'All I was thinking about was getting my spot at next year's Masters'
As things stand there will be eight English players putting a peg in the ground on the Thursday of this year’s Masters.
Back in 1974 things were very different. Only one overseas player had ever won at Augusta National, Gary Player was the first in 1961 and he would go on to double up that year.
But it was an Englishman who would do something that no other player had done before. Maurice Bembridge would cover the National’s back nine in just 30 strokes to tie Lloyd Mangrum and the great Jack Nicklaus’ course record of 64.
Peter Alliss, who would turn down plenty of invites to the Masters around this period, rates it as one of the greatest rounds in the history of the game.
Bembridge, who like Lee Westwood was born in Worksop, would make the trip whenever there was the opportunity and his efforts were rewarded when his putter came alight in Georgia.
“In those days you would leave England in October and come back in May so you would take your driver, putter, a couple of wedges and pick up a set of clubs in Australia. I couldn’t afford to take a whole set of clubs in economy, you could work it on the way back with Qantas. You never took any balls,” Bembridge recalled.
Had the Americans been paying attention to the 1973 Ryder Cup at Muirfield they would have been familiar with Bembridge, he and Brian Huggett would beat Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in the first afternoon fourballs. The rest of the match went the usual way with the Americans running out comfortable winners.
“Brian and I seemed to gel pretty well, we had the same sort of round-the-corners game. I remember chipping in to finish the game off. After the game we would all be in the bar and have a drink together. Everyone was in the same place unless you had a team talk which were mainly to discuss the rules.”
At Augusta Bemridge opened up 73-74-72 to sit well down the leaderboard but then, after a front nine of 34, his game went into overdrive.
“At the 10th I always felt like the tee was on a downslope, I hit a 3-iron safe and pitched perfect on the slope and down onto the flat bit. I hit another 3-iron to the green and somehow holed a 12-foot birdie putt.
“At the next I drove it to the top of the hill from what is probably the ladies’ tee now. I had a 10-yard putt which I struck very, nicely, too nicely, as it set off like an express train and hit the back of the hole and jumped up and went in.”
Bembridge’s philosophy at the 12th was to play it as it was and, if he was going to miss the green, it would be long right. On day one he played a 9-iron from the front of the tee to a front pin, come the Sunday it was playing its full length and Bembridge would hit a 4-iron.
“I hit it to 10 foot and made a two. Three in a row and I was very happy about that. I was looking at the board and suddenly I was in red numbers. My big goal was to get into the top 24 to claim and automatic invitation for the next year.”
Bembridge’s strange day got a whole lot stranger with what happened at the par-5 13th.
After finding the fairway he then found something else sitting in his way.
“I walked up there and my caddie, Pappy, who had been at the club forever and a day was 50 metres away in the trees. He said in his deep Georgian accent ‘he’s going to get you, he’s going to kill you’.
“In front of me was a two-foot lump which I soon worked out was a snake. It was a water mocassin. I had a plane to catch so I got the longest club, which was a Slazenger blade 2-iron, and came up from behind and bopped him on top of the head. He wriggled about a bit and I caught him on the end of the club and tossed him into Rae’s Creek.
“Pappy was still 50 metres away, I didn’t know they are supposedly very dangerous. The shot looked like a 2-iron anyway so I had the right club and I hit the front of the green and putted up to three or four feet and made another birdie. So that was four in a row.”
The 14th was relatively dull and, despite almost hitting the flag with his approach, there wasn’t to be a fifth straight birdie.
But, having laid up at the 15th, he soon resumed birdie business.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous, there was plenty of adrenaline and it wasn’t my fault that they kept going in. My thought pattern was hold onto the red numbers to get my spot for the next year. When I got to three under I thought I was safe.
“Bobby Locke would call everyone ‘master’ as he couldn’t remember anyone’s name. He said ‘Master, you must play for the par and if you get a birdie put it in the back pocket.’ So that’s what I did.
“I had a full sand wedge, it pitched a yard on the green, took another bounce and stopped a metre short. And so it went on…”
That meant Bembridge was seven under for the day and five under for the back nine. For the first time he didn’t give himself a chance at the 16th. But, having hit ‘a coward shot’ and found the sand, he made an eight-footer to keep things going.
“At 17 I hit too much club, a 6-iron, which hit the back of the green and took the downslope and finished on top of the old 18th tee. I couldn’t see any shot other than a low shot which finished about 15 feet short and holed that.”
Which brought Bembridge to the 18th having only had 10 putts in eight holes and now inside the top 10. It would be another 6-iron which landed on top of the bunker and ran up to the top tier. The pin, as always on Sunday, was on the bottom tier.
“I left myself 35 feet which only needed a tickle and it was just a matter of two putts and off we go. It kept rolling and just gave itself up at the last minute, another birdie.”
As you might have gathered, Bembridge is a dry character with a twinkle in his eye and his trademark pipe generally found in or around his mouth.
And there was one more surprise for the Englishman after shooting just the third 64 in Masters history – only Nick Price and Greg Norman have eclipsed it since.
“I was in the locker room and packing up when I was told I would be expected to make an appearance in the Butler’s Cabin for a chat with CBS. I told them that I had a plane to catch and that there was plenty of golf still going on but they sent Peter Dobereiner, the great journalist, to tell me to do it and that they would look after me. I did two TV interviews and went back to the clubhouse where my bags were packed and there was a limousine waiting for me.
“I got on a private jet, I had no idea what was going on other than I had to get to New York to change to get to London and then on to the Spanish Open. At Newark there was another limo at the bottom of the steps and I was driven to JFK and I then realised this guy who was looking after me was the boss of CBS. All their big wigs were on the plane, I didn’t know who any of them were other than they liked gin and tonics and liked to play rummy.”