Amateurs At The Masters: A Rich Tradition

Above: A 19-year-old Jack Nicklaus winning the 1959 US Amateur—and earning his first invitation to the Masters.

By John Strawn

The Masters is unique in several ways: It’s the only major championship always played on the same course, and is conducted not by one of golf’s ruling bodies but by the club itself. Just as distinguishing is the participation of amateurs, fitting given that Bobby Jones was the greatest amateur of them all, content to retire from competitive golf without ever turning professional.

Jones invited 11 amateurs to compete in the first Masters, in 1934, along with 50 professionals. The average age of the amateurs was 28, while the typical pro was 32, same as Jones. The amateur average was skewed slightly by the participation of Willie Turnesa, who was only 20; he joined two of his brothers at that first Masters, setting a never-to-be-broken record for sibling participation.

Jones could never have imagined that among the competitors qualified to compete in the 2013 Masters is 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, who won the Asian Amateur Championship last fall, one of six ways for an amateur to qualify. (When the USGA eliminates the Public Links Championship after 2014, one of those spots will disappear, but winning or finishing second in the US Amateur, as well as winning the British Amateur, the US Mid-Amateur, or the Asian Amateur, will still get players in.) Jones likely would have been less amazed that Guan comes from China, given that foreign players—first from the British Isles and Canada, later from around the globe—competed in the Masters from its earliest days.

The history of amateur participation in the Masters provides an illuminating example of golf’s evolution. When Jones was inviting fellow amateurs, he was assembling a group of friends, none of whom expected to earn a living on the course. Today, securing a spot in the Masters is often the last glorious step before a professional career.

Amateurs had higher social standing than professionals in Jones’ day. Playing for money was regarded as somehow tainted, morally inferior to competing solely for honor. By bringing leading amateurs and top professionals together, the Masters facilitated a permanent transformation in the status of the professional athlete. Now, the best young players compete as amateurs as a bridge to playing for pay, and nowhere are the links between the two worlds of golf richer, more cherished, or as filled with tradition as at the Masters.

amateurs-fox-icon_19985858

Steven Fox, the 2012 US Amateur champion, will play in The Masters for the first time this year.

Arnold Palmer qualified for his first Masters by winning the 1954 US Amateur, but turned professional before driving down Magnolia Lane. He finished tied for 10th in 1955, a stroke behind the low amateur, Harvie Ward, Jr., one of a distinguished group of life-long amateurs who played well at Augusta. Another was Charlie Yates, who was low amateur in the first Masters, would play in 10 more, and was an Augusta National member.

Charlie Coe finished tied for second with Palmer in 1961, the year Gary Player became the first foreign player to win. Coe was among the last of the life-long amateurs capable of challenging the pros. Jack Nicklaus, who defeated Coe to win the 1959 US Amateur—and earn his second trip to Augusta—considered Coe “one of the finest golfers in the world of any stripe.” Nicklaus collected the Silver Cup as low am in 1960, shooting 293 to Coe’s 301. But the next year, Coe was only one off Player’s 280, while Nicklaus, playing for the last time as an amateur, shot 287.

Today, players must preserve their amateur status to play in the Masters, and most devotedly do so. Sergio Garcia won the British Amateur in 1998 and had a tour-ready game; but he waited until after the Masters to turn pro and won the Silver Cup in 1999, the year his countryman, Jose Maria Olazabal, won for the second time. Olazabal also competed in the Masters as an amateur, in 1985, joining an astonishing list of Masters champions who first competed at Augusta as amateurs.

The first player to win the Masters after playing as an amateur was Cary Middlecoff, who was low amateur in 1946, the year before he turned pro. Middlecoff won the 1955 Masters, then finished third the next year when Ken Venturi came as close to winning as any amateur has. Gary Player recently told me that he thought part of the reason Venturi played poorly in his last round—shooting 80 after playing the first three rounds in 66-69-75—was that “Sam Snead treated him badly.” Curt Sampson, who has written two books about the Masters, thinks this is a myth.

“There was a tradition that Byron Nelson would play the final round with the low amateur,” Sampson says, “but because Nelson was Venturi’s mentor, it seemed to provide him an unfair advantage, so he was paired with Snead. I don’t think Snead was mean to him—I think he just ignored him. That was Sam’s style.”

Gary Player has played dozens of practice rounds with amateurs over his long career, and says it’s impossible to know who’s going to do well until the starter announces a player’s name. He remembers a practice round with Garcia and Seve Ballesteros in ’99: “You could see that Sergio had a tremendous talent. But while the amateurs might play great practice rounds, the professionals always beat them when it mattered.”

Player also remembers the first Irishman to play in the Masters, the eternal amateur Joe Carr, who played three times. “Carr was a great player but couldn’t putt,” Player says. “I mean, he would sometimes use a 2-iron. But a wonderful player.” An Irishman has yet to win the Masters, which may change soon, although Rory McIlroy will not join the ranks of champions who played Augusta as amateurs.

Since Middlecoff won in 1955, there have been 57 Masters. Of those, players who competed first as amateurs have won 22, an astonishing number, and even more so since it doesn’t count Palmer’s three (he never played as an amateur). The former amateur winners are Jack Nicklaus (6), Tom Watson (2), Tiger Woods (4), Jose Maria Olazabal (2), Phil Mickelson (3), Ben Crenshaw (2), and Mark O’Meara, Craig Stadler, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody, and Trevor Immelman with one each.

amateurs-fought

John Fought in his amateur days.

John Fought, now a successful golf course architect, played in three Masters, the first as an amateur. (Like Palmer, he turned pro after winning the US Amateur, in 1977, but by then the qualifying rules had changed and winning the Am did not qualify him to play in the Masters as a professional.) Fought had also qualified by finishing low amateur in the 1976 US Open, another now-obsolete way an amateur could qualify.

Fought made the cut in all three of his Masters’ appearances. He finished last in 1977 among players making the cut, shooting 303, but getting to play all four days at the Masters as an amateur was, and still is, a distinguished feat. Only about a third of all amateurs between 1957 and 1977 made the cut, a figure skewed by the participation of “mature” amateurs, like Charlie Coe, who made the cut seven times during that period.

What Fought remembers most about being an amateur at Augusta National was the generosity and kindness of Billy Casper, who won the 1970 Masters, and Johnny Miller, then the hottest golfer on the planet, as he played practice rounds and tried to familiarize himself with the course.

“You’re star-struck being there,” Fought said. “But Casper and Miller, who had recruited me to play at Brigham Young, went out of their way to help me. I was very nervous on the first tee, but I hit my drive over the right fairway bunker, hit my approach shot to 12 feet, and made the putt. It was downhill from there,” he said with a laugh.

It’s the continuity of its traditions, the aura of its former champions, both in body and in spirit, that give the Masters its unique glow. But the fountain of youth in the form of amateurs, wide-eyed and hopeful, gives the Masters its perpetual spirit of renewal.

Photography by USGA (Nicklaus), Chris Williams/IconSMI (Fox), John Fought