Masters still casts a spell

The Minneapolis Tribune called it a masterpiece. Thirteen-year-old me couldn’t but agree.

Masters still casts a spell

I’ve no idea was it bought or borrowed. It just sat there on the shelf, in between Leon Uris and Tarry Flynn, an old battered bastard of a book that at first glance did a passable impression of a seasoned copy of Soundings.

Green cover. Discoloured pages, 223 in all. Far from crying out to be read, it was a piece of sporting literature waiting to be put to stud. Something put it in my way — accident or design — but Dick Schapp’s The Masters: The Winning of a Golf Classic miraculously endured.

I first picked it up in 1993, apropos of a burgeoning love of golf, a love nurtured by my father and brothers.

The book was already ancient, published 23 years previous. But if the US Masters was not important enough to me already, it became so, not least because I became an expert on everything from the width of Magnolia Drive to the colour of the carpet in the Butler Cabin.

The premise of the book was simple — a behind the scenes, minute-by-minute account of the 1970 Masters, narrated by Schapp as Nick Carraway did The Great Gatsby -

observing the most majestic of human dramas without inserting himself in the story.

This was the time of Jack Nicklaus in his pomp, when Arnold Palmer was one of the most celebrated personalities in America — and this was their playground.

Nicklaus, Schapp tells us, lost 19lbs over the winter in an attempt to further his dominance of the sport, while Palmer interrupted his Masters week to wine and dine with Richard Nixon in the White House.

But it is in the margins, amongst the journeymen and rookies, the black caddies, and the nobody amateurs, that Schapp opens up a world of wonder that still resonates.

His account opens on this day 48 years ago. He catalogues the early arrivals to the course; he eavesdrops on their conversations, notes what they eat for lunch, who’s struggling with their game and who’s talking themselves up.

It never seems invasive or gossipy. He clearly enjoyed the players’ trust and had the ability to turn the mundane into gold.

April 6, 1970, 6.10pm. Clifford Roberts, chairman of the Masters Tournament committee since the beginning, is sitting in the club’s barbershop, getting a manicure and haircut.

Schapp notes the only voluntary absentee, Lee Trevino, who had declined his Masters invitation, less than comfortable with the pervasive social climate in Augusta, “a Deep South attitude which does not make a dark-skinned Mexican-American feel particularly welcome in the town.”

How far we’ve come?

Schapp works his alchemy with the goings-on in the Amvet Club, the off-campus tavern where the black caddies drink beer and dream of a winners’ tip. There’s the army of plainclothes guards who track Gary Player’s every move, providing security from anticipated anti-South African sentiment.

Each day of Masters week brought alive by the small stuff. The perfect accompaniment to watching the tournament as a kid, and to realising then, some 23 years later, little had changed, save for the colour of the caddies’ faces.

In an act of absurd juxtaposition; the West of Ireland amateur golf championship often overlaps with the Masters. Rosses Point, Co. Sligo arguably stands alongside Augusta as one of the world’s finest golfing tests, but they are born of very different mothers.

One, much like the Clifford Roberts’ fingernails, is manicured to the nth degree; the other is a wild beast. Players wait minutes for wind changes at the 12th tee in Augusta, you could wait a lifetime for a calm day in Rosses.

I remember being brought as a kid in conditions that’d test Shackleton, and sheltering in waist-high gorse alongside Garth McGimpsey, a man who had smelled the Augusta azaleas when he earned a two-year invite as 1985 British amateur champion.

Briefly, amidst the Atlantic hail, standing in oversized third-hand Slazenger waterproofs, my world and that of the Masters briefly collided. It was a moment I’m sure Schapp would’ve appreciated.

Somehow, the book has survived. My brother found it within minutes of arriving home last weekend. It’s more jaundiced than I remember, but, rereading it elicited memories of what sport meant to me as a kid, and stirred what it means now.

How much has changed in the quarter of a century, or in the 48 years since Schapp penned it, is far less obvious then you’d think.

The ball travels further, the players earn more and the caddies are almost all white, but, for better or worse, Augusta still casts a spell.

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