far.
Now that he is financially solvent, Yancey wants a Masters championship more than ever. He has been formulating his plan for the Masters for several months now, with these thoughts imprinted on his mind:
•"The trouble at Augusta is to the left, but so is the advantage. Like at No. 10. I can hit a three-wood straight down the middle, let it hit the hill and then roll. I'd have a four-to six-iron left. Or, I could turn my drive, catch the downslope and have an eight-or nine-iron left. Of course, I could turn my driver too much and find deep trouble on the left. But I will hit the driver. I won't hit it left.
•"You should be one under par going to the 6th. The 1st and 3rd holes are possible birdies. The 2nd is a definite birdie. I play safe with my tee shot on the second. It's a par-5 and I can't get home in two anyway. Then I hit my second shot anywhere down in front, even in the sand. I can make a birdie from the sand just as easily as from the grass.
•"If you are one under through 5 or 6, you have a chance to turn in two-under 34 since the par-5 8th is a good birdie hole. You must play the par-4s for the middle of the greens in order to make par.
•"I play for pars at 10, 11 and 12. On 12 I try the safest route possible to the green. On the par-5 13th, I'll go for the green if my drive is in any good position. But I always go for it on the par-5 15th. I never lay up there. I was lucky last year on the 16th. I made four straight twos on the hole. I'll take it again. I play for the middle on 17 or 18 and try to roll in a putt. I had to gamble on 16 and 17 in 1967, the first time I didn't play for the middle, and made bogeys. That taught me."
Yes, Bert Yancey has learned all about the Augusta National. Now he is ready for the Masters and the green jacket that goes to the winner. He even knows who makes the jackets.