Clifford Roberts: National man of mystery

Augusta National's image as an exclusive (and exclusionary) institution is a reflection of the club's co-founders, Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. As the most famous glam-ateur in the game's history, Jones was the face of the club, the front man who hung out with Hollywood stars and heads of state. Roberts was an enigma — a man with an eye for detail and innovation both as the club and Masters tournament chairman for 45 years, he was also myopic in his world view, once infamously muttering, "As long as I'm alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black." Thirty years ago, Roberts, in declining health, wandered out onto the world's most famous course and blew his own brains out. The legacy he left is one of intrigue, with fact and fiction intertwined like coffee and fresh cream before the spoon gives them a stir. Here's the truth, half-truths and downright fairy tales about the man behind the curtain for so many years at the Masters.

Fact: Born on a farm in Morning Sun, Iowa, in 1894, Roberts had an itinerant childhood. His father bounced from one financial scheme to the next and moved the family often, from Iowa to Kansas, California (where Roberts was first exposed to golf as a caddie), Oklahoma and Texas.

Fact: His early life was tragic. His mother suffered from back pain, headaches and depression, among other ills, and took her life with a shotgun in 1913, when Clifford was 19. His father had health issues too, and seems to have committed suicide, dying after being hit by a train in 1921. (There was no note, but the odds that he accidentally stepped in front of a train are slim.)

Fiction: He was unable to cope with the tragedies. Roberts, the second of five children, rose above his circumstances, throwing himself into odd jobs to support the family. He was popular with peers and schoolmates, strong and a good athlete. He raised and sold chickens and dogs, worked as a clerk and delivery boy, milked cows, caddied and much more. He was a Sunday school regular and liked to spend his extra money on nice clothes for himself.

Fiction: Roberts was flush with cash that bankrolled the infant Augusta National. According to David Owen's The Making of the Masters, which the club holds as one of the most accurate histories of Augusta National, Roberts earned $70,000 in 1929 but lost much of it in the stock market crash. He netted a $21,000 loss over two years starting in 1930, the year he and Bob Jones decided to build the club in Augusta, Georgia, the town where Roberts did his WWI training at Camp Hancock (and close enough to Jones's Atlanta home).

Fact: Roberts and Jones formed Augusta National in 1931, with Jones as the driving force, to little early interest. Although conventional wisdom has it that Jones lent his celebrity and Roberts his New York connections (and financial muscle), Making of asserts that wasn't the case. Having made $140K in '31, Jones was far more cashed up, and had more contacts in New York. Still, thanks to the Depression, the duo failed to attract many early takers, and the club teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for years.

Fact: The first Masters was held in March 1934, but it was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament until 1939, when Jones, who had thought "The Masters" too hoity-toity, gave in to Roberts's original name for the competition.

Fiction: Roberts had no sense of humor. Robert's once wrote the following in a letter to President Eisenhower's Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, who had gifted a cracker barrel to the club: "Over the years Augusta National had declined to accept golf libraries, Halls of Fame and a museum. But a Cracker Barrel is something we can enthusiastically embrace because we understand it and like it and everything it implies. May its sturdy staves and strong bindings long offer the munching material for companionable gatherings and salty observations."

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