When Roberts' Rules Reigned

Meticulous Master of the Masters

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

AUGUSTA, GA. Augusta National Golf Club is viewed as the epitome of golf club stardom but the 86th playing of the Masters this week originally started from a far less lofty perch.

How that ascension took place is often relegated to a lesser point of interest with emphasis dwelling on the various key players competing for the famed green jacket. Yet, a key man played an invaluable role and he did so without ever playing a shot in any of the events. His name — Clifford Roberts.

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Working in tandem with co-founder Bob Jones, Roberts was the quintessential insider. He was the man responsible in putting into motion a game plan that entails a myriad of detail successfully executed with utter precision each year. It is that laser-like focus that separates the Masters from any other event in golf. Roberts was keen to always keep his eyes and ears open and when asked about changes made at Augusta National — he was quick to retort changes did not happen at the club — only improvements.

Roberts first met Jones back in the 1920s at Knollwood CC in Westchester County, NY. Born March 6, 1894 in Morning Sun, Iowa, Roberts, the farm boy, eventually found his way to Wall Street where his business acumen had him reach partner status at Reynolds & Company where he stayed for the rest of his career. Amazingly, Roberts continued as Chairman of Augusta National from 1931 until his death in 1976 when he committed suicide at age 83 because of severe health decline. Tragically, the actions Roberts took followed in lockstep with how both of his parents died.

The vision of Jones and Roberts was to create a national membership for the club. The original purchase price of $70,000 came about via an option on a 365-acre property called Fruitland Nurseries.

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Jones enlisted the renowned architect Alister MacKenzie to work with him in designing the course. Jones revered The Old Course at St. Andrews and wanted to create an inland layout that would be resemble the unique aspects found with that Scottish gem.

Construction started in 1931 with a limited play opening in 1932. The formal opening taking place in January, 1933, and the first Masters occurring in 1934 with Horton Smith the inaugural champion. Interestingly, the event was originally called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament because Jones believed it was pretentious to use the word Masters as the title. In 1939, Jones relented and the new name found a permanent home.

What many fail to comprehend is that the opening of Augusta National faced serious macro issues. The Great Depression was already in motion with  devastating  ramifications and long-lasting ripples. Further complication came just a few years later when World War II enveloped the globe.

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Bob Jones was revered in a sports crazy America most especially after accomplishing the Grand Slam in 1930, However, given the rigors of competition, the Georgian opted to retire from playing tournament golf at age 28. Nonetheless, the magnetism of Jones was the bedrock from which the foundation of Augusta National blossomed.

Roberts was the point person in getting the needed dollars from various deep-pocket business people. Keeping the club going was anything but a sure thing and for a number of years was the central area of emphasis. Unlike recent times when tournament badges are completely sold out and even practice rounds require lucky individuals to secure access through a lottery — the earliest days were far, far different and rested upon the shoulders of locals in the greater Augusta area to play a central role of support.

While Jones was the public face for the new club it was Roberts who resolutely held firm in elevating a regular tournament into one ultimately achieving major championship status.

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

When World War II receded into the shadows the aura of the Masters was on the launch pad and prepared for a major liftoff. Matters were helped with the stars of the time. Names such as Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan each won multiple green jackets at various intervals.

Having the best in golf showcase their considerable skills played a powerful role but separating the Masters experience rested on a number of other key needs.

Roberts, in concert with Jones, was the point person for putting into place a scoring system that would make matters far more efficient in keeping abreast of the golf competition. The Masters Tournament’s over/under scoring system shows contestants’ cumulative standing in relation to par. Hole by hole, red numerals indicate under-par scores, green numerals over-par scores and green zeroes even par. Eleven leader boards are strategically placed around the course, each listing the 10 lowest scorers at a given time.There would also be other innovations with roped fairways, a complimentay tournament booklet and modest concession prices with free on-site parking.

But there was a central man Roberts cultivated especially — one who never played in the Masters like he, but who occupied a position of even greater importance. Roberts invited Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1948 to visit Augusta National and not long after became a member. During his two terms as President of the United States in the 1950s Eisenhower would visit the club on 29 different occasions. More notably, it was Roberts who played a central role in leading the financing of the Eisenhower campaign for the White House.

When Roberts' Rules Reigned
Bobby Jones (Center) & Clifford Roberts (Right)

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Roberts was also keenly aware of the power of the press and how enlisting their involvement could greatly assist the fledging event’s overall profile. Roberts used the enduring aura of Jones in cultivating key writers — many returning on assignment from Florida during baseball’s spring training program and then coming to Augusta in early April for the tournament.

The public perception of the Masters rose appreciably with the intersection of television and Arnold Palmer joining together at the hip. Palmer’s swashbuckling style and All-America handsomeness brought golf to a far greater audience and the Masters was ground zero for that increased attention each spring.

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Roberts was also astute in cementing a relationship with network television, in which the aura of the event would be amplified in a manner that satisfied him. Unlike other major sports the Masters bypassed signing a multi-year contract. Brilliantly, Roberts opted to implement a one-year contract with CBS with the first event televised in 1956. Keeping the television network on a short leash provided Roberts with increased leverage with the network generally and how the broadcast specifically would be carried out. 

Upon the conclusion of each year’s event — Roberts would huddle with network brass and make clear his comments on what was expected. While Augusta National could likely have made more money with a multi-year deal — the club instead focused on an even greater item of emphasis — control. One of the most important areas of emphasis was the insistence that the awarding of the Masters green jacket be aired on network television following the conclusion of play. CBS knew full well that having the Masters on its network was a major achievement — having Roberts displeased could well mean the event being shipped to another network and that was something CBS was not going to let happen.

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Roberts was always keen to make sure the Masters, and by extension, the Augusta National Golf Club, was always seen in the most positive manner. To magnify his reach Roberts would intervene with a clear and forceful hand when moments did arise.

The most noted came during the 1966 Masters — when famed broadcaster Jack Whitaker stated at the conclusion of a playoff for that year’s event — “Here comes the mob” — a reference to the surge of those in the gallery nearing the 18th green. Roberts took offense to this characterization and not long afterwards the intersection of Whitaker and Augusta National parted ways. Whitaker always believed his removal was at the direction of Roberts and not the network. 

Whitaker returned to covering the event in 1972 and for a period of several years afterwards. The simple lesson from that situation was clear — words spoken by announcers were monitored and would be acted upon as needed. Fast forward to 1994 when CBS announcer Gary McCord received a permanent boot because of words he stated. Claiming the 17th putting surface having been “bikini waxed” and that “body bags” could be found for balls overshooting the green. The club made its intentions clear to CBS and it was McCord who then found himself in a permanent body bag of exile. 

To this day – CBS instructs its announcers to use such terms as the “second cut” in reference to the minimal rough just off the fairways. And the usage of the word “patrons” referring to those in attendance. Roberts also insisted no mention of the prize money would be stated. The focus squarely on the players and the prestige in competing for golf’s most sought prize — the green jacket.

To foster an overall vibe clearly beyond other golf events – the Masters limited which companies could advertise during the event and the amount of time taken from viewers watching the tournament in action. Initially, Cadillac and Travelers Insurance were two long time sponsors. Now, three companies share the honors — IBM, AT&T and Mercedes-Benz. Commercial time is also limited — no more than four minutes per hour. There wasn’t ever going to be a dog food commercial or a bombardment of inane commercials eating into the actual presentation of the tournament.

When Roberts Rules Reigned

When Roberts’ Rules Reigned

Roberts played a leading role when the par-3 course was created and opened in 1958. Working with architect George Cobb, the layout provided another golf dimension and eventually became part of the annual Wednesday festivities with a 9-hole tournament that commenced play in 1960 with Sam Snead the first winner. 

Roberts lived long enough to see the first black player — Lee Elder — compete in the 1975 Masters. Considerable outside pressure was played on Roberts to extend an invitation to Elder and a few other notable black players such as Charlie Sifford in years prior but he refused to budge. This also meant no black or female members at Augusta National during his reign as Chairman. Was Roberts outside the mainstream in what was happening at the highest levels of golf then? Hardly. Other notable golf organizations and clubs throughout that time followed a similar path.

By 1977 it was clear health issues were impacting his life. Cancer and a debilitating stroke pushed him to the brink and on September 29, 1977 — his body was found near Ike’s pond at the par-3 course with a self-inflicted gunshot. The club would go one extra step — naming Roberts chairman in perpetuity. The gun Roberts used was a 38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver. The club’s security force found the weapon and for some bizarre reason the gun eventually found itself in an auction catalog of golf memorabilia. The price? $15,000. And the club took steps to reacquire it for that amount.

The guiding principle of Roberts was fierce independence highlighted via a steadfast desire to always protect and enhance Augusta National Golf Club and by extension the Masters. When the health of Bob Jones was rapidly failing because of incurable spinal disease it was Roberts who believed Jones should move towards the shadows rather than be in the public spotlight. Roberts believed this action would be best for Jones given his plummeting health. The Jones family saw the treatment in a different light and Roberts was not invited to Jones’ funeral in December, 1971.

Ultimately, Roberts was the man who held all the key cards and was certainly the ultimate gatekeeper. Control was his constant driving force, and that desire extended all the way to his end where he controlled his final exit from this planet. Clifford Roberts was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1978.

While various golfers through the years gained fame from their exploits in front of the camera  — it was Roberts at the helm calculating the endless array of behind the curtain actions that carefully cultivated the pageantry one sees each year during that special week in April. 

For that reason, unquestionably, Roberts will always be the meticulous master of the Masters.

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