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Covering the Masters

Why the Masters were ahead of their time in public relations terms
IT is hard to believe nowadays but, back in the 1960s, the authorities at Augusta National used to provide subsidies to members of the British media who attended the Masters.

Bob Ferrier was the first, when in 1963 he covered it for The Observer, and the following year he was joined by Henry Longhurst, Leonard Crawley, Pat Ward-Thomas, Ronnie Heager and others, all of whom had been enticed by free board and lodging.

Ward-Thomas, writing in his incomparable autobiography Not Only Golf, was among the first visitors to confirm the lengths to which Augusta officials used go to tempt international journalists to cover the tournament.

“I had seen my first Masters in 1964 but could not go the following spring,” he wrote.

“Later that summer, during the Walker Cup match at Baltimore, Charles Yates, one of the most engaging of men and an imperishable figure at Augusta, asked Peter Ryde and me if we would be at the Masters in 1966.

“I said it would be doubtful because of the cost: one American trip each year was the most I could expect from The Guardian at the time.

"Eventually, Yates wrote and said that if I and others could get across the Atlantic the rest of our problems would be solved.

"We were told to be at La Guardia airport at a certain time and we would be flown to Augusta in one of the private jets belonging to Jackson T. Stephens, a member of Augusta National.
For several years he sent his aircraft and on one occasion Ronald Heager, then of the Daily Express, now of the Sunday, and I were the only passengers.
“For several years he sent his aircraft and on one occasion Ronald Heager, then of the Daily Express, now of the Sunday, and I were the only passengers.

"As we settled in our seats, a bottle of bourbon between us, we had one common thought, that this was the life.”

Sadly, by the time of my first visit, in 1986, this practice had been discontinued.

However, some things had not changed, including the primitive media centre we used to work in. Back then, visiting journalists were accommodated in a corrugated iron Nissan hut situated to the right of the first fairway.

Experienced scribes, such as Dai Davies, Michael Williams and Renton Laidlaw, were accorded the privilege of a seat in the relative comfort of the ground floor.

The rest of us were allocated a place in the attic, situated at the rear of the building, where binoculars were required to read the distant leaderboard and where the only access was via an external stair.

In the middle of the day, with the heat of the sun beating down on the hot tin roof, the temperature would almost melt the keys on our typewriters.

In the evening, it would drop alarmingly, the only heat being provided by the vile-smelling cigars smoked by the gargantuan security guard, unimaginatively known as Tiny.

The inmates of this rooftop hell-hole were known as the Attic Rats. We had T-shirts made to announce our affiliation and even had a secret means of greeting each other, involving sticking our left thumb in our earhole and waggling our fingers about.

Incidentally, the tee shirts were green. Everything at Augusta is green, right down to the paper cups and sandwich wrappers.

Personally, I cannot help but think the Masters lost some of its character when, after the 1989 tournament, the club knocked down our glorified scout hut and replaced it with a brand new multi-million-dollar media centre, complete with air conditioning and fitted (green) carpets.

It also lost an entertaining sideshow some 10 years later when the authorities moved the practice ground, thereby stopping the annual contest to see if John Daly and the other big hitters could hit drives over a 105-feet high fence onto the adjacent freeway.

Nevertheless, lest I start to sound ungrateful, let me confirm a Masters media badge remains the most desirable ticket in all of sport.

Whenever asked, I have no hesitation in confirming that Augusta, with its scent and sight of azaleas, dogwood and magnolias, is even more attractive than it appears on TV.

I have my doubts the course still provides the sort of challenge that either founder, Bobby Jones or original architect, Dr Alister MacKenzie, envisaged when they built it back in the 1930s but it still has the propensity to create incredible drama and that makes it more than good enough for me.

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