No Masters Tournament would be complete without Gene Sarazen in the field.
- The Augusta Chronicle, 1947
Gene Sarazen used to joke that he skipped the first Masters because he thought the invitation envelope from founder Clifford Roberts - a Wall Street wizard - was an investment solicitation.
Mr. Sarazen made the second tournament, however, winning both it and lasting fame with his double-eagle on the 15th hole in 1935.
He didn't miss many after that, returning year after year and serving as an unofficial starter into his 90s.
Until his death in 1999, he was one of golf's great ambassadors, known for his dapper dress and quick wit. And he is the source for one of my favorite golf stories.
I called Jim Riddle, an Atlanta area golf course designer, on Thursday and asked him to tell it.
"I'd love to," Mr. Riddle said. "It says a lot about Gene Sarazen and about the game, and what sort of person it turns you into."
It begins about 40 years ago.
"My dad (Jimmy Riddle) was in the textile business," he said. "Loved golf, didn't get to play much. And he went down to Pinehurst with a gang for a big convention.
"When he came back after that, he told me that he had played nine holes of golf with Gene Sarazen.
"The convention, I guess, had retained him, you know. And Mr. Sarazen played with everyone.
"My dad said what a pleasure it was to play with him. What a gentlemen. It really made an impression on him.
"Then, about three weeks later, my dad came up and said, `Look at this.'
"It was a postcard from Hong Kong or somewhere over there.
"It was addressed to my dad and it said: `Dear Jimmy, just a note to let you know how much I enjoyed playing golf with you at Pinehurst.'
"Now you know, Gene went over there and wrote about 200 of those. It was unbelievable.
"My dad died about two years after that.
"When they had the first Gene Sarazen World Open at Chateau Elan near Atlanta in 1995, I was up there on that Saturday watching some of the golf.
"When we got through, we were standing in front of the clubhouse waiting on the bus or something, and this big, black limousine pulls up and out comes Gene Sarazen, wearing plus-fours and with a walking cane.
"I said to my friends, `I've got to go tell him that story about my dad, I know he'd appreciate it.
"So I went up and introduced myself and told him an abbreviated version about my dad playing with him and the postcard, and how much it meant to him.
"He was looking at me with a twinkle in his eye.
"When I got through telling it, he said, `Tell your dad hello for me.' "
"I didn't say anything, and he noticed. He said, "Is he still alive?"
"I said, `No, sir, he died 35 years ago.
"And he looked up at me and said, "Well, I'll tell him hello for you."'
Jim and I both agree, that's probably been taken care of.
Reach Bill Kirby at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 107.