AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Are you superstitious? Believe in ghosts? Magic? The power of the great beyond?
If so, you might soon believe this 76th Masters is over. Destiny has already chosen Lee Westwood to slip into a green jacket on Sunday.
It all starts in Atlanta in 1997 with two best friends, Phil Hicks and Paul Roeser. The high school juniors were born six months apart, and they were best buds from the beginning. They played sports, chased girls and loved watching the Masters together. The boys’ mothers were college roommates and later worked together at Delta Airlines. The families lived a block apart, in Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood. They were as close as two families could be. They went to church together, shared holiday dinners together. All the kids were tight.
In the mid-1990s, before cell phones took over the world, pagers were all the rage. Phil, Paul and three other guys in their circle had them. They didn’t display the caller’s number, but if you received a page from a friend, it included an ID number at the end of the message. The group of five had ID numbers 51-55. Paul’s ID was 51, Phil had 53.
“Anytime I saw a 5-3 at the end of a pager code, I knew that was Phil calling me,” Paul says.
Five-three became Phil’s thing. In those days, if he had to sign a yearbook page or a note or something else that required a teenager’s signature, he’d sign it, “Phil Hicks #53.” Phil wasn’t a country club kid, but he was good at their sports -- tennis, swimming, golf. A natural athlete. Phil was the middle child of three sons. He wasn’t big, but he was scrappy. And popular. He signed his name often, at least for a 17-year-old.
On March 15, 1997, 53 was having a pretty good day. A junior on his school’s soccer team (that's him at right), he scored two goals in his first game playing with the varsity. He was coming into his own. That night he went out with some friends to kick back at the local Waffle House.
Paul stayed in that evening and was asleep in his bedroom when the phone rang in the wee hours. Paul’s mother answered, and from her reaction he knew right away the news was not good.
On the way home from the Waffle House shortly after midnight, Phil was riding shotgun in a car driven by Ben Dukes, who was on the soccer team but not in the tight circle. Dukes navigated his Honda around a winding road, one of many in Atlanta, and as they went into a curve doing about 40 mph, an oncoming car crossed the line in the other lane. Dukes swerved right to avoid it. The car went off the road and slammed into a large oak tree. Phil was killed instantly. Dukes walked away. A passenger in the back seat, Molly Manning, was seriously injured, but survived and eventually recovered. No one was drinking. There were no drugs. They all had their seatbelts on.
"Just a freak accident,” Paul said.
The tragedy rocked the community. More than 2,000 people showed up at the funeral. The school district created a sportsmanship award for student-athletes that bears Phil's name. Standing under the tall trees in Augusta National’s Amen Corner 15 years later, his eyes shielded by dark sunglasses, Paul said softly, “People still talk about it today.” Paul never goes too long without thinking about his friend, but he has carried on. He went to college at the University of Georgia and eventually landed a good job in corporate real estate. But his life wasn’t easy.
In 2003 Paul was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma. His survival was basically a coin flip.
But Paul was one of the lucky ones, and by early 2004 he was feeling better. The chemo worked. To further raise his spirits, one of Paul’s buddies hooked him up with some Masters tickets for the 2004 Wednesday warm-ups and Par 3 Contest. So, Paul and his friend, Jarrod Morton, hit the practice round and took in the sights and sounds of Augusta National. To no one’s surprise, they loved all of it.
That day, Paul and Jarrod walked the course and chatted up a few of the gallery guards on the 14th hole. “Gallery guard” is the Augusta term for the volunteers in yellow hats who are tasked with watching the patrons from seats just inside the ropes. It’s an unobstructed view of the action, an amazing gig, really, and once you’re in, Augusta National will call you back to work every Masters week for the rest of your life. Naturally, Paul and Jarrod wanted to join the club. They added their names to a list and hoped for a call.
You might recall that 2004 was a pretty epic Masters. Phil Mickelson birdied the final hole to win his first green jacket, and first major championship, on Easter Sunday. Phil Mickelson was Phil Hicks’s favorite player. He just loved Lefty.
As Mickelson walked off the final green to slip into his green jacket, Phil’s older brother, Taylor, and sister-in-law, Jennifer, were in the hospital, preparing to deliver the family’s first grandchild. Phil would have been an uncle for the first time. It was an emotional time for the family.
The couple wanted a surprise and didn't know the baby's gender, but as Paul watched on television as Mickelson hugged his caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay, after draining that final birdie putt, the cameras zoomed in tight. All caddies wear white bibs at Augusta, and the uniform includes a green number. There was the digit, stamped right over Bones’s heart.
“When I saw that number, I knew they were having a boy on Monday,” Paul said.
Philip Bennett Hicks was born the next day. Paul Roeser is his godfather.
“To be quite honest, I’m not a superstitious guy,” said Taylor Hicks. “When Paul first told me the story of the number, I just thought it was kind of cool.”
Here’s something else: A week before that 2004 Masters, Mickelson traveled to Georgia to compete in the Bell South Classic and played a practice round at the University of Georgia Golf Course. The teaching pro at the club was Ryan Lockamy, a good friend of Taylor's. Lockamy knew Bones a little, so the instructor decided to speak with the caddie about having Mickelson sign a pair of FootJoy baby booties for the Hicks family. Lockamy told Bones the story of Phil's death, and the tiny golf shoes soon came back with Mickelson’s signature. Today they are tucked away in the Hicks house, but one day Taylor and Jennifer will bring them out and share the whole story with their son.
In 2005, Paul and his friend Jarrod received the coveted call from Augusta National and began working as gallery guards at the Masters. Somehow they charmed their way into manning a station in Augusta’s most storied territory, the heart of Amen Corner, and they’ve been down there every year since.
On April 12, 2009, Angel Cabrera won the Masters on Easter Sunday. That’s when Paul saw it again -- stamped right there on the white bib worn by Cabrera’s caddie.
“I just smiled. For me personally, I just know it’s Phil’s way of saying hello,” Paul said. “It just made me chuckle.”
“I don’t want to take anything away from these guys, who are phenomenal golfers,” said Taylor, “but it does make you think that maybe there’s something there.”
With the exception of bib No. 1, which goes to the looper of the previous year’s champion, caddie numbers at Augusta are assigned based on order of registration, which is something most caddies probably don’t think about. Earlier this week a well-respected Irish caddie named Billy Foster checked in and was assigned No. 53. Foster caddies for Lee Westwood.
On Monday, Paul told the story of Phil Hicks to his friend Steve Zika, who’s a player representative for Ping, which happens to be one of Westwood’s sponsors. After Foster was given No. 53, Zika quickly shared the story with Westwood’s inner circle. Foster now knows the story. Westwood’s agent, Chubby Chandler, now knows the story. Heck, when Paul had a chance encounter with Westwood’s father on the course this week during a Wednesday practice round, Paul told him the story.
As of Saturday afternoon, no one has told Lee Westwood the story of Phil Hicks. Westwood’s not really a superstitious guy, but why put all this in his head while he tries to chase down his first career major title?
“Everyone is pulling for Lee through Phil,” said Steve McGregor, a personal trainer inside Westwood’s camp. “It would be really nice for the Hicks family if Lee were able to win.”
McGregor didn’t want to say any more out of fear of somehow icing his man. Taylor is looking forward to watching the action this weekend with the whole family.
“Anytime people are remembering my brother 15 years later is awesome,” he said. “We’re going to be watching tomorrow, and we’ll be rooting for Westwood.”
On Thursday, Westwood parred the tricky little par-3 12th hole in the heart of Amen corner, right in front of Paul. On Friday, Westwood birdied it as Paul was sharing Phil’s story with a reporter.
On Saturday, Westwood wasn't as sharp, and this time he made a bogey at the 12th. But he hung in there, shot even par for the day, and he’s one of nine players within five shots of the lead with 18 holes to play. Westwood is as talented as any of these other eight. He’s had six top-three finishes in majors, but never a title. If he wins on Easter Sunday, the 16th Easter finish in Masters history, it would come from playing his absolute best on golf’s biggest stage.
And maybe it would also come from a little something else.