Augusta is not a good place to reflect on the passage of time. My first trip to the Masters was 21 years ago. The dogwoods and azaleas were in bloom, spectators sipped drinks on the veranda in the warm sun, and Jack Nicklaus was the defending champion. This year nothing had changed.
But just about everything else in sports had. It was my last Masters, at least as a member of the staff of this magazine, from which I am retiring after nearly 32 years. My assignment here is to reminisce. "You saw Don Larsen's perfect game, didn't you?" I was asked. Well, yes, I was at Yankee Stadium that autumn afternoon in 1956. Afterward the press—we were not yet the media—crowded around Larsen's locker, there being no interview rooms then. Larsen, whose career both before and after that game never surpassed mediocrity, seemed as stunned as anyone.
At spring training that year he had driven his car into a utility pole at 5 a.m. It received scant publicity at the time, but after his flawless World Series performance the accident got almost as much attention as the game itself. Larsen learned what Dwight Gooden would discover years later: Fame has its price.
I also was at the Stadium on Oct. 1, 1961, when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run. I had tracked Maris for two months as he chased the Babe, and, contrary to most accounts, he handled the avalanche of attention with good humor. I have a Maris bat from that splendid summer tucked away somewhere. He was taking batting practice when, detecting a hairline split in the handle, he tossed the bat aside. I asked if I could have it, and he said of course. I taped it up and used it to play pepper with my sons. When Maris hit the big one, it landed no more than 20 feet from where I was sitting in the rightfield seats with photographer Walter Iooss Jr., then 18 and on his first assignment for the magazine.
Pleasant memories? So many. Nicklaus at St. Andrews, Evonne Goolagong at Wimbledon. Nebraska beating Oklahoma in 1971. Loyola upsetting Cincinnati in OT in 1963 to win the NCAA basketball title. Beers with Bill Veeck, one-sided conversations with Casey Stengel. And I was there when the Giants won the big one. No, not this year's Super Bowl, the 1956 NFL championship game against the Bears.
Worst memory? Easy. Getting dressed down in 1957 by Ted Williams in language that only later became fashionable. I had dared to approach him without an appointment for an interview in a hotel lobby. The force of his tirade left me a badly shaken young man.
A few years later Jimmy Piersall took exception, loudly, to something I had written. His outburst was enough to turn the heads of the players in the Cleveland locker room, but I was unmoved. Forget it, Piersall, I thought. I've been yelled at by the master. You aren't in the same league with Williams.
So much in sports has changed since the magazine began in 1954: round-the-clock television coverage, Hollywood-sized salaries, agents, expansion, drugs, hockey in May, pro basketball in June, college football in August, baseball moving inexorably toward November, pro football creeping into February. Sometimes it seems the merry-go-round is spinning out of control.
Perhaps that is why I keep going back to the Masters. Same time, same place. Eighteen holes, four days. Champions Club dinner on Tuesday, par-3 tournament on Wednesday, green jacket to the winner on Sunday.
My favorite Masters memory dates back to the Saturday afternoon of the 1967 tournament. The evening before, I had dined with a group that included Gary Player, who remarked that it was sad to see 54-year-old Ben Hogan, three over par after 36 holes, struggling so. Player vowed he would retire before that happened to him.
The next afternoon I was about to head down the 10th fairway when a change was made on the giant leader board at 18. Down came one name, and in its place went Hogan's. Slowly his hole-by-hole score was posted, showing he had made five birdies on the back side. I saw that he had completed the 17th, and sure enough, there he was, a few yards away, walking slowly up the hill at 18 on those tortured legs. On both sides of the fairway and all around the green, people rose in tribute. When he stood frozen over his putt and then sank it for still another birdie and a 66—30 for the back nine, which tied the record—even Dan Jenkins had tears in his eyes.
So it is somehow comforting to know that next year there will be a Masters and everything will be in place, except that Larry Mize, not Nicklaus, will be the defending champion. But Jack will be there. And, come to think of it, don't bet against me. One way or another, I'll be there, too.