It was through watching Jack Nicklaus compete in the 1971 Masters on his parents’ new colour television that a 14-year-old Nick Faldo became inspired to take up the game – Nicklaus would go on to finish second behind Charles Coody but that was more than enough for the boy from Welwyn Garden City to give a new sport a go.
“I thought, right let's try golf,” Faldo said. “Six years later I was playing (and beating) Jack in the 1977 Ryder Cup.”
This is the way that it’s been for so many of us. We can all remember our first Masters, for me it was Seve romping home by four in 1980 which was more than enough to tickle my imagination and ask my dad if he had any old clubs that I could swing about in the garden.
And so it began and, even better, at a time when European golfers were just about to take a stranglehold of the most American of majors.
“Can I stay up and watch the Masters?”
“Good morning and welcome to the Masters, have a great day.”
For three days my feet barely touched the ground. There are quirks that I had never realised before; the giant scoreboards have the names of the amateurs playing that year up before the action gets going and, while we all know it’s hilly as we’re reminded year after year, it’s not an overly big piece of ground – from the banking on the 16th you can see eight holes – hence why the roars spread so quickly.
It’s built for fans, that’s what Bobby Jones wanted, and those fans love nothing more than even a sighting of Tiger. A couple of hours before the Champions Dinner Tiger emerged for nine holes with Freddie Couples and the scene was off-the-scale incredible and, for a place where nobody is allowed to break into a run, the whole place descended into a magical farce with thousands now converging on the 1st tee.
I was there, sat by the side of the 16th when Tiger’s approach to the previous hole smacked off the pin, to a backdrop of deafening silence, as he went from champion-in-waiting to very nearly being disqualified. I couldn’t have watched more golf and, as the last player left the practice ground, so did I.
I’d eaten too many cheese pimento sandwiches, I’d spent too much in the shop, I’d had photos with Billy Casper and Gary Player and I’d watched Ian Woosnam make eagle at the 15th. These were the days of my life and, as I walked back up the 10th fairway, just past the spot where Bubba Watson has played his ridiculous recovery from the previous year, I said a little prayer to Seve and that earliest memory of the Masters.
April 14, 1991 and Woosnam is leading going into the final round of the Masters. My family had dined out on Woosnam tales for the past two decades, his dad Harold and my uncle Geoff were very friendly due to their shared love of sports and beer.
Twenty years previously, in 1971, my dad’s other brother Gordon also came across him.
“It would have been 1971. I was off 5 and my partner Mio Davies was off 3 and we were on our home course at St Idloes up above where we lived in Llanidloes in Mid Wales. Two 12 or 13-year-olds came running up to us and introduced themselves – Ian Woosnam and Alan Strange they were called.
“It was a scratch league, the home team put their order in and then the away team did likewise. In those days we’d play for a Dunlop 65 in a wrapper but I said to Mio ‘look here, we’re only playing a couple of kids, we’ll just play for the point’.
“They had never seen the course before and they were 30 yards ahead of us all the time, if not more. Woosnam was brilliant, his short game was incredible and he hit the ball miles. I think we halved the 1st hole. One of them birdied the 2nd and one of them birdied the 3rd, I said to Mio ‘we’re up against it here’.
“They beat us 7&6.”
Halfway through the back nine, 20 years later, Woosnam was holding on but then it all started going wrong. He found Rae’s Creek at 13 and he was getting flustered and getting involved with the crowds. You could hardly have wished for a better threeball of likely winners in Woosnam, Olazabal and Tom Watson but, having spent a short lifetime idolising one of them and following his every step in any golf played in the UK, this was unbearable.
But then the clouds parted; Watson would double the last and Olazabal bogey it which would leave the stage clear for Woosnam to bomb it over the pair of fairway bunkers and somehow fall over the line with a par four.
Gordon and Geoff both rang my dad that night, a lot of phones were probably ringing off the hooks that night in Wales as they crowned their first major champion.
Thirty years on I’m still waiting for something, anything to get close to that evening.
In the interim I’ve backed a few winners at Augusta – Langer and Olazabal back to back in 1993-94 – and given all that and more back to the bookies. We’ve had Tiger winning five Green Jackets, Mickelson three and, while the European dominance has dried up, we’ve had winners from all around the world. The course has moved with the times, we’ve had a November Masters due to a pandemic that few would have foreseen and Woosnam is still going at the age of 63. I have the same trusted inner circle of friends who, even though we might not have spoken for months, will pop up on the Masters Sunday with their observations and generally a bit of silliness.
If I had one Masters wish though it would be to watch just one more with my late dad and relive the early days when the likes of Harry Carpenter, Steve Rider and Peter Alliss were met like old friends. It was cosy and familiar and the chance to be transported to this magical corner of Georgia was like nothing else. This was THE night of the year and nothing would ever get in the way of it.
There were no phones to stare at, no laptops and no adverts, just four or so hours of golf and, like Faldo 50 years ago, the initial steps in a lifelong romance.