John Hopkins: "Augusta is more gentlemanly"

Former Times golf correspondent John Hopkins reflects on three decades of reporting on the Masters

When was your first trip to Augusta?

It was 1981 and, like everyone else, it was much hillier than I imagined. There is something like 100 feet between the highest and lowest point on the course. 

In those days we were in private houses paid for by the club. It didn’t last very long after that, but it harked back to the days when Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts and Charlie Yates wanted to get British journalists to cover the Masters.

The deal in the 1950s had been that if the likes of Pat Ward-Thomas could get to New York airport then some member would put on a plane and fly them to Augusta. There were 15 or 16 of us split into two houses.

What were your first impressions?

I remember the beauty of the place, the sun seemed to shine throughout the six days. The defending champion Seve Ballesteros was like a brooding genius, he went on to miss the cut, and the press room was a semi-circular corrugated iron hut. 

I believe it was called a Quonset hut and it was to the right of the 1st fairway. When it rained, with the noise of our typewriters, it was impossible to think let alone speak.

At the end of the front row, perched precariously on an arm that came out of the wall, was a television above Michael McDonell. I always worried that the television was going to come loose and crash on his head and we would have to write his obituary.

What are your favourite vantage points on the course?

There are several and they were nearly all taught to me by Barbara Nicklaus, maybe not directly, and that was a brilliant way to see the course. I love a small stand by the 12th tee which is available only to photographers and journalists which has room for about 20-30 people. Another is the very back row of the stand to the left of the 15th green so, to the right are the players coming over the hill on the 15th, behind you is the 16th tee and if you look carefully you can see the players driving off the 17th. Late on Sunday, that is always a very exciting place to be. Off the course having breakfast on the verandah takes some beating.

How far has the 1st tee been moved back?

It has gone back 50 yards at least, so much so they have had to redesign the putting green. 

The bunker on the right, if it’s still in the same place, was something you had to avoid. Then people used to pay no attention to it and now it is back in play.

Is there a noticeable difference in the patrons?

I supposed there is a more gentlemanly aspect. They don’t yell or shout ‘you’re the man’ or ‘get in the hole’ when Tiger hits a shot as they do elsewhere and you don’t see them running as you’re not allowed to. One of the nice things last year on Sunday last year was that the cheers were back, you can be on the 11th and you can hear a roar from the 16th green and that is a very striking aspect of Augusta.

What do you make of the changes?

They changed it significantly, I’m not sure they were all right but they have left it alone now. I’m not sure the 7th green is the right size for a very long par 4 but it is the way it is and nothing anyone says is going to change it.

Billy Foster had a look at Mickelson’s lie in the pine needles and said to Lee Westwood ‘I can’t believe he’s going for it’. How have the attitudes of the committee changed? 
They have always been very welcoming to Britons. For years they put on a party on Saturday night for the press, members of the R&A and officials, and that expanded to representatives from all over the world. On the whole everybody is, at least superficially, very warm and welcoming. It is bizarre as there might be some crusty old bloke, with trousers two inches above his shoes, wandering around and you discover he’s a titan of American industry. I’ve never seen Bill Gates but know he wanted to be a member. They kept him out as he wanted it too much.

Do you always make a point of watching the honorary starters?
I’ve been a lot of times. I’d walk four or five holes then we would go for breakfast when the rush had died down. It’s a nice addition, you can get away with almost anything at Augusta. Jack held out against it for a long time but Arnold said it might be good fun.

What was the most special win? 
Nicklaus in 1986 was the most remarkable, he had his son on the bag and was 46 years old. Of course there was the added excitement, or disappointment, of Seve collapsing on 15. Seeing Nick Faldo win back to back was pretty good, Lyle’s bunker shot was remarkable, then there was Woosnam continuing Europe’s success. But the best was 1986.

How did US fans and media react to Europe’s dominance?
There is a story that people were shouting unpleasant things at Woosnam in 1991 and Tom Watson just said he acknowledges the crowd and says ‘thank you very much’, only the first word was slightly different. But I can’t say I remember any other occasion of too much partisan behaviour.

Who will end up with more Green Jackets – Tiger or Phil?
Mickelson is 40 now and you don’t tend to win too many Majors at that age, Jack was 40 when he won his penultimate Major before the 1986 win. Tiger has got a few years on him so I would go with him.

How have you seen their relationship change?
I think it has. Phil has become a proper figure in Tiger’s eyes and, with Tiger’s aura having diminished in the past year or so, some of his fans have switched their affection for Phil. He, meanwhile, is having to cope with his wife and mother having cancer and dealing with arthritis and I think he has conducted himself very well. At one time Tiger was bullet-proof and anything he said, like supposedly describing Phil as ‘flaky’, then everyone believed that and that isn’t the case now. They play table tennis at the Ryder Cup and I think they’re fine.

How do you think Tiger was treated by the patrons last year?
We were all watching for it and expecting to see something but  there wasn’t anything negative or too sarcastic. I don’t think he behaved particularly well, but at least he was trying which he doesn’t appear to be any more.

Was his chip-in at 16 the best shot you’ve seen at Augusta?
Phil Mickelson’s 6 iron from the trees at the 13th last year was probably a more difficult shot. Billy Foster had a look at Mickelson’s lie in the pine needles and said to Lee Westwood ‘I can’t believe he’s going for it’ so if someone as sensible and knowledgeable as Billy says that it was something special. 

Have you ever played Augusta?
Twice – 18 holes and then nine when I stepped in for a friend who had to catch a plane. I played after Ben Crenshaw won in 1984 and I took a couple of moments on the 10th green where he holed from 70 feet and I didn’t get within 10 in three tries. I’d have been off 17 but was round in over 100.

About John
John retired as the golf correspondent for The Times last year having begun  in 1993, following in the footsteps of Bernard Darwin. He covered over 100 Majors and 15 Ryder Cups.

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