The Magnificent Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta
“What’s so special about The Magnificent Masters is the way in which Capps captures the way these top golfers actually approach the game of golf. You’ve got to be a pro’s pro to get that, and he is, and he does.”
Younger readers will be pleasantly surprised to learn that at one point in our nation’s history, “world’s best golfer” and “sex addiction” were two phrases typically not found in the same sentence.
Gil Capps, the author of The Magnificent Masters, takes us into his delightful way back machine to the year 1975, when sports, and pretty much everything else in life, seemed radically simpler.
In case you’ve never heard of ESPN or think that Tiger Woods is a forest in India, golf is a sport comprised of many minor tournaments each year and only four majors. Greatness in golf is defined by how many majors you have won, and not just how many dollars you’ve earned, or in the case of Tiger, how many waitresses you’ve brought to the local Motel 6.
In 1975, many of modern golf’s founding fathers were still alive and playing. One of the most influential, Bobby Jones, not only cofounded the Augusta National Golf Course and the Masters Tournament, but also had a direct, personal influence on the golfing career of one young Jack Nicklaus.
One of the book’s most touching stories is the Rockwellian portrait of Bobby Jones, who could perhaps be compared to Babe Ruth in the way he not only towered over his sport but popularized it as well. Sitting in a golf cart watching Jack Nicklaus hit and telling Nicklaus that he was the future of golf. The book tells of Nicklaus’s rise and rise from the son of a golf-loving, upwardly mobile Columbus, Ohio pharmacist to his position atop the leaderboard as the winner of the most majors in golf history.
In fact, until Nicklaus came along, Capps tells us, the majors weren’t really all that major—or at least not in comparison with the other tournaments throughout the year. Nicklaus determined that his own career would be measured not by the number of overall events he won, but instead by the number of majors at which he performed. So he was the first golfer to focus his game on those four tournaments, and the story of his experiences at the 1975 Masters is detailed richly here.
I won’t give away the ending and tell you who won back in ’75. I will say that the two other contenders were Johnny Miller, a lanky, teetotaling, sharp-tongued young whippersnapper who was bent on dethroning Nicklaus as the greatest golfer of his era, and Tom Weiskopf, who is about as colorful as a golfer not named Arnie, Jack, or Tiger could be.
Oh, well. Two out of three larger than life figures for a three-way competition at the heart of a book’s story isn’t bad.
In many ways, Capps writes, the Masters was the least important of the four tournaments—the U.S. Open, which gave the world the American champion; the British Open, known as simply the Open to golf purists; and the PGA. But time and marketing changed things, and eventually the Masters became the most storied major of them all, and the hardest ticket to come by. When Capps starts his story, you could stroll up to pretty much any sandwich shop in Augusta and snag some passes for the tournament.
There’s really no question—Capps truly knows golf. A decorated and admired Golf Digest writer, he lets no nuance of the sport escape his gaze. If baseball is a game of inches, golf is truly the sport of nuances, and the way the golfers position themselves before each shot, prepare in the days and weeks prior to tournaments, and otherwise go about their golfing business makes for unique and compelling reading.
The book is at its weakest when it’s just being a book, doing the things that books are supposed to do, such as overwhelming the reader with a level of detail that demonstrates intense research skills but not necessarily turning up nuggets that really edify the reader. Is my understanding of golf, or Jack Nicklaus, or anything, really, increased because I now know that Barbara Nicklaus prepared omelets every morning during the ’75 Masters? Probably not. It’s a small quibble. The book is fun to read, and the tension certainly mounts as the great golfing triumvirate of Nicklaus, Miller, and Weiskopf move toward, and past, their three-way tie at the end of 72 holes of golf.
Also noteworthy is Capps’s treatment of Lee Elder’s experiences at the Masters. The first African-American to win admission to the coveted tournament, Elder, a long-time staple on the PGA tour, failed to make the cut and therefore completed his first Masters on a Friday afternoon.
Interestingly, Elder blames his caddie for poor club selection, which may well have been true, but it might have been a little nobler for him to have said that the buck stopped with him. Nonetheless, the image of Elder leaving Augusta National to a sustained round of applause from every black member of the staff, from the kitchens to the grounds crew, is a compelling moment in golf history that Capps should win praise for having included.
Are there better books on golf in general or the Masters in particular? Yes. Curt Sampson wrote a fantastic book about the Masters, as did Mark Frost, who also wrote several highly compelling books about golf’s early days. And David Owen, author of My Usual Game, is a ton of fun. What’s so special about The Magnificent Masters is the way in which Capps captures the way these top golfers actually approach the game of golf. You’ve got to be a pro’s pro to get that, and he is, and he does.
Perhaps the book’s core flaw is that there was a three-way race but only one of the contestants, Nicklaus, was truly a compelling figure. In tennis at the same time, you had Connors, Borg, and McEnroe—three towering personalities. In any era of golf, by contrast, if you’ve got even one person who’s compelling you’re way ahead of the game. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case in 1975.