Arnie’s Iron Man

A final farewell for Palmer’s legendary Masters caddie

Grave No. 3, Lot 12, Section G

Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

The search for the original Iron Man begins and ends here, at Southview Cemetery in downtown Augusta, Georgia. Located by a dirt road, near a side entrance and unmarked for much too long, the plot at the century-old African-American burial ground feels too humble for one of Augusta’s most renowned caddies, Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery.

Southview sits just 6 miles and 12 minutes by car from the pristine gates of Augusta National Golf Club. But it’s a time warp starting from Augusta National’s perfectly manicured fairways high up on Washington Road, then rolling down into inner-city Augusta, past a sprawling medical complex and historic Paine College, across Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and to a cemetery on Nellieville Road whose only definable nearby landmark is the United House of Prayer for All People church sitting on the corner.

Augusta National is where Iron Man became famous. But he made his legend in this part of town.

For decades, little was known about the men and women who made Augusta’s white caddie jumpsuits and green hats just as iconic as pimento cheese sandwiches, azaleas, Amen Corner and Magnolia Lane, mainly because, as caddies and black people in the American South, the media at that time didn’t think their story was important or acceptable to their audience. Iron Man was one of the first to break that mold, initially because of Arnold Palmer’s celebrity and shortly after because of his penchant for flamboyant quotes and off-course antics that belied his cool manner on the bag.

The 2018 Masters marked the 60th anniversary of the first of Palmer’s four Masters victories, and Iron Man was on the bag for each one. Arnie left us at age 87 in the fall of 2016. Iron Man met a much earlier demise, passing at age 46 in 1985. They were together for 14 Masters, from 1955 to 1968. It’s a good time to celebrate Iron Man, and to make amends.

Palmer first came to the Masters in 1955, invited as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion. With wife Winnie by his side, they towed a 26-foot trailer into town. Despite Palmer’s promise, players such as Ken Venturi, Mike Souchak and Gene Littler drew most of the attention from the press and the caddies. Caddie pairings were made by request of the players, reference from the caddie master or simply random assignment. Only Augusta National caddies were allowed at the Masters until 1983.

“The caddie master came down to the lot and said, ‘If you take this bag, you got to keep it,’” Iron Man, age 16 in 1955, told The Augusta Chronicle years later. “[I said] Even though Ken Venturi was the heat, I’ll keep it.”

Palmer’s ascent in 1958 was a watershed moment for the Masters and for the popularity of golf nationwide. Palmer was a swashbuckling 28-year-old with a wife, a 2-year-old daughter and a second daughter on the way later that summer. Iron Man was a 19-year-old bachelor who had won the caddie tournament multiple times and doubled as a course maintenance worker in summer when Augusta National was closed. It had been 18 years since a player in his 20s last won the Masters (Jimmy Demaret, 1940). A record crowd of 30,000 turned up on Easter Sunday to watch the final round. They were a young and compelling story line.

Described by Will Grimsley of The Associated Press as “a lean rope of a man, with just a trace of a mustache and a goatee, standing about 6-foot, 155 pounds,” Iron Man was the perfect balance to Palmer’s pulsating, emotional style. Iron Man was quiet, usually expressionless (called “sad-faced” in one early 1960s newspaper account), had a calm, loping stride and could be found many times sitting on Palmer’s bag or even sprawled out on the ground, casually watching as Palmer putted.

Iron Man and Arnold Palmer
Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery was on the bag for all four of Arnold Palmer’s Masters victories, with him during highs, like when he nearly sank an eagle putt at No. 13 on his way to his final green jacket in 1964. Photo: Associated Press

Palmer and Sam Snead shared the third-round lead in 1958. Word was passed around by Augusta National chairman and co-founder Clifford Roberts that a Sunday victory likely also came with an invitation for a Monday tee time with U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was an Augusta National member and avid player.

“If you couple the pressure of contending at the Masters with the thought that you might play golf with the President of the United States the next day, you can imagine what I went through the final 18 holes,” Palmer said in his 1999 autobiography, A Golfer’s Life.

  Then came the controversy. Palmer’s tee shot on the par-3 12th hole embedded in rain-soaked, soft turf behind the green, just a few feet below a bunker; he asked for relief from the wet area and was refused by the rules official, Englishman Arthur Lacey. According to Herbert Warren Wind’s account, there was “an animated and protracted discussion” between Palmer and Lacey. Palmer went back to work and slopped the ball out for a double bogey. However, he then played a provisional ball and got up and down for par. One-shot lead or one behind playing partner Venturi with six holes left? Palmer responded with an eagle on the 13th hole as the final rules decision loomed.

Two holes and 30 minutes later, a famous photo was captured as Palmer was informed of the verdict to give him a par, which would lead to a one-stroke win. Sitting in a golf cart beside Roberts, Masters co-founder Bobby Jones sported a turned-up bucket cap and sunglasses as he discussed the 12th hole with Palmer and Venturi facing them from the front of the cart. The photo is usually cropped to these four, as The Augusta Chronicle did on Monday, April 7, 1958. In the original image, however, there’s a fifth man in the scene: Iron Man at Roberts’ left, listening intently with Palmer’s bag over his shoulder.

“I told Winnie right away that I was going to play golf with the President the next day,” Palmer recalled in A Golfer’s Life. “And in the same sentence, I asked Winnie to write Iron Man a check. It was normal to give a sizable check to the caddie of the player who wins the Masters.”

Doubling as her husband’s traveling secretary and bookkeeper in those early days, Winnie planned to pay Iron Man $1,400. Amidst post-round celebration, she hurriedly wrote out the check. Finally, they broke away from Augusta National as a group of friends and club representatives from Wilson Sporting Goods treated the winning couple to dinner and drinks in downtown Augusta at the Town Tavern, the traditional restaurant and watering hole for the Masters participants.

An urgent call from Augusta National officials interrupted the festivities.Winnie had written a check for $14,000—more than Palmer’s $11,250 first prize—and Iron Man was attempting to cash it at the clubhouse. He moaned about the oversight, but a new check was disbursed to Iron Man at The Richmond Hotel, where many of the players stayed during the tournament.

That didn’t deter Iron Man, who was a “real gambler, a ladies’ man type of guy, not a family man,” according to cohort Carl Jackson, Ben Crenshaw’s longtime caddie. After every one of Palmer’s four Masters victories, Iron Man purchased a shiny new Cadillac or Pontiac to transport him and the girlfriend of that particular day to the nearest craps game or nightclub. He would regularly stop by to show off the car to a favorite nephew, Henry Avery Jr.

“He was a swinger,” Avery said when I interviewed him last year. “And I was really impressed when he drove up in those new cars.”

Late on the Monday night following Palmer’s 1958 victory, Iron Man was cruising down Augusta’s Wheeler Road in a Pontiac purchased just that afternoon, female acquaintance close by and an alcoholic beverage in hand. The car veered off the side of the road and struck a tree in front of an elementary school. No serious injuries were reported, just a totaled vehicle and a quick visit to the hospital, where the medical staff soon discovered Iron Man’s identity.

“Too bad you don’t have anything left from caddying for the new Masters champion,” legend says one doctor remarked.

“Oh yes, I have. I got these $30 shoes,” Iron Man said as he grinned and proudly stuck one foot in the air from the hospital bed.

Nicknames have been bestowed upon caddies since the days of Old Tom Morris, the original caddie master, in Scotland during the late 1800s. Caddies in Augusta turned the practice into an art form.

Augusta Country Club, which sits adjacent to Augusta National on the land behind Amen Corner, was the origin point for many of these names. “Big Henry” Avery—Iron Man’s older brother, who served as a caddie master at ACC—doled out the monikers that would usually last a lifetime. Teenage caddies, many from the Sand Hills community that abutted Augusta Country Club’s property, first went to work there before “going across the creek” to Augusta National. Saturday mornings were reserved for caddie lessons for school-age children.

“Big Henry would yell from the caddie house over there to get some caddies to work,” Jackson told me. “We’d be standing in a field across from the country club, waiting for a bag. If [Henry] didn’t know your name, he would call you by what you looked like or who you were related to. My big brother [Austin] was ‘Tweety.’ [Henry] didn’t know my name, so he just called me ‘Little Tweet.’”

Augusta National Caddies 1935
Augusta’s caddie community became something of an extended family, giving each other wild nicknames and sharing stories from the course. Gene Sarazen’s caddie (above, center), nicknamed Stovepipe for the style of hat he wore, shows off the club his man used to make the famous double eagle in 1935.

Willie “Pappy” Stokes, a five-time Masters-winning caddie—twice for Ben Hogan—was considered the godfather of Augusta National caddies and earned his nickname because of his slow walk, “old man” demeanor and the fact that he was born on the grounds of Augusta National before Jones discovered that it should be a golf course. Thor Nordwall was Gene Sarazen’s caddie when the Squire famously holed his second shot for double eagle at the 15th in 1935. He was better known as “Stovepipe,” since he wore a tall stovepipe hat while caddying and preaching. Willie Perteet became famous as President Eisenhower’s personal caddie during the 1950s and 1960s. He was “Cemetery,” a name given to him by Ike after he survived a knife attack from a forlorn lover, woke up in the hospital morgue to the shock of the attendant and was labeled “Dead Man.” The president thought Cemetery sounded better.

There are so many great Augusta nicknames that it’s worth lobbing out another handful: Beaver (bad teeth), Fireball (bad temper), Po Baby (always complaining), Hop (walked with a limp after getting run over by a car as a child), Eight Ball (extremely dark skin), Burnt Biscuits (burned legs after turning over boiling water while trying to swipe grandmother’s biscuits) and Daybreak (always arrived before dawn).

The caddies also gave nicknames to the golfers and outsiders. Iron Man often referred to Palmer simply as “Par.” Gary Player was “The Aferkin” because of his South African heritage. When Sid Matthew, a Bobby Jones historian and attorney, caddied for friend Kenny Knox in the 1991 Masters, the caddies labeled him “Judge” and asked for free legal advice.

The course was also susceptible to nicknames, perhaps most humorously the features of the hill on the par-5 eighth hole as players approach the green. With a climb of nearly 70 feet from the fairway and two noteworthy moguls sitting on top of the hill, the caddies have long called this area “Big Bertha,” since it reminds them of a woman’s shapely figure.

It’s no surprise that Nathaniel Avery’s nickname isn’t as tidy. The youngest of eight children, he hung out in the caddie yard in the early 1950s. As a 115-pound kid, he boasted that he could carry the heaviest bag of the day’s rounds and come back for more. That was the first time, he said in a mid-1960s interview, that someone jokingly called him Iron Man.

But some say the name comes from the claim—and subsequent reason—that he was missing a couple of fingertips after some sort of accident. One theory, told by the late veteran Augusta National caddie Joe Collins, claims that Iron Man, evidently under the influence of alcohol, once tried to cut open a golf ball with an axe and lopped some fingertips off in the process. Another says that he suffered the injury by holding an exploding firecracker. Yet another account is that the wounds were suffered in a knife fight.

Despite its shaky origin, the name stuck. It’s so deeply embedded in who Avery was that even today, 33 years after his death, his remaining relatives in Augusta don’t call him Uncle Nat or any given name. They just call him Iron Man.

Beyond the nicknames, banter is also key to the caddie experience. As the story goes, an unknown caddie and first-time guest at Augusta National came from practice to the first tee years ago for a casual round. The player was rambling on and on about this being his bucket-list experience. The caddie, a crusty veteran, wasn’t having any of this joviality and simply handed over the driver and walked on.

The clubbing and green reads throughout the first eight holes had been precise, with little vocal interaction. This lasted until the ninth hole, the dogleg-left par 4 with a tilting green sitting atop a hill adjacent to the first tee. The hole was cut on the front edge, and the player hit his approach long to the higher back portion of the slippery putting surface.As the player stood behind his 50-foot putt down the green, the caddie stepped in behind him and a deep voice emerged:

“Mister, there are three things you don’t want in life:
“Wet firewood…
“A cold woman during sex…
“And a downhill putt on the ninth green.”

Banter is crucial to another Iron Man story, perhaps the most impactful of Palmer’s career. Though Palmer and Iron Man were a longtime partnership, there wasn’t much advice accepted from his caddie. Jack Nicklaus had a similar plan during his rounds. It was largely a dictatorship when it came to Palmer and Nicklaus and their caddies. They used a form of the hated old caddie axiom, “Show up, keep up, shut up.”

“Iron Man wasn’t the greatest caddie,” Palmer wrote in his autobiography. “I’d be less than honest if I said he was. His distances were often inaccurate, and I relied, instead, on my own calculations and the knowledge of the course to get around Augusta.”

But Iron Man nevertheless proved invaluable as the final round of the 1960 Masters began, and he would etch his name in Masters lore with three simple words.

Palmer was a full-blown superstar by then and he led after each round. But even stars can get lost in their own head. Chain-smoking L&M cigarettes and swigging Coca-Colas to fight nervousness, Palmer was succumbing to the final-round pressure. He trailed by one stroke entering the back nine, failed to birdie the short par-5 13th and saw the tournament slipping away. Venturi finished at 5 under, and Arnie needed a birdie coming home to tie.

An errant drive and a poor third-shot pitch to the par-5 15th green blew another birdie chance. An infuriated Arnie tossed his wedge toward the nearby bag and stormed away.

Iron Man stared back.

“Mr. Palmer…are we chokin’?” Iron Man said in his usual low-pitched growl.

Iron Man had just accused his man of being gutless. It was a bold strategy that could have backfired in many ways. But it worked.

“His understanding of what made me tick was perhaps instinctive and definitely profound,” Palmer wrote. “I stared back at him and realized he was right—I was foolishly beating on myself instead of taking care of the business of playing the golf course.

“His scowl was eerily reminiscent of the disapproving glare Pap [Palmer’s father, Deacon] used to give me as a kid whenever I threw a club or failed to keep my mind on the job.”

Palmer began one of his patented charges right there as he completed what Jones later called a “lion-hearted finish.” On the par-3 16th, a long birdie putt rattled the pin and he was left with a tap-in par. Faced with a birdie-birdie finish to win, Arnie’s 25-footer on the 17th fell in on the last roll to tie Venturi, and a 5-footer on the last won it. He danced to the hole on both occasions and Iron Man sat nearby with the bag and flagstick, a message successfully delivered. 

Photo: Augusta National/Getty images

Despite a history of caddies being invisible to the press, this dazzling partnership pushed Iron Man into the limelight. In June 1960, SPORT magazine chronicled a 

first-person account by Iron Man of what it was like to carry Palmer’s clubs. Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated penned a piece in 1965 where Iron Man said, “What you think I do? Jes’ tote the bag?” Iron Man called the team “a corporation.”

“He just hitch his trousers, jerk on his glove, starts walking fast and says, ‘The game is on,’” Iron Man told the AP following Palmer’s third Masters win in 1962. “When Mr. Arnold do that, everybody better watch out. He’s gonna stampede anything in his way. …I been almost in his pocket on every hole. Sometime he goes with my advice—and it better be right. If I mis-club him, he don’t chastise me. He just look a little mean, and I feel like going through the ground. But he is a great man.”

As for how Palmer came back to win a playoff in 1962, Iron Man called on more than golf.

“He just look up in the sky like he is wishing for some miracle to come down,” Iron Man said. “And the miracle come down—like somebody was answering him.”

In 1964, Palmer won his fourth and final Masters in a rout. But it turned out to be his final major championship victory. With a second-round 79 in the 1968 Masters, Palmer missed the cut for the first time at Augusta. That was the last time Arnie and Iron Man shared the bag, a breakup similar to so many player-caddie relationships. Somebody has to get the blame.

One report on the reasoning stated that a national magazine wished to do a story on Palmer and asked for Iron Man’s input. His response: “How much you gonna pay me?” Winnie was standing nearby, overheard the pay request and grew disgusted with Iron Man’s attitude.

By the mid-1970s, Iron Man was a haggard figure lurking around the fringes of the tournament. He caddied irregularly at Augusta National and was once fired by a guest who asked for yardage information when Iron Man responded, “You’ve got about a mile.” He asked his family and friends for liquor and spent some time in the Richmond County Jail. He did have a short stint as Calvin Peete’s caddie in the early 1980s.

“I ain’t got nothing now,” Iron Man told the AP in 1974. “I’ve had no action since 1971. I got a job this year carrying a photographer’s equipment. Then they fired me. Said I was too slow.”

Still, Iron Man remained self-confident.

“No man knows this course like me,” Iron Man said in the same AP interview. “I know every tree, every blade of grass, every break of the greens. Arnie will be lucky to make the cut. He’s having his problems. He’ll never make a comeback until he gets me back. You just wait and see.”

True enough. Palmer’s best finish after 1968 was a tie for 11th in 1974.

Iron Man had the No. 1 bib at the 1965 Masters, but he and Palmer had already reached the zenith of their partnership. Palmer would never again win at Augusta, and Iron Man would never find a better bag. Photo: Augusta National/Getty images

As Iron Man faded into obscurity, William Avery took up the family mantle. Born in Augusta in 1979, long after Iron Man’s decade of notoriety, Avery had a long legacy of family members on the golf course, including Iron Man, Big Henry and two other caddying uncles. Pappy Stokes was kin after marrying Iron Man’s sister Odella. A couple of his uncles, as teenagers, were in the middle of a shooting at Augusta National in the late 1970s when they were chased off the grounds while fishing in Rae’s Creek, peppered and injured by buckshot from a security guard’s rifle. They settled out of court with the club a couple of years later.

Avery chose another sport: basketball. He became a star prep guard at Augusta’s Westside High School, then spent two years at Duke, three years in the NBA as a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves and a decade playing professional hoops in Israel, France, Ukraine, Greece, Germany, Turkey and Poland before retiring back to Augusta.

Avery’s fame is so deep in Augusta that a public outdoor basketball court located approximately 1 mile from Augusta National at Big Oak Park bears his name and that of Ricky Moore, former Augusta National caddie Buck Moore’s son. Avery and Moore formed a deadly backcourt duo to lead Westside to the 1995 Georgia Class AAA state basketball title, losing only one game all season. Avery’s No. 1-ranked Duke team and Moore’s Connecticut Huskies faced off in the 1999 NCAA Championship game in St. Petersburg, Florida, with the Huskies prevailing.

Now 38, Avery organizes junior basketball camps and coaches in the Augusta area. But even he is still learning about the exploits of the man who was famous before his time.

“I don’t think I knew much about who Iron Man was until I was about 23 or so,” Avery told me. “So more than half my lifetime. I was just 5 when he died, so it was a process to learn about him.…I don’t care what I did in my playing career. It doesn’t compare to what he did. That was historic.”

But nearly forgotten. On May 3, 1985, Iron Man died from liver disease caused by alcoholism and the development of tuberculosis. The Augusta Chronicle’s simple, 61-word obituary on May 7, 1985, mentioned his nickname, but listed no occupation or tie-in to the Masters or Palmer. He never married or had children. A simple funeral was held at Dent’s Undertaking Establishment on May 9. 

Iron Man was buried in Southview Cemetery that May with no marker. Julius Clark, who owns the cemetery, says it’s not unusual for someone to be buried anonymously: One family member thinks another is responsible. Money can’t be raised. There’s no compassionate connection to the deceased. Time passes.

In the summer of 2017, a closer inspection of Southview reconfirmed that Iron Man was indeed buried in Grave No. 3, Lot 12, Section G. Clark, a former grave digger, used his vault probe, a T-shaped rod contraption that launches into the ground, to determine if a casket was located 6 feet under. The map from the office, located off-site, was accurate.

Those who needed to know were contacted. Will Avery was the point person for the Avery family. Arnold Palmer’s office in Orlando was alerted. An anonymous donor paid $796.60 for a flat granite headstone that leads with the “Iron Man” inscription and provides his given name, lifespan and that he caddied for Palmer in his 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964 Masters wins.

By late October, the marker was in place, 32 years after Iron Man expired. A brief, casual ceremony was arranged. The telling of old stories broke out, and it was pointed out that Pappy Stokes was buried 100 yards away. A marker was provided for him since Pappy, who died in 2006 at age 86, served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Just 4 miles down the road, Willie Peterson—the holder of five Masters titles with Nicklaus—who died in 1999 at age 66, rests at Cedar Grove Cemetery. That’s 14 Masters titles for caddies located in downtown Augusta.

Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery's gravestone
Unmarked no more, Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery now has a proper headstone at his burial site in Augusta. His legendary exploits on and off the course are now further etched into the memory of his family and the Masters.

“This could be a museum instead of a cemetery,” Avery told me.

With that, Henry Avery Jr. reached for his wallet. He revealed a tattered old ID card, its laminated edges frayed and its color muted. It was the 1981-82 Augusta National caddie card of Nathaniel Avery, a color head-shot photograph located at the top right.

“Iron Man gave me this before he died,” Henry Jr. said, smiling as he showed it to me. “He wanted me to keep it. That’s the only conversation we had. Don’t know if he had anything else. I keep it in a safe place.”

Ward Clayton is part of the team releasing the documentary Loopers: A Caddie’s Life. The film dives into the history and world of caddying from Scotland and Ireland to Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes, the PGA Tour and Augusta National. Among others, it further traces the connections from Pappy Stokes to Iron Man to Carl Jackson to Michael Greller.