Clifford Roberts

Benevolent Dictator

Clifford Roberts’ rise to power at Augusta National

Part 1 | The Making of The Masters | Benevolent Dictator The Golfer's Journal Podcast

Editor’s note: This is part one of a five-part TGJ Podcast series which chronicles the origin, evolution and inner-workings of The Masters. The series is voiced by David Owen and based on his best-selling book, The Making of the Masters. Below you can find a transcript of this entire episode.

The modern golf season never ends, but it does begin. When the first contestant tees off at Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning during Masters week, golfers all over the world reset their internal clocks. The first page in a golfer’s calendar is April.

For the world’s best players, the Masters divides one season’s aspirations from another’s. Success at the highest levels on tour means recognition, money, autograph requests, endorsements, exemptions and an invitation to Augusta. As the first full week of April draws near, players who have not yet qualified for invitations juggle their schedules to maximize their chances, and television commentators count down the tournaments remaining. When the Masters begins, every competitor has a theoretical chance of matching Bobby Jones’s unduplicated feat of winning all four major tournaments in one year; when the Masters ends, the Grand Slam field has shrunk to one.

For tournament spectators, the Masters is an annual reunion where the passage of time is measured not in years but in the names of champions. The principal viewing areas have the settled feel of old neighborhoods; the course is as familiar as a friend’s backyard. In countless gatherings beneath the pine trees, acquaintances are renewed and records are brought up to date: deaths, marriages, children, grandchildren, new houses, old jobs. The dogwood blossoms are compared with the dogwood blossoms of previous years. A rebuilt green is examined and approved. Two veterans discuss the careers of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer—and then Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer walk by. A guest once said, “I rode here in the front seat and will be in the back seat going out so I can stay as long as I can.” For distant golf fans, the first glimpse of Amen Corner on TV is proof that winter is gone. Northerners who haven’t swung a club since Halloween scrounge an old ball from the garage and roll a few wobbly putts across the family room carpet during commercials. A swirling gray New England sky stops looking like a vestige of December and begins to seem like a harbinger of spring. The hours crawl from Saturday evening till Sunday afternoon. Meetings and social engagements are ignored or rescheduled; no avid golfer was ever married on Masters weekend. In 1987, two fans from Olympia Fields, Illinois, named their new daughter Tori Augusta National.

For sportswriters, the Masters is the plum assignment of the year. It is the first trip entered in a reporter’s appointment book, and it is written in ink. Journalists take the Masters personally. Herbert Warren Wind, The New Yorker‘s incomparable golf correspondent for many years, once stopped another reporter upon arriving in Augusta’s airport and anxiously inquired about the state of the greens: ”Are they firm?” Senior golf writers postpone hip replacements and cataract operations until just after the tournament, giving themselves a full fifty weeks to recover.

For nongolfers, the Masters is the one tournament of the year that compels attention. Over breakfast on Sunday morning, a golfer’s nonplaying spouse may suddenly offer an informed observation about the chances of Faldo, Couples, or Woods—the result of an hour’s seduction by the sports page or the TV. The beauty of the setting makes one’s love for golf comprehensible to the game’s antagonists. For four days, the national flower is the azalea.

Gary Player once said, “The Masters is the only tournament I ever knew where you choke when you drive through the front gate.” The trip down Magnolia Lane may be the most dreamed about entrance in sports. Although the Masters is not ancient as golf goes, no contest runs deeper in the imaginations of participants. Sam Snead said, “If you asked golfers what tournament they would rather win over all the others, I think every one of them to a man would say the Masters.” Late at night after Tiger Woods’s record-breaking victory in 1997, Earl Woods looked in on his son and found him curled up in bed, asleep with a smile on his face, his arms wrapped around his green jacket.

The Masters is unique among major tournaments in that it is conducted not by a national golf organization but by a private club. Two dozen committees headed by club members assume responsibility for everything from the placement of the holes to the pricing of the barbecued pork sandwiches in the concession stands. A member who may squeeze in only a week or two of golf in Augusta for himself in a typical year may spend another week or two wrestling with parking allocations, entertainment for international reporters, or the placement of public telephones. The tournament shortens by a week an already abbreviated playing season, and it does so at the most beautiful time of the year. The course is closed from late May until early October, a period when summer heat threatens the turf, and it receives little play during January and February, months when the weather is chilly, wet, and unpredictable. In March, the members share the course with crews erecting scoreboards, spectator stands, concession tents, and television towers. In early April, they vacate their clubhouse and turn their dining room into a commissary. In late May, they surrender the course again, this time to tournament volunteers, club employees, caddies, and other friends of the club, who close the golf season with a week-long party.

The prestige of the Masters has made the club’s green blazer the most coveted adornment in golf—so much so that a modern golf fan has difficulty imagining that neither the club nor the tournament was a foreordained success. Founded at the beginning of the Great Depression, the club faced financial ruin repeatedly during its first fifteen years. As the club was being formed in 1931, the first business plan called for 1,800 members, each of whom would pay dues of sixty dollars a year. Three years later, as the first Masters got underway, the club was 1,724 members short of that goal. The Masters, which began in 1934 as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, was recognized from the start as an exceptionally well-run event-Time that year described it as “a new golfing institution and a new competition, rivaling even the U.S. Open in importance, far surpassing it in atmosphere” -but it remained an economic burden for years. The club couldn’t afford to pay the first winner, Horton Smith, or any of the other top finishers until seventeen members chipped in the purse. The winner in 1946, Herman Keiser, had to be told that his plaque would be along shortly, just as soon as the club could come up with the silver.

The club survived those early adversities because of the perseverance of its two founders: Clifford Roberts and Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, Jr. They were, respectively, Augusta National’s first chairman and its only president. (In 1966, five years before his death, the club declared Jones “president in perpetuity,” and no successor has ever been named.) They are commemorated by a pair of bronze plaques set in the ground at the base of the flagpole in front of the clubhouse. The modesty of the memorial, which is known as the Founders Circle, would have pleased both men: Jones loved Augusta National in part because for him it was a refuge from celebrity; Roberts was proud of what he and his friend had created but was an enemy of ostentation.

Augusta National/Getty Images
Bobby Jones. Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images

It is usually said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but one could argue that the roles were reversed—that without Jones’s immense popularity the enterprise would never have attracted enough financial support to survive, and that without the vision and stubborn determination of Roberts the club would have folded and the Augusta National Invitation Tournament would never have grown into the modern Masters. Roberts said in later years that if he and Jones had known at the outset how long the Depression was going to last, they would never have had the nerve to proceed. He was not exaggerating. On several occasions, they came close to giving up. The final decision to build the course was made early in 1932 with deep trepidation and after months of wavering. By late 1935, eight months after Gene Sarazen had seemingly secured the future of the tournament by hitting “the shot heard round the world,” his monumental double-eagle on fifteen, the club’s situation was so dire that its lenders actually foreclosed.

In historical accounts of the club and the tournament, Jones has always overshadowed Roberts. That is as Roberts would have wished it; Augusta National, in his view, was Jones’s club, and the Masters was Jones’s tournament. But they were Jones’s in large measure because Roberts made them that way. Jones was always involved in important decisions, especially during the early years, and his influence went far beyond consultation, since the easiest way to describe Roberts’s conception of the Masters is to say that his goal was to put on a tournament worthy of its association with Jones. But Roberts was almost always the man behind the curtain, and he pursued the job with a dedication that sometimes gave others pause. In 1956, while hospitalized in New York after suffering a heart attack, he asked a secretary to send him a list of the previous year’s Masters committee assignments. As the secretary later recounted with wonder in a letter to Jones, Roberts was bored and wanted to turn his mind to a subject that he said would relax him. Kathryn Murphy, who worked as his secretary on tournament matters from 1962 until he retired in 1976, kept a stenographer’s pad next to the phone by her bed at home, because there was no telling at what hour Roberts might call to dictate a letter. Byron Nelson says, “This place was his bride.”

The partnership of Jones and Roberts was as unlikely as it was successful. “They were as different as day and night,” Sam Snead said, “but, you know, that’s the type that get along.” At the time of the club’s founding, Jones was the most beloved athlete in the world. In 1930, at the age of twenty-eight, he had conquered what George Trevor of the New York Sun called “the impregnable quadrilateral of golf”—the British and U.S. Amateur championships and the British and U.S. Opens. He had been honored with two New York City ticker tape parades and had retired from competition. He was “the model American athlete come to life,” according to Herbert Warren Wind, who wrote, “Everybody adored him—not just dyed-in-the-wool golfers, but people who had never struck a golf ball or had the least desire to. They admired the ingrained modesty, the humor, the generosity of spirit that were evident in Jones’s remarks and deportment. They liked the way he looked, this handsome, clean cut young man, whose eyes gleamed with both a frank boyishness and a perceptiveness far beyond his years.” Roberts in 1930 was a pragmatic and frequently grim-faced thirty-six-year-old Wall Street stockbroker and speculator who had taken a beating in the Crash of 1929. He knew all about hardship, having grown up on the edges of poverty in a dozen small towns in Iowa, Kansas, California, Oklahoma, and Texas. His family moved so often during his childhood that Roberts in later years said he doubted he could readily name all the places where he had lived as a boy. “No sooner would I become acquainted with a few companions,” he wrote in a letter in 1967, “[than] I would be moved to an altogether different place and sometimes quite a different one.” His life was hard, but he met it squarely. At the age of ten, he walked home nearly four miles rather than work all day for fifty cents when he had been promised seventy-five. He dug potatoes for money to buy schoolbooks, and he helped care for his younger siblings when his mother—who suffered from a variety of ailments and eventually committed suicide—could not get out of bed. His last completed year of school was eighth grade. He farmed, sold dry goods, worked in an oyster house in Texas, took a three-week course in shorthand and other clerical skills, and managed a failing orchard. At the age of twenty-three, having worked for several years as a traveling salesman of men’s clothing based in Kansas City, he went to New York to escape the world in which he had grown up.

Jones and Roberts met through mutual friends in the mid-twenties. Jones was already a celebrity and a hero, and Roberts, despite some growing success in the investment world, was still at heart an awestruck country boy. For Jones, Roberts was at first a congenial acquaintance—a friend of friends—who enjoyed sharing a drink and a funny story in a clubhouse grill. During at least one such gathering, Jones spoke of a wish to build in the South a golf course that would reflect his ideas about the game. Roberts one day suggested Augusta, Georgia—a city with which both men were familiar. Jones agreed to the plan, Roberts later wrote, “but with a stipulation that I agree to look after the financing.”

Jones trusted Roberts with his idea because he believed that Roberts could carry it out. Roberts, despite his relative youth, exuded confidence and competence to an extraordinary degree. Byron Nelson says, “Of all the executives I have known, Cliff was the best. He listened, and he would take what people said and turn it over in his mind and decide whether or not it was a good idea. Then he would follow through and find the right people to get the job done.” Herbert Warren Wind once called Roberts “a relentless perfectionist with one of the best minds for management and significant detail since Salmon P. Chase.” (Chase was Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury and the sixth chief justice of the United States; Chase National Bank, the forerunner of Chase Manhattan Bank, was named in his memory.) He was meticulous, methodical, and impervious to distraction. His secretary at the club would sometimes find him hunched over his desk on autumn afternoons, working in the gloom. She would flick on the lights, and he would straighten up in his chair but show no other sign of having noticed the change.

In the spring of 1931, through an acquaintance in Augusta, Roberts discovered a likely piece of property for Jones’s course: a long-abandoned commercial nursery on the outskirts of town. Seeing the land for the first time was an “unforgettable” experience, Jones wrote in Golf Is My Game, which was published in 1960: “It seemed that this land had been lying here for years just waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it. Indeed, it even looked as though it were already a golf course, and I am sure that one standing today where I stood on this first visit, on the terrace overlooking the practice putting green, sees the property almost exactly as I saw it then.”

Jones was right about the appearance of the property: If you know the course today, you can look at a hundred-year-old photograph and mentally superimpose many of the holes. In fact, you can almost make yourself believe that the thirteenth fairway is already lying beside that small stream in the distance, and that the eighteenth tee must be just out of sight, beyond that line of trees to the left. As for the founders, their outlines are harder to discern. Jones has been celebrated for so long and in such exalted terms that today he belongs as much to mythology as to the history of golf. Sportswriters have maintained the pious tone established by O.B. Keeler—Jones’s close friend and adoring first biographer—who described his golf in biblical terms, dividing his career into “seven lean years” and “seven fat years,” and was reverent even in depicting his foibles, such as the temper that had sometimes threatened to eclipse his promise. (“To the finish of my golfing days,” Jones himself once wrote, “I encountered golfing emotions which could not be endured with the club still in my hands.”) People who were close to Jones say that he really was the remarkable gentleman that Keeler, Wind, Paul Gallico, Charles Price, Sidney L. Matthew, and other writers portrayed him to be. But legends acquire a power of their own, and no one today can hope to see past Jones’s aura to the man his drinking buddies knew. Even when he was a young man, the myth must have been in the way: Jones viewed “Bobby” almost as a stage name; he asked to be called Bob.

Roberts is equally hard to see clearly. Among sportswriters he has been demonized to almost the same extent that Jones has been deified. He is known today mainly as the villain in a handful of classic press tent anecdotes—as a tyrant who ejected a player from the Masters for a trivial infraction, sent members bills for course improvements they had been rash enough to suggest, withdrew the memberships of men who had dared to cross him, and administered nervous breakdowns to a succession of executives at CBS, which began broadcasting the tournament on television in 1956. Most of the classic stories about Roberts contain at least a kernel of truth—he could be hard to work with, especially for anyone who wasn’t used to dealing with a determined man who said exactly what he thought—but none of the stories begins to do him justice. The more grotesque tales are invariably told by people who didn’t know him well, if they knew him at all; taken together, they add up to a portrait of a man who never existed.

The misperceptions were to a great extent his own fault. He seldom spoke publicly about himself or any part of his life outside his responsibilities with the tournament and the club. In a letter to Jones in 1964, he offered one explanation for his reticence: “I have repeatedly [taken] the position that one personality, meaning yourself, was enough for any one Club.” Because he nearly always turned the same blank face to the public, strangers have assumed that he was easy to comprehend. His forbidding manner, glimpsed during the tournament or on other formal occasions, invited hasty summarization: autocratic, domineering, stubborn, humorless, tyrannical, mean. All such terms obscured not only the real dimensions of his personality but also the true achievements of his life. The real Roberts is as hard to see as the real Jones.

In 1972, the great British golf writer and television commentator Henry Longhurst—who for many years covered the Masters from a television tower beside the sixteenth green—sent Roberts a copy of his latest book, which he had inscribed to the “benevolent dictator” of Augusta National Golf Club. In acknowledging the gift, Roberts, with characteristic contrariness, objected to both terms. “Ordinarily I would not want to be classified as being benevolent,” he wrote, “and I also do not wish to be called a dictator.” He was joking, mostly—he concluded by telling Longhurst that “just so long as you recognize my existence, I shall always be happy for you to call me any damned thing you like”—but he was also revealing something about himself. In pursuing what he believed to be the best interests of his club and its tournament, he behaved as though he knew that a reputation for malevolence had its uses. He often seemed to encourage his chilly image; in any event, he did little to contradict it. In the photograph of himself that he selected for the dust jacket of his history of the club, he wears an expression that only a relative or intimate friend could confidently identify as a smile. He looks stern, uncomfortable, and disapproving. He is leaning away from the camera—literally increasing the distance between his reader and himself. He seems annoyed. His legs are crossed and he holds a cigarette in his right hand, but his posture conveys the opposite of ease.

What is truly interesting about the photograph, though, is not the image it conveys but the one it conceals. The picture on the dust jacket shows Roberts only as he presented himself in public; to his friends, he turned a different face. His favorite portrait of himself—copies of which he sent to friends not long before he died—was a candid color photograph of a smiling face in profile. In it he looked like a kindly uncle. This was the Roberts his closest friends and associates knew. It was the Roberts for whom the wife of the club’s steward baked pound cake, knitted an afghan, and made jars of stewed peaches. It was the Roberts who commandeered a member’s private airplane in the middle of the night to transport the critically ill wife of one of the club’s professionals to his own specialist in Boston. It was the Roberts whose death prompted Philip Reed, the chairman of General Electric Co., to resign his membership in the club. (Reed said he missed Roberts so much that coming back to Augusta would merely depress him.) It was the Roberts who baby-sat for and watched television with the young daughters of one of the club’s employees. It was the Roberts who quietly but firmly intervened when Masters competitors underpaid their caddies. It was the Roberts who sometimes signed his letters to Jones “Much love, yours faithfully,” and whom Jones remembered at Christmas one year with a homey gift of a pair of socks. It was the Roberts whom British golf writer Peter Dobereiner described in a tribute published when Roberts resigned as the chairman of the Masters Tournament Committee in 1976: “To a large degree Roberts is not the ogre he pretends to be,” Dobereiner wrote in the Observer. “The style of the man, as an uncompromising dictator, hides a natural shyness and a generous spirit. He has helped many people, in large and small ways, but always by stealth, covering his traces so well that as often as not his benefaction is not even suspected. If this austere old man commands respect rather than affection, then that is by his own choice, a sacrifice he has made in the cause of his beloved Masters.” And in the cause of his beloved club, which in Roberts’s mind always came first. (Elsewhere in the same column, Dobereiner exactly captured what he called Roberts’s “simple creed”: “everything about Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters had to be the best, and if it was not the best then it would have to be improved every year until it was.”)

For decades, sportswriters who wouldn’t dream of quoting a baseball score without double-checking it have felt no compunction about repeating and embellishing even the unlikeliest tales about Roberts. Indeed, he has so often been portrayed as a conniving misanthrope that few stories about him today are automatically dismissed as too outrageous to be believed. But the cartoon that so often stands in for Roberts defies credulity. If he really had been the monster that the meaner tales make him out to be, Jones would never have associated with him, friends from all over the world would not have sought and cherished his company, some of golf’s most celebrated names would not credit him with having helped to build their careers, Dwight D. Eisenhower would never have reserved a White House bedroom for his exclusive use, longtime members and employees of the club would not still speak wistfully of his death, and the Masters today would be nothing more than a long-forgotten artifact of the halting early years of American competitive golf. The greatest human strengths and weaknesses are usually allied; they are sides of a coin. To know Roberts at his worst is easy, because he did not dissemble. To know him as he really was requires both effort and an open mind.

Roberts died in 1977. He was eighty-three years old and, like his mother more than six decades before, he was a suicide. Ill and enfeebled, he had made his way back to Augusta in a borrowed airplane so that he could end his life in the place he viewed, above all other residences, as his home.

Although he has now been dead for more than twenty years, he is still very much in evidence at Augusta National. He is still quoted at meetings, sometimes in the present tense. His book about the club—The Story of Augusta National Golf Club, published in 1976, the year before he died—is still the first source young staff members check when a question arises concerning the cracker barrel in the golf shop, the origin of the green jacket, or the location of the original bunker in the second fairway. Pictures at the club are still hung on two hooks, because crooked pictures drove him to distraction. The golf shop still makes change with brand-new currency, because he couldn’t stand dirty bills. (He folded his bills in groups, by denomination, and he always carried enough of each kind so that no one would ever have to give him change.) He is still often referred to as Mr. Roberts, even by men who today are older than he was when he died.

You can still hear his voice at the club: There are members, employees, and caddies who do accurate impressions, and when they quote him in a funny story they inevitably adopt his glacier-slow delivery. Roberts spoke as though he were dictating to an engraver. He silently considered any question until he had thoroughly arranged his answer. The first sound out of his mouth was usually a cough, a clearing of his throat, or “Uh,” a monosyllable he was capable of drawing to narrative length. (“Cliff could say ‘Uh’ for two days,” a friend says.) Strangers sometimes interpreted his hesitation as deafness or an encouragement to restate the topic; his friends knew to wait. If Roberts was preoccupied with a club matter or a tournament detail, the wait could be considerable. A member who greeted him in passing on a sidewalk outside the clubhouse might hear his greeting returned, from a receding distance, many seconds later.

The menu at Augusta National still reflects Roberts’s simple tastes. The dishes are mostly unadorned. The enormous canned olives that he loved are still passed around before dinner. James Clark, the club’s chef, no longer burns the cornbread, as he did to please Roberts, but he still serves cornbread every day. Roberts always ordered the same lunch: consomme, a grilled chicken breast sandwich on white toast, tea, a homemade cookie, white nectar peaches. Although his lunch order was unvarying, he consulted a menu before making it, and his waiter wrote everything down. A friend, joining him for lunch one day, as a joke ordered exactly what Roberts always ordered. Without blinking, Roberts said, “That sounds excellent. I’ll have the same.”

The room in which Roberts usually stayed when he was at the club still looks much as it did when he was alive. It is named for him and is called a suite, but it is really just a single bedroom with a small bathroom at the far end. It looks like a hotel room, and the furniture looks like hotel room furniture. There is a bust of Arnold Palmer, who was probably Roberts’s favorite golfer. (Officially, Roberts had no favorites, but in private his affection for Palmer was unsurpassed.) There is a closet in which Byron Nelson, another favorite, kept clothes between visits to the club. The only amenity is a fireplace, which Roberts was apt to light at the first rumor of a chill. (Although he loved fires, he was ambivalent about firewood; on his order, every log delivered to his hearth was first shorn of anything resembling bark.) In all weather, he kept his room warm—uncomfortably so, in the opinion of visitors. The room had two thermostats, and he would make minute adjustments in one or the other as conditions changed in ways that only he could detect.

Members who today are old men remember crouching outside Roberts’s room when they were young, hoping to catch a glimpse of the chairman through the window. If Roberts was wearing a tie, they knew he could safely be approached; if he had taken off the tie, they knew to stay away. And the mood of the chairman was the mood of the club. When Roberts arrived in Augusta from New York, John Milton, the driver who picked him up at the airport, was under standing instructions from Bowman Milligan, the club’s steward, to assess his state of mind—and, if possible, to improve it. Back at the club, Milton would report his findings to Milligan, who would send a message to the course superintendent. If Roberts was in a bad mood, the grounds crew would set up the greens with easy pin positions. If Roberts was in a good mood, the holes would be cut as though for Sunday at the Masters.

The main event each year for members of Augusta National is still the Jamboree, a springtime competition and party that Roberts viewed as more important than the Masters. He believed that the Jamboree and other members-only gatherings were the soul of the club, because they promoted a sense of fraternity without which he feared the club would not survive. He would often add members to the club’s board of governors solely in the hope that the appointment would shame them into spending more time in Augusta. One such member was George B. Storer, of Miami, who didn’t realize he was a governor until Roberts wrote to him in 1964 to chastise him for his failure to attend that year’s meeting.

The true purpose of Roberts’ s board of governors was not to run the club—Roberts mostly handled that himself—but to provide a pool of likely participants for an autumn golf outing that happened to coincide with the board’s superfluous annual meeting. The meeting seldom lasted very long. When Roberts, at the outset of one of them, asked Charles Yates, the club’s secretary, what was on the agenda for the day, Yates replied, “Why, nothing at all.” (At another governors meeting, Roberts asked Yates if he had the minutes, and Yates asked, “Do you mean last year’s, this year’s, or next year’s?”) Meetings with Roberts were always short. One day, a local member named William Fulcher was summoned to give advice on a legal matter. On his way out, he stopped by the bag room, which is still a good place to hear stories about Roberts. “Well, that was a damned waste,” Fulcher said to Fred Bennett, the caddie master. “I could have stayed downtown.”

“You had your meeting, didn’t you?” Bennett asked.

“Yes,” Fulcher said. “But when Cliff asks you a question, he answers it, too.”

On the second floor of the clubhouse is a comfortable library, which in the old days served as the locker room. In a cabinet on one wall is a small collection of objects associated with the former chairman. There is a bronze bust, on which a pair of bronze eyeglasses sits slightly askew, as Roberts’s own glasses often did. The real glasses are in the cabinet, too, and to old friends they recall their former owner as vividly as a photograph would. Near the glasses is a gold pocket watch, which may have been Roberts’s single favorite possession. He would slowly and conspicuously consult it whenever a member entered the club’s dining room after eight o’clock, an hour of arrival that he felt represented an unreasonable imposition on the staff. Attached to the watch chain is a gold locket signifying his honorary membership in the most exclusive organization he ever belonged to: the Masters Club, whose members were the Masters winners, Jones, and himself. Every year or so he would send the watch back to Switzerland to be cleaned and adjusted, but he never let go of the locket.

On a table in the library lies an old leather-bound scrapbook containing tournament photographs from 1951 and 1952. Each year, Roberts sent gifts to a long list of friends who had helped to bring off the tournament, and the scrapbook was one of those gifts. Maintaining warm relationships with supporters would help to ensure the long-term health of the Masters, Roberts believed, and he devoted a great deal of time to planning the gifts, generally beginning a year or more in advance. Among the more notable items were a tool set, a pocket secretary, and a first-aid kit, which Roberts believed to be the only decent one available in America.

Roberts’s attention to detail in planning the gifts could be dazzlingly minute. One of the gifts in 1966 was a pair of women’s satin jewelry pouches. After studying prototypes in the spring of 1965, Roberts sent a detailed critique to an assistant who was handling negotiations with the manufacturer. Roberts had found problems with everything from the method of closure (satin strings) to the texture of the lining (“smooth” on one side, “soft” on the other) to the covering on the buttons. “Our best suggestion,” he wrote, making figurative use of the first-person plural, “is that the manufacturer might cut down on the size of each container by making them three pockets instead of four pockets. Each pocket might be made just a little deeper and then constructed so that it would naturally fold in accordance with the depth of each pocket. The lady would then merely fold the bag twice and then button on the flap, assuming that buttons are the final decision, as a means of closing the jewelry bag. If the jewelry bag is fronted in accordance with the dimensions of the three slots, the bag would then close up properly in the same fashion regardless of whether the jewelry bag was filled with jewelry or only slightly filled …. Also, I think we should have three buttons instead of two.”

The following year, the club’s gift was an address book modeled on one that Roberts had used for years. Each address book was accompanied by a letter from Roberts containing instructions on how it might best be used:

1. You will find that about 20% of your friends will annually change their address or phone number, and then erasing becomes necessary; therefore, entries should not be made in your book except with a pencil. Always use sharply pointed, hard-lead pencils (No. 3) as soft-lead pencils will smear. You will need to list quite a bit of data in limited spaces so I’d advise you to print rather than write your entries.

2. All entries should be made by the same person; yourself, your wife or your secretary. Make a note about any new names to be entered in your book but do not make the entry until you are in your home or office where you are properly equipped.

3. Attached is a facsimile of a page out of your book with typical entries. The man’s name goes on the full line in the first section and you can, if you wish, list the first name of his wife. In the second section, the letter “H” stands for home and “B” stands for business ….

4. The back section of your book contains 16 pages …. I find it handy to list the principal persons I know, see occasionally, or have contact with in certain cities such as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Chicago, London, etc ….

5. To me, the handiest place to carry an address book is in my left breast coat pocket.

The address book was attractive (although the minuscule entry spaces were designed around Roberts’s agate-sized printing), but many of Roberts’s friends felt that the real gift was the letter. In a few paragraphs it captured much of what was endearing and infuriating about his personality: his thoughtfulness, his attention to detail, his devotion to efficiency, his innocent solipsism. Who else would have bothered to recommend a grade of pencil lead, to explain what “H” and “B” stood for, or to give examples of “certain cities” as though readers might otherwise have been confused about what he meant? The New Yorker reproduced Roberts’s letter as one of its “newsbreaks,” the humorous items the magazine uses as filler.

Roberts himself was aware that his absorption with detail was potentially comical, as he acknowledged in his closing: “I hope you will find the address book to be useful. If not, please do not hesitate to consign it to the nearest trash can.” Of the thousand or so recipients, there can’t be more than a few who still have the address book. But there are many who still have the letter.

A portrait of Roberts hangs on a wall in the library. It was painted by Eisenhower, who first visited Augusta National in 1948, became a member shortly afterward, and loved the club above all other retreats. In the shape of the bald head in the painting there is a slight suggestion of self portrait—an allusion that, if he noticed it, must have pleased Roberts immensely. He admired Eisenhower as much as he did Jones, and he was a close friend and confidant for the rest of Ike’s life. He was heavily involved in both presidential campaigns. During both terms, he was a valued behind-the-scenes adviser on a broad range of issues, and he spent many nights at the White House. He managed the Eisenhower family’s investments, tutored Ike in international finance, and invented what is now a standard American political accessory, the blind trust. Eisenhower named him an executor of his estate.

Eisenhower at Augusta
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his caddie, whom he dubbed “Cemetery.” Photo: Augusta National/Getty Images

With Eisenhower as with Jones, Roberts’s preferred position was in the background. He sought nothing for himself except the great man’s friendship and trust. He might have pursued (and could have received) an appointment in the administration, but that was not the style of his ambition. Even at the club, where he eventually made nearly all the important decisions, he secured his influence first of all by making himself subordinate to Jones. That was how he attached himself to the world. His chosen place was always at the edge of any circle to which he belonged. He was a member of the club, of course, but his position as the chairman created what for him was a comfortable distance between himself and all but his closest friends. His table in the dining room stood in a corner near an outside door. When he played cards, he sat next to the wall. When he practiced his golf swing, he typically did so not on the driving range but at the end of what was then a field on the other side of Magnolia Lane. (On blustery days, he and a caddie would take a bag of balls to the eleventh fairway, which was protected from the wind, and he would practice there.) His bedroom was at the end of the residential wing on the east end of the clubhouse; his office stood beyond the farthest end of the farthest wing in the opposite direction, at one end of a building that in those days served as the tournament headquarters. His apartments elsewhere were almost always on the top floor or at the end of the hall. When he decided to spend his summers in North Carolina, the lot he chose for his condominium was on the end.

Roberts governed the Masters from the edges as well. He made occasional forays onto the course, usually in a golf cart, often in the company of Jones, but he spent most of every tournament either in his room or in his office. He received reports, gathered information, studied the broadcast on closed-circuit television, and issued instructions. When he appeared on camera at the end of the tournament on Sunday evening, he was an awkward presence; his only real role was to surrender the floor to Jones.

Even so, the easiest place to find Roberts, then as now, is in the golf tournament he conceived, nurtured, and ran for nearly forty years. More than two decades after his death, the Masters still operates largely as though he were at the controls. Hootie Johnson, who in 1998 became the fifth chairman of the tournament and the club, says, “Mr. Roberts was told once what a great tournament it was. And he said, ‘Thank you, but we really never get it right.’ We still feel that way.”

Others are less critical. The Masters is still viewed almost universally as the best-run golf tournament in the world, if not the best-run sporting event, and, as Roberts would have insisted, it has maintained its standing without acquiring the modern trappings of success. Spectators can still buy lunch for about what they might pay for a soft drink at any other tournament, because Roberts believed that anyone who had traveled two hundred miles to watch a round of golf ought to be able to buy a decent meal at a decent price. Teams of uniformed workers still intercept crumpled paper cups almost before they hit the ground, because Roberts felt that litter detracted from the beauty of the course and the dignity of the event. (The cups and sandwich bags are green, making them nearly invisible to television cameras—a major issue with Roberts.) Amateur competitors are still offered inexpensive accommodations in the clubhouse itself, because Roberts didn’t want an invitation to the Masters to be a financial burden. Members still wear their green coats all week, as they have done since 1937, because Roberts felt that knowledgeable sources of information ought to be easily identifiable to spectators in need of assistance. There are no advertising banners or billboards pasted with corporate logos. The television broadcast is scarcely interrupted by commercials. There are no hole-in-one cars floating on the water hazards. Asked what they’re playing for, the competitors still name not a sum of money but an article of clothing.

The Masters is still the competition by which other competitions are judged. That’s a remarkable achievement, and the credit for it belongs largely to Roberts. He built the club and the tournament against what at first appeared to be insuperable odds, and in doing so he probably did as much as any other single person to shape what golfers and golf fans today think of as the world of competitive golf.