We meet the man who walked off during a Masters practice round with Jack Nicklaus
Twenty years ago at Augusta the whole golfing kaleidoscope changed after the reigning US Amateur champion battered everyone into submission, and then some. Tiger Woods’ fourth win on the PGA Tour was a 12-shot massacring of the Masters field – the 21-year-old led by three after two rounds and nine by Saturday night.
Everything would change from here on, Augusta National would have to be ‘Tiger proofed’ and the way every professional regarded the new World No. 3 would now be different. Everyone was running scared, 14 majors later we were all right.
The other Amateur champion in the field was a 30-year-old from Leamington Spa who stopped playing the game for five years in his 20s.
“Life gets in the way sometimes,” is Warren Bladon’s explanation for his lengthy sabbatical.
His name is one that still pops up from time to time, he’s one of those players who looks just right with a club in his hands. People smile when his name comes up.
Last year he made it to the US Senior Open, in 2006 he qualified for a third Open at Hoylake after his girlfriend stumped up the £110 entry fee on the proviso that he put in some practice.
We spoke as the Midlander was sat on the M8 between Glasgow and Edinburgh. He wasn’t playing in Scotland, he was doing some picture framing for an art publishers.
Palmer turned to me and said: ‘I’m sorry for playing so poorly, I hope I’m not dragging you down’. He could have taken 20 shots on every hole and I wouldn’t have cared less.
Bladon played in his only Masters in 1997 but, like the rest of his life, it had a little bit of everything in there.
“We would always go to a mate’s house to watch the Masters and I would joke that I would play there one year. Probably the easiest way to get there is to win the Amateur Championship. I was playing well before Turnberry, I got it round in some bad weather on the first day and then was five-under on the Ailsa to win the stroke play. I birdied the last five holes.
“There was a lot of interest at Augusta with BBC and local papers. It is made into a big thing which obviously it is but, at the same time, it is just another golf tournament. The condition of the course is so incredible, that makes it so special. You play a lot of great courses but it might have some scruffy areas, there was none of that there.
“I knew Tiger from a practice round at Lytham in the 1996 Open, it was just me and him early in the week. We were both still amateurs, he was very polite and obviously struck it well.
“But between the ears, the way he thought around the course, was incredible for a 20-year-old. I saw him the next January at the Australian Masters, he was in the group behind me and he would always said hello. He looked a great player but he improved so much in the next 12 months, he then went on to win by that many shots after going out in 40 on the Thursday.
“They had to lengthen the course after 1997, they were not going to grow the rough. The 7th wasn’t necessary, it is narrow enough and the green is shallow enough already.
“My favourite hole was the 13th, that definitely takes some beating. I remember going for it with a 4-iron and hitting a massive cut and missing the creek on the right side and then chipping and putting for a birdie. The other day I knocked it on and three-putted.
“I played nine holes with Jack Nicklaus on the Tuesday. He joined me and Steve Scott, who Tiger had beaten in the third of his US Amateur finals. He was great, he showed us where the flags would be and where not to hit it. I wasn’t hitting it great and I had been at the course all day and decided to pack it in after nine.
“It was Lee Westwood’s first year so I played the Par 3 with him and Ian Woosnam. I didn’t stay in the Crow’s Nest. I had lots of friends there so it turns into a bit of a circus, we rented a house round the corner for about 12 of us.
“I shot 79-72. I didn’t think the course was that difficult, someone in the press wrote that I would be lucky to break 90 on either day. You would be on the range and most players would be the same sort of standard but you had to control the bit between your ears. I wasn’t as nervous as the Lytham Open, there you have to hit a 3-iron through a chute. All sorts go through your head, mainly don’t shank it.
“This was the last year of the two-balls and I played with Arnold Palmer on the Thursday and then Ray Floyd on the Friday. He thought he could still win so he didn’t really say a lot.
“Palmer was so nice, the perfect gentleman. I hit it down the trees on the left and hooked a 9-iron to leave a really difficult chip from behind the green. I was never going to chip it so I putted it up to two or three feet and parred it and he came across and said, ‘You don’t know how good an up-and-down that was’. That obviously made me feel great.
Then I birdied the 2nd and I was on the leaderboard in second place. It was about 1pm, the course was playing very tricky and the greens were like lightning.
“On the 15th we were waiting for the group ahead and we sat down on the bench together. He had just come back from surgery and he was struggling and he turned and said to me, ‘I’m sorry for playing so poorly, I hope I’m not dragging you down. I’ll try and play the last few holes a bit better’.
“What a thing to say, he could have taken 20 shots on every hole and I wouldn’t have cared less. I was playing in the Masters with Arnold Palmer. There were so many people following us and cheering us on to every tee and green. That would be my most memorable round of golf.
“People obviously take the mickey out of me for not playing 18 with Jack, played the back nine badly and people say I got what I deserve for walking off. I went out in 37 and was back in 42. I doubled 10 and 18. You get sloppy, it’s easy to do.
“The 72 I played really good, I hit it so close but had around 38 putts. It is wide open, on some holes there are no greenside bunkers or bunkers that aren’t in play, it’s the run-offs that get you. You can bang it off the tee but you would rather have a 30-footer up the hill than a four-footer down it.
“Once I missed the cut I cleared off, if I’m not playing I don’t have a lot of interest.”