Reflections on Augusta National

“Where the hell is he?” the General barked, jumping out of the all-terrain vehicle, as he rejected the advice of his security and walked ahead of the pack to scope out the situation. There had been 18 grueling and painful skirmishes up to this point, and the General, enraged, wanted to see for himself. So, with my step-dad at his side, Ike led the small heavily-armed detachment up the ridge toward the huge odd-columned building, searching with his keen eyes. Was the mysterious man missing-in-action or a turncoat?

Suddenly, he saw the man he was looking for, hunkered down, wearing sunglasses. The General was outraged. My step-dad was incredulous that it had come to this, that the General had been double-crossed to such a degree. Had something happened to the missing mystery man, or was he just out of his mind?

The European Theatre, 1944? No, Augusta, Georgia, mid-1950s. The General, now President, had just butchered 18 holes at the Augusta National Golf Club. The man he was looking for? The man America most loved to kick around. Read on.

My step-dad was Eisenhower’s golf teacher during his presidency, when Ike had a winter home-away-from-home at the National, staying at “Mamie’s Cabin”. Gene Stout was head golf pro at the National for 15 years, and assistant pro for awhile prior. He was well-liked in the PGA and the golf world. My mom also worked at the National.for a short time.

Augusta’s been in the news as it has become embroiled in a brouhaha between Club Chairman Hootie Johnson and Martha Burk of the National Council of Women’s Organizations. Burk had asked the Club to accept women as members, and organized a demonstration during the Tournament in April on a muddy lot the City contentiously assigned her, away from the main gate. Assorted other demonstrators joined with her, creating a carnival atmosphere.

What with Annika Sorenstam breaking through and playing at the Colonial in Fort Worth in May, it seems Hootie and the men have their hands full keeping a horde of hysterical she-devils with seven irons from breaching the hallowed walls of golfdom.

As hard-ass as Hootie appears, he is but a mugwump from Rae’s Creek, which meanders through the course, compared to the infamous Cliff Roberts. Roberts was the stiff New York investment banker who co-founded the Augusta National with the golf god from Atlanta, Bobby Jones, Jr. My step-dad knew the wrath of Roberts first hand. My mom was Roberts’ secretary for awhile in the ’50s.

The current drama being played out runs up against the trademarked National “tradition” that is packaged for millions of TV viewers every year, as deep-voiced hosts invite the viewer into the cozy, wood-paneled Butler Cabin to talk about the tournament, to a pleasant and prozac-inspired soundtrack.

You feel a part of some homey, green-jacket pageantry. I love it.

But it’s important to see behind the Magnolia Curtain. I witnessed a bit of that “tradition” first hand, working on the course one year and watching from the galleries for many, and hearing some great stories regarding the General and the mystery man, and other interesting tales from my family.

In the Shadow of the National

Augusta sits along a shallow, rocky stretch of the Savannah River, down-river from Clark’s Hill Lake, scraped from the red clay where the river was dammed decades ago. Downtown, Broad Street still struggles from decades of white flight and suburban malls, like many nondescript southern towns. At the top of “the Hill”, as it’s known, the former Bon Aire Hotel still stands, majestically with huge magnolias surrounding it, her beauty long frayed at the edges. Many of the golf stars and sports reporters from the old days used to stay at the Bon Aire. It’s been a nursing home for decades.

Augusta was a strange town, a mix of rich enclaves like the National and ivy’d suburbs with little black lawn jockeys in the front yard, but also the real Tobacco Road, not far from a sprawling run-down army post, and pockets of abject poverty, black and white. Or, as my Mom used to put it, “Augusta is damned near three hundred years of history unblemished by progress.”

For much of my early life, Augusta was my hometown. I grew up in Berchmans Hills, a half-mile or so away from the course. In the early 1930s, Jones, a famous amateur golfer and the then-unknown stockbroker chopped up a hilly fruit orchard called Berckmans nursery and founded the Augusta National Golf Club. The first few years of the Masters Tournament were not very successful, and the club nearly fell apart during the depression. The initial investors were ripped off by the founders, according to a recent book on the history of the Club. Yet the Club survived the tournament becoming one of the world’s premier sports events, and one-fourth of the fabled Grand Slam.

The National has long been part of the lifeblood of Augusta. I used to attend the tournament when I was a teenager, when tickets were plentiful, easily becoming a member of Arnie’s Army.

The course is bordered by a busy stretch of Washington Road, and also Berckmans Road, which passes through hilly, suburban neighborhoods. As kids, we would hike to Rae’s Creek, deep in the woods that used to blanket the area, before it vanished onto the course grounds, hidden behind ominous fences. We always heard stories that guards with shotguns and rabid German shepherds awaited the foolish boy that dared to scale the walls.

Waiting for Masters Week, and the Gates Finally Open

When I was growing up, there was something truly mystical about that week. Hotels, motels, restaurants and bars, and even plumbing supply services were named after the Masters, its influence on the other 51 weeks of the year wholly beyond any explanation. For 51 weeks of the year, the high fences, trees and thick bushes sequestered her as some pharaoh would his plump virgin daughter. As the fall and winter droned on, everyone waited for the return of the week that made the town famous again.

The build-up culminated in a great big Masters’ Parade “week”, with Spring Socials and cotillions warming up the Augusta crowd for the big upcoming event. With high school marching bands and festooned floats of golf greens and fareways, the golfers on display, and accompanied by beautiful belles dressed in antebellum ballgowns, Miss Golf Augusta, sitting on the back seat of a large open white Cadillac, would slowly make her way down Broad waving white-gloved hands.

Finally, in April, as the Spring heated up, the huge gates would swing open at the beginning of Masters’ Week for the Par Three Tourney, and thousands would stream down Magnolia Lane carrying umbrellas, collapsible chairs, blankets, picnic baskets, binoculars, water bottles, suntan lotion, hats, sunglasses, insect repellant, transistor radios, flasks, etc., etc.

The beauty of the course was overwhelming, covered in azalea and dogwood, with magnolia trees hugging the white-columned clubhouse. Big green scoreboards and concession stands blended in with the grass, trees and shrubs. The tall pines shaded the long hilly paths along the fairways, dropping straw during the inevitable windy golf days.

The galleries were colorful, respectful at the beginning of the week. Beautiful high school belle-ettes would show up in full bloom, wearing shorts, peddle-pushers and culottes, and sporting the first of the season’s tans. It was as important to be seen as it ever was to actually watch a single ball being struck.

But then again, if you worshipped the game, as I did as a teen, Masters Week was the “second coming”, and the National was Mecca. Standing around the clubhouse, we would gawk as golf giants walked out toward the first hole Arnie, Ken Ventura, Billy Casper, Nicklas, Gary Player, Doug Ford, Tommy Aaron, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi, and legends Sam Snead, Hogan, Demarest, Nelson, Sarazen. Golf Nirvana.

Sixteen Deep on Sixteen

One year, I worked at the tournament, along with my high school buddies Sumner, Hanger and one of their pals, Pat Wiley. Sumner and Hanger were wild enough. Wiley was a maniac, a high school drunk. We worked in the concession stand that faced the 16th green and the adjacent lake, one of the most dramatic holes on the course. We could watch the golfers putt out. The 16th is where the crowds were their rowdiest, on blankets and chairs on a hill behind the green and by the lake.

As the week moved on, the concession stand would draw lines of customers 16 or 20 deep, waiting for a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Cokes, hot dogs, etc. Kegs of beer flowed like the Savannah. One particularly steaming day, Wiley laid on his back on the floor so that the beer tap cascaded PBR down into his open mouth. He drank what seemed like a couple of gallons one day, one of us keeping the tap pouring during the rush of customers. He finally finished, sat up and wiped his face, looked around for a second with this shit-eating grin he was famous for, then fell backward, passed out. We dragged his no-count ass to a dark part of the back of the stand, and shoved him beneath a shelf. He slept the rest of the day, a sleep of pure bliss, dreaming of sticking a two-wood second shot across the pond to the green on the par 5 15th, two feet from the hole.

More Tales from the National

My parents divorced in 1964. In 1967, when I was 16, my mom suddenly re-married, hooking up with Gene. A year or so before they married, Gene had resigned from the National due to a run-in with Roberts. My family moved to the Bahamas, where he became the pro at a new course (and I became a young redneck in Paradise).

Gene had made a name for himself at the National in its glory years. He was close to Bob Jones, many of the golfers, and Palmer when he made his famous “charges” in the 1960s. He seemed to know everyone. At the time, I didn’t completely understand why he left Augusta. As time went on, and I got older, he told me a number of stories about the club, the golfers, Jones and Roberts and, especially, Ike.

The first stories I ever heard about the National came from my Mom, who worked as a secretary to Cliff Roberts in 1955. She told me that long before the Tournament, she would have to accompany Roberts in a golf cart, along with an entourage of the greens committee, as Roberts conducted his annual review of the course. My mom took dictation as Roberts stopped at every hole, suggesting changes.

“It was like a parade,” my mom said, quoted in The Masters, by Curt Sampson, a juicy little book on the history of the course (subtitled, “Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia”). “He was very nice, but he was a strange man. The absolute king. When he spoke, everyone jumped, even the members.”

Gene used to talk about wild parties at the National. At one party in the off-season, the main drink was Chatham Artillery Punch. It was named after a punch created by the Savannah-based Chatham Artillery, in existence prior to 1775. This “suave and deceitful brew” was served to President James Monroe in Savannah in 1819 for the launching of the USS Savannah. Supposedly, genteel ladies made up the beverage, as, one by one, officers would sneak in, adding this and that.

Recipe for Chatham Artillery Punch

1 1/2 gallons Catawba wine
1 1/2 quarts Rye Whiskey
1/2 gallon Rum
1 1/2 gallons strong tea
1 quart Gin
1 quart Brandy
1/2 pint Benedictine
2 1/2 pounds brown sugar

Juice,1 1/2 doz. oranges
Juice, 1 1/2 doz. lemons
1 bottle Marachino cherries
Make stock with above from 36 – 48 hours before time for serving.
Just prior to serving, add 1 case of Champagne.
(careful with those cherries)

Gene said that the next morning, some of Augusta National’s finest were found asleep on the 18th green, and some in the deep, deep rough.

Augusta and Ike

My step-dad spoke often about Eisenhower. By Gene’s accounts, Ike was a great guy. Gene would have breakfast with Ike every morning Ike was in town, at the President’s office above the clubhouse. I have a great framed picture of Gene and Ike standing together on the course, both holding irons, all smiles, 1950’s era, signed by the general.

There’s an interesting discussion in The Masters about the National’s relationship to Ike, dating to when Ike was President at Columbia. In 1948, Roberts responded to the General’s entreaties to become a member by putting together a “gang” of the club’s top members. Joining in an excursion to play a round with Ike were Bob Jones, eventual campaign supporters like Pete Jones, who sent $1 million to Ike’s ’52 campaign, and R.W. Woodruff, the Atlanta Coca-Cola king. This gang grew over the next twelve years, becoming a mutual support club for the President.

Roberts and Jones had formed Jororoberts, Inc. after the war to build Coke bottling plants in South America and elsewhere. Ike’s ambassadors in South America provided protection and helped the Jororoberts plants. And, while Ike was President, he would often walk the grounds with an open bottle of coke and a straw. The sports and news reporters who would come to town, holed up in the Bon Aire, took pictures by the hundreds, free ads for Coke.

For several years, Vice President Nixon had wanted to join Ike in Augusta and play the National. Ike didn’t want him there. Evidently, Augusta didn’t either, and even lobbied with Ike to take him off the ticket during the re-election. According to the book, Tricky Dick pumped Pepsi in his international travels, pissing off the Coke-heads at Augusta. But Sampson missed it that Nixon was never invited to the course (more to come).

The End of an Era

After 15 years at Augusta, Gene had a falling out with Roberts, after winning a group tournament in Ireland at St. Andrews. Gene had registered the group as being from the National; Roberts forced him to return the trophy, and Gene resigned. It greatly upset Jones, who was in ill-health at the time. Gene’s only consolation was that Jones demanded an open invitation for Gene to return to play anytime. “Cliff didn’t always fire people, he’d just make it so continuing to work there became intolerable,” Gene was quoted as saying. He and my mom married a short time later.

Years later, Roberts, mimicking his own father, shot himself in the head, on the 3rd hole on the Par Three Course, by Mamie’s Lake. He took a drop, as one sports reporter put it. His ashes were supposedly scattered at the lake on 15.

When my step-dad passed away after a horrible brain tumor, in 1990, the last person from his world to visit him was Arnold Palmer. Sometimes friends avoid people who are extremely sick. Not Palmer. My family will never forget Arnie’s gracious and beautiful gesture.

Oh Yeah, the “Controversy”

The Augusta Chronicle has been a thing of beauty to read, with editorials, articles and letters to the editors taking virulent positions against Martha Burk that have cast her as a man-hating, abortion-loving hell’s ambassador (and worse). Attitudes similar to when Blacks “got out of line.” The threatened demonstrations attracted an odd collection of mossbacks and carnival hawkers, especially after Reverend Jackson announced he was coming to the rescue. It became, you might say, a tad embarrassing. There were also a lot of yucks in town about the so-called demonstrations, picked up by the national press:

“The Elvis impersonator roamed the weedy field, dropping clunky pick-up lines on feminists in bright pink T-shirts. A bearded man dressed as a star-spangled nun pranced around with a stream of television cameras in hot pursuit. And an angry guy, who calls himself the One Man Klan Group, traded insults with a big-time sports columnist.
It was a sideshow like nothing they have seen in this staid town, an often loony display.” (Washington Post, 4/12/03).

But, as Christine Brennan of USA Today put it, “The fact that it has taken 12 years for golf to move from Shoal Creek to Martha Burk speaks volumes about how the game of golf really feels about women: Namely, that it’s of course no longer acceptable to discriminate against African-Americans, but it’s still appropriate, and even encouraged in some circles, to discriminate against women. ”

The Alabama Shoal Creek Club situation was reportedly settled after members opened their doors to a black executive to defuse a controversy that erupted when the PGA had been jumpy about bringing a tournament to to the club a decade ago.

The connection between the Augusta Club’s gender and racial policies is real. The club’s relationship to African Americans was, as might be expected, right out of Gone with the Wind.

For most of its history, Blacks had to enter the “big” house from the rear. In the thirties, the members would dress up and watch barbaric, club-sponsored “battle royales” at the Bon Aire, boxing free-for-alls involving six young Blacks who were blindfolded and let loose at each other in the ring, often with one arm tied behind their back. One young man who competed was James Brown, who had grown up in the “Terry”, a rough black neighborhood, according to Sampson. Still a big yuck?

Later, Lee Elder broke through the “Magnolia Curtain” and started playing in the 1970s, and the first African-American to join the club did so only in 1990. A short time later, Tiger won his first jacket.

There’s Clubs..and then there’s Clubs

Augusta is no Shoal Creek.

It is more like the Bohemian Grove, which Newsweek once described as the world’s most prestigious summer camp. “The fiercely guarded, 2,700 acre retreat is the country extension of San Francisco’s all-male ultra-exclusive Bohemian Club to which every Republican President since Herbert Hoover has belonged. With its high-powered clientele, coveted privacy and cabalistic rituals, the Bohemian Grove has prompted considerable suspicion.”

So, who is the typical member of Augusta? Most of Bobby Jones’ Atlanta friends left the scene long ago, as Jones became more disabled, and the more “worldly” corporate leaders recruited by Roberts eventually took over. Jones’ good old boys might even feel out of place today.

USA Today recently exposed the long-secret membership list, pregnant with CEO and corporate members. The 300 members-average age 72– are worth hundreds of billions. The National “Club” includes a sizable clavern from Wall Street that was recently fined $1.4 billion for having defrauded billions of dollars in the new corporate corruption scandals, hurting millions of Americans over the last couple of years. It includes a large contingent of oil company executives, and a number of members of the industrial-military complex (that so discomforted Ike).

There’s revolving-door government figures like the current Treasury Secretary, whose previous employer–CSX-was a deadbeat on tens of millions in taxes owed. Former Reaganite George Shultz’s employer, Bechtel, was intimately implicated in oil business with Saddam and Iraq, pre-war, and, along with Halliburton, just won massive contracts for post-war rebuilding and oil industry management. Corporate CEOs from firms that have been guilty of industrial accidents on a huge scale (remember Bhopal?), pollution, human rights violations, labor law abuses, and so on. Real sweethearts.

If some rich gal wants to be part of this gang of high-jinx-playing geriatric playboys, so that she, too, can get drunk, piss on the azaleas and pass out on the lawn; so that she, too, can hang out ’till the wee hours playing cards and real world monopoly (“I’ll take Tajikistan”); so that she, too, can sell her wares like Woodruff, then, more power to her. A giant step towards women’s equality? Maybe, maybe not. But it sure would be fun to watch. And if the National is more of a “corporation” than a club, as Burk attests, then it’s time to open the doors.

As The Masters pointed out, privacy at golf clubs is a uniquely American obsession. At St. Andrews, anyone can play. Why not Augusta?

And, a second question that begs to be asked would Bobby Jones and Ike feel as though they still “belong”?

Dick Gets the Big Invite

As I heard it around the kitchen table, Ike finally gave in, and Nixon flew down to join him. Ike pointedly informed Nixon to be on the tee at 7 AM. As the morning came, Ike, my step-dad, the gang and the Secret Service, etc., arrived at the first tee. Waiting a few minutes only, Ike looked around, saw no Nixon, and ordered the column to move forward, like Patton through Normandy. Ike played quickly, if sloppily, as was his habit. Finishing the first nine, Ike sent someone to the clubhouse to see if Nixon was waiting to join the group. Still no Dick. WHERE THE HELL?.

As they rounded the second nine, Gene and Ike and the rest walked to the clubhouse. The VP was sitting in a wrought iron chair under a magnolia tree, wearing sunglasses. He was nursing a hangover. Ike was furious. Nixon was never invited back.

THOMAS CROFT is Director of the Heartland Network. Visit for further information. He can be reached at:

Copyright T.W. Croft , 2003