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A Week of Wonder
John Garrity
April 20, 1998
The practice rounds kicked off The seven most memorable days of any seasons
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April 20, 1998

A Week Of Wonder

The practice rounds kicked off The seven most memorable days of any seasons

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There is golf, and there is tournament golf. But as Bobby Jones failed to mention in his oft-quoted analysis, there is also pretournament golf.

Pretournament golf is what John Daly was playing last Tuesday at Augusta National when he teed up his ball on a Coke can and smashed a drive 270 yards down the 11th fairway. It was pretournament golf that put a 40-year-old real estate developer in a foursome with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. Pretournament golf also had Nick Faldo playing several times by himself, stopping from time to time to search the crowd for a man in a Panama hat.

Mere practice rounds? No way. In the early '90s, when anybody with a sawbuck could buy a general admission ticket to Augusta National for Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, vast throngs turned the golf course into a kind of hajj. Green-hatted pilgrims poured into Amen Corner to watch, say, Wayne Grady putting to a head cover in the shade of loblolly pines. A lottery system now limits practice-round attendance to about 40,000 a day, but it's still common to see two pros playing a $50 Nassau in front of Tokyo-subway-type crowds. "When I played here as an amateur, I was amazed at the number of people," says British Open champion Justin Leonard. "Even now I get here before the gates open, and by the time I reach 7 or 8 the place is full."

The practice rounds are not televised, but maybe they should be. No final-round drama could top the practice-round shenanigans of 1948, when America's best amateur golfer, Frank Stranahan, got escorted off the course by club officials and Pinkerton guards, allegedly for hitting too many balls into the greens.

"You could hit only one ball because the course was wet," says Freddie Bennett, Augusta National's caddie master and Stranahan's caddie that day. "That's how many he hit, but he had a bunch of balls in a shag bag, and he'd throw 'em down and putt to points on the green. You could do that." So why did the course superintendent confront Stranahan on two holes and finally round up a posse? Bennett shrugs and grins. "I don't know what he was upset about."

A more recent practice dustup matched two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer with then tournament chairman Hord Hardin. On the Sunday before the 1988 Masters, Langer teed off on number 10 and was measuring distances to the green with a yardage wheel when a ball hit from the members' tee flew past him. A hole later, more tee shots rained on the spot where Langer's caddie had left his bag in the fairway while he made more measurements. Hardin and his foursome rolled up in golf carts, and after some small talk Langer made it known that he didn't appreciate the bombardment. The chairman and his friends then played through, but that wasn't the end of the matter. "I got a nasty letter from him," Langer says, "saying just because I was a past champion didn't mean I was going to be invited back every year."

The Stranahan and Langer episodes suggest that Augusta National is not always the Eden it's reputed to be, but then, nobody asked the snake. That opportunity was missed in a 1958 practice round when Australian golfer Frank Phillips used a sand wedge to kill a young blacksnake in the woods near the 6th green. For some reason Phillips decided to stuff the dead reptile into the cup. This proved bothersome to his playing partner, Mike Souchak, who made a putt and then was too timid to reach into the hole for his ball. A spectator finally ducked under the ropes and retrieved the ball, permitting play to resume.

More typically, Masters practice days are predictable, even staged. Until 1960, when the par-3 tournament began, Wednesday usually featured a golf clinic, a Paul Hahn trick-shot exhibition or a long-drive contest. These events amused the players and entertained arriving guests, who would walk down the hill from the veranda, often with drinks in hand. (" George Zaharias, the Colorado wrestling man, is expecting his wife, the Babe, today," read an Augusta Chronicle note from the '50s. "E.N. Eisenhower is in town, but his brother the general isn't expected.")

In 1955 the club chose a Wednesday afternoon to dedicate the new Gene Sarazen Bridge over Rae's Creek, and when the speeches were over, some 35 players took part in a double-eagle contest. The idea, of course, was to see who could come closest to duplicating Sarazen's 232-yard four-wood shot from the 15th fairway in the final round of the 1935 Masters, the so-called shot heard round the world. Fred Haas won the contest and a crystal goblet by lacing one to about four feet from the hole. According to the next day's paper, the only player to try the shot with an iron was Sam Snead, and "he didn't do too well." Another player, unnamed, nearly whiffed, moving his ball about six feet.

Today's par-3 tournament may be the last vestige of formal exhibitionism, but the wink-and-a-putt climate survives with some players. During last Tuesday's practice round, Daly dived into a tee-side snack chest at the 11th hole and started throwing Nestl´┐Ż Crunch bars back over his shoulder to the crowd behind the ropes. The next day, on the same tee, shouts of Hit another! rained down on Tommy Tolles after he snap-hooked his drive. When he did take a mulligan, after borrowing a ball from a fan, Tolles had to withstand the taunting of Daly, who yelled "Much better!" as Tolles started his downswing.

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