The Man Who Made the Masters (Conclusion)
This is the final part of a series on Clifford Roberts, the co-founder of Augusta National Golf Club and the chairman of the Masters Tournament from 1934 to 1976.
By John Coyne
ONE MIGHT SAY SUICIDE RAN in Clifford Roberts’ family. His mother, suffering from back pains and depression, killed herself with a shotgun in 1913, and his father, who had health issues of his own, in 1921 walked in front of a train and was killed. No note was left, but it had the markings of another family suicide.
Now how would Clifford end his life?
Roberts’s final day is well told in David Owen’s book, The Making of the Masters, a history of Augusta National written with the help and cooperation of the club, to combat negative accounts of life at Augusta National. Owen, a New Yorker staff writer, gives a full account of Roberts’ long reign at Augusta National, as well as a detailed history of the golf course and tournament itself.
The book was published by Simon & Schuster in 1999. In the book, Owens lays out in three pages the final days of Roberts’ life.
By 1976 Roberts was 82 and had given up major responsibilities at the club and the tournament, but there was still work to be done. He had learned that the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. was going to sponsor an official event of the LPGA and name it the Ladies Masters. Roberts saw using that name as implying a non-existent connection with the Masters itself. Also, the tournament was scheduled to take place in Hilton Head, South Carolina, one week after Augusta.
Augusta National sued to stop the use of the name. It was one of the last actions that Clifford Roberts took in his life to save the purity of his tournament and his golf course.
Augusta National would win the case against Northwestern Mutual Life, with Roberts as the star witness. A federal judge declared that “Masters” and “derivative thereof” belonged to Augusta National only.
Friends would say later the lengthy case and trial hastened his death as, shortly before the 1977 Masters, Roberts checked into St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston. He returned to Georgia in time for the event but he was too ill to leave his bedroom.
In September of that year, after visiting his wife who owned and lived in a home in Beverly Hills, he returned again to St. Luke’s for further checkups. Now his weight was less than a hundred and thirty-five pounds; he did not have cancer, he was not suffering from dementia, but he was dying. After three days he checked out of the hospital and returned home to Augusta.
As Owen states in his book, Roberts “true” home was Augusta National, though he owned an apartment in New York, condominiums in North Carolina and the Bahamas, and his wife had a home in California where she spent most of the year. She did not enjoy Augusta National.
On the last day of his life, Roberts had his hair cut in the clubhouse barbershop. He also had a new pair of pajamas purchased for him, had afternoon tea and toasted pound cake, and then walked out to the first tee with his regular waiter, Ray Wigfall, for one final look.
Standing on the first tee, he looked down the length of the fairway to make sure the Harison mansion, which could be seen from the course but had been bought by a member so it could be torn down, had, in fact, been torn down. Roberts was free to end his life, knowing the outside world did not infringe on this paradise, Augusta National Golf Course.
That night he ate dinner alone in his room: lamb chops, oven-browned potatoes and carrots.
He asked Wigfall to stay with him awhile and also help him call his wife in California. By ten o’clock Cliff Roberts was alone.
Additional accounts of his final night have him calling the Pinkerton guard who was on the clubhouse switchboard to show him how his gun (a Smith and Wesson .38) should be properly fired, saying he had heard noises outside his apartment.
At some point after midnight he managed, in his extreme frailness, to walk down the sloping drive to Ike’s Pond below the historic clubhouse and there, a little before 3:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, September 29, 1977, he put a single bullet into his temple. He was discovered by a housekeeper on her way to work lying by the side of a service road at the lower end of the pond, just beyond the southern edge of the par three course.
In the pocket of his misbuttoned shirt was an Augusta National envelope and in one corner of the envelope he had written in spidery pencil:
I am sorry.
I love you.
Roberts had left burial instructions in a memo in his files requesting “unmarked interment on the grounds.”
In his book Owen writes, “Whether his ashes were buried in a single spot or spread over a larger area is now unknown. The four people who handled the chore have long since died.”
However, in Tripp Bowden’s book, Freddie & Me: Life Lessons from Freddie Bennett, Augusta National’s Legendary Caddy Master, Bowden tells how Freddie Bennett took him out on a golf cart and stopped in front of a grove of dogwoods. There he bowed his head and remarked, “That’s where he’s buried. Cremated. Just like he wanted. Buried on the place he built, also like he wanted. He told me that. Not long before he died.”
Freddie, an African-American and longtime employee at the golf club would go on to say, “He was something else, Mr. Roberts. A damn good man.”
Then Freddie pointed a thick finger into the clump of dogwoods. “He’s under that one. But don’t tell just anybody, if you get me.”
Tripp got Freddie. He didn’t tell us in his book on Augusta National.
Somewhere in that sea of flowering dogwoods this Master week, if you are at the tournament or watching on television, you’ll know the remains of the man who made the Masters are still with us at Augusta National.
Regardless of his faults-and they were many-he made the Masters Tournament what it is today, the greatest golf event in the world.
John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.