My first Masters was in 1973 and I thought we were going to get a British victory because Peter Oosterhuis was well up there before being beaten by Tommy Aaron. But it was the event two years later that probably sticks in my mind above any other I covered at Augusta National, because it epitomised what I have come to expect at Augusta each year – excitement, drama, the euphoria of personal triumph and the despair of defeat.
We had Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller all battling to win the title. Nicklaus eventually won by a shot to claim a fifth Green Jacket. What was interesting to me, though, was the reaction of the two players he beat. Miller was upbeat, saying: “I lost but I’ll win another time”. Weiskopf, on the other hand, was completely broken. “What do you want me to say?” he asked us in the media centre afterwards. “I hardly hit a bad shot.” Neither ever did win.
Nicklaus, of course, also figured in one of the event’s greatest stories when he became the oldest Masters champion at 46 in 1986. When he started with a 74, people said, “we didn’t expect him to do anything else”. Indeed, Tom McCollister, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, had written in the paper the Sunday before, “forget Jack Nicklaus, he’s done”. The article was pinned to the door of the Nicklaus refrigerator and it served as an inspiration to prove the writer wrong.
He started the final round lying joint-ninth, four behind Greg Norman, and reckoned a 66 might get into a play-off but a 65 could win it for him. Storming home in 30, 65 is what he shot. He was already popular with the fans, of course, but, with Jack jnr on the bag that week, the crowd went crazy that day.
What most people don’t remember is that it was watched first-hand by Sandy Lyle as he played with Jack in the final round. Sandy said to me once: “No-one ever knew I was there as there was only one man playing – Jack Nicklaus.” As a proud Scot myself, it was a special moment to see Sandy win in 1988, beating Nick Faldo, his great rival, to a Green Jacket. Few people have won The Masters with a birdie at the last, so that was quite something. Faldo, of course, only had to wait 12 months to taste his first victory before hanging on to the title following a play-off win over Raymond Floyd in 1990.
As a huge Seve Ballesteros fan, it was enjoyable to cover his two Masters wins, which, of course, inspired not only Lyle and Faldo but also Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal to taste victory there, too. There was a time when the event was dominated by Europeans – much to the annoyance of the Americans.
I have to admit that I was very touched by Jose Maria’s second victory in 1999 because he’d been out of golf for 18 months due to rheumatoid arthritis in both feet. It was feared he’d never play again. Yet, not only did he come back but he won The Masters again, which was absolutely fantastic. Sadly, the illness has returned and he is unable to play this year. Also fantastic was the performance Tiger Woods produced to claim his first Green Jacket in 1997. He finished 12 shots clear of the field, having left the others for dead and proving what a talented golfer he was. As, of course, was Norman but, unfortunately for him, he never really recovered from losing a six-shot lead in the final round to Faldo the previous year.
There never has been any shortage of drama at the pressure-packed Masters and this year’s edition among the bougainvilleas looks like being one of the best ever. Can talented Jordan Speith (forget his recent form) join Nicklaus, Faldo and Woods as a player who has successfully defended the title? Of course we are overdue another European success – maybe Henrik Stenson or Justin Rose will come through but I would love it to be Rory McIlroy so that he can join the exclusive club of those players who have won all four majors in their careers. The drama, the pressure, the excitement begins on Thursday and will intensify over the last nine on Sunday. Take my word for it, because that’s the way it always is at awesome Augusta.