The Masters tournament occupies a revered place in the world of golf, a position which is perhaps out of proportion to its real importance in the grand scheme of things. It has arguably the weakest field of any of the men’s majors in the modern era, and because of the fact that it is played on the same course, year in and year out, the Masters places more importance on course knowledge than the other three majors.
Those considerations aside, it is largely because of its association with that singular masterpiece of a golf course, Augusta National Golf Club, and its founder, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, Jr., that the Masters occupies a traditionally important position in the lore of what may be the most tradition-bound game ever played. Memories of Bob Jones, one of America’s most revered sports heroes and the most cherished name in American golf, invest Augusta National and its annual tournament with a mystique and a gravitas that border on the spiritual.
Like any tournament with a long history there are years that stand out above the rest. Among the outstanding years at the Masters: 1953, when Ben Hogan won the tournament on his way to winning three of the four majors that year, including his first and only Open Championship; 1968, when a trivial error on a scorecard snatched the possibility of victory from affable Argentinian Roberto De Vicenzo; and 1986 – when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus gave notice that even an old bear still had teeth. There is yet another Masters tournament which is known among golf fans as an outstanding example, but – oddly enough – had never been chronicled in a book of its own: the 1975 Masters.
With his new book, The Magnificent Masters – Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta, Gil Capps – a twenty-two-year veteran of televised golf coverage on NBC and Golf Channel – fills that gap in the Masters canon, recounting the story of a year when the then-top-three players in the game – Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, and Jack Nicklaus – were also the top three players in contention for the coveted green jacket as the Masters went into the weekend.
The drama of the contest was palpable. Nicklaus was in full command of his game, never lying lower than second all week; Weiskopf slipped slightly due to a 72 on Friday but surged back to displace Nicklaus from the top of the leaderboard with a Saturday round of 66 to Jack’s 73; and Miller, still in his mid-20s and the youngest of the three, soared up the leaderboard from fortieth, then twenty-seventh, position into third place with a Saturday 65 after opening 75-71 – setting up a classic final round confrontation
Sunday’s final round opened with Weiskopf one up on Nicklaus, and Miller four back. Nicklaus went out in the next-to-last pairing, with a young Tom Watson; Weiskopf and Miller were right behind them in the last group (this is contrary to current pairing practice, which would have had Nicklaus and Weiskopf in the last group, with Miller and Watson ahead of them).
Weiskopf retained the lead through most of the front nine, with Nicklaus tying at the fifth, then dropping back a stroke, then pulling up even with Weiskopf again at the ninth. Through it all Miller was keeping pace, going out in 32 to Weiskopf’s 33 and Nicklaus’ 33, and at the turn Weiskopf and Nicklaus were tied, with Miller one back. Then, things got interesting.
As Dan Jenkins first said, “The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday,” and that now-familiar maxim has never been more true than in the 1975 Masters. There were never more than three strokes separating the three contenders over the closing nine, most often only two, and even as Weiskopf stuttered slightly to an eventual even-par 36 on the back, Miller put his foot down for a three-birdie, one-bogey 34 – but neither was enough to catch up with Nicklaus’ bogey-birdie-birdie 35.
Nicklaus was in the scorer’s tent signing for his 12-under 276 and listening for the crowd’s reaction as Weiskopf and Miller, both men one stroke back at 11-under, putted out on the eighteenth green. The near-total silence as both men missed 8-foot putts that would have sent the tournament to a playoff told Nicklaus that he had won.
Gil Capps does a fine job of pulling together the story of the tournament, with the long hours of research and interviews he put in well evident in a wealth of detail. I found that the narrative flow hit some bumps from time to time as the author backtracked to biographical chapters on the three principals, and worked in some less-detailed background sketches of the supporting players in that year’s Masters Week drama, and it is evident in the reading that he is more a pictures-and-storyboard guy than a full-time wordsmith, but overall The Magnificent Masters is quite a worthy addition to the canon of Masters lore.
The book picks up where contemporary accounts of the 1975 Masters leave off, filling out the full story of a significant week in the now-eighty-year-long saga of the Masters that had not previously been fully chronicled. In taking on this task, and bringing it to completion in such a satisfactory manner, Gil Capps has made a notable contribution to the chronicles of golf history, and his book should be part of every serious – and even not-so-serious – golf fan’s library.
Available in hardcover now at booksellers everywhere; Amazon Kindle edition available March 25, 2014.