By Mark Hodgkinson 12:01AM BST 09 Apr 2004
At Augusta National, even the suicides have to be perfect.
Clifford Roberts was the image-maker, the co-founder of the club, who liked everything so neat and tidy that it contrasted with reality. With the kind of strict discipline only he knew, Roberts walked slowly out onto the course he loved and killed himself, but not before visiting the clubhouse barber for a haircut.
The location was perfect. Roberts, 84, his short back and sides as prim as the greens, knew where he could turn the gun on himself with the minimum of fuss. By firing on the par-three course beside a pond, he ensured that he ended it all in the easiest place for his staff to clean up afterwards.
The choice of weapon was also perfect. The Smith & Wesson .38 had enough kick to do the job, but not enough to disfigure totally. His ashes were scattered or buried on the course at an undisclosed location.
Roberts, who was suffering from terminal cancer, had the death he wanted some time after 3am on Sept 29, 1977. That is fact. The conjecture is over why he did it. There is talk – dark whispers that still convince the caddies at Augusta and a number of the members – that the tycoon who many hated was murdered.
Perhaps the truth lay in Roberts’s complicated, uneasy relationship with Bobby Jones, his co-founder, friend, and the kid who had won everything. Roberts and Jones had created their vision of a flawless golf club and a tournament to top that, the US Masters.
It seemed like good synergy. Jones, who had hinted that he wanted to build a golf course, provided a name and credibility. Roberts, who took the hint, provided cold-eyed business sense and a fortune made on Wall Street.
Roberts bought the nursery property from a Belgian aristocrat and started to forge a club – and the faked, instant traditions Americans love. The first Masters teed off 70 years ago.
Roberts, the chairman until his death, ran the place as though it was an autocracy. He was a dogmatic, ruthless, cold and unforgiving despot. Sam Snead once remarked: “Cliff was a tough bastard, but you have to be to run that place. The caddies think his death was a murder, not a suicide, and I believe them.”
While Roberts ran the show (he once filmed himself walking on water by building a bridge just beneath the surface), he was a secretive figure. Jones may have been a figurehead president but he was also the name on which the tournament was sold. Roberts had to go around telling everyone that this was Jones’s tournament. He resented Jones for that. There was a huge emotional struggle behind that Roberts carapace of law, order and thin smiles.
One of the straight-to-sepia traditions was that Jones would present the green jacket to the winner. It was all so telegenic until in the final years of Jones’s life his spinal disease left him in a wheelchair, struggling even to lift cigarettes to his mouth.
Jones had been a phenomenon. Regarded by many as the greatest talent of all time, he remains the only golfer to achieve a clean, calendar sweep of the sport’s four majors. He was also a myth-maker, retiring just months after his Grand Slam at the age of 28.
Jones had started with sawn-off clubs at the age of six. At 11, he returned an 80, and such was the expectation that when he had not won everything in sight by the age of 20, he was called a failure. “I was full of pie, ice-cream and inexperience,” Jones said. “To me, golf was just a game to beat someone. I didn’t know that someone was me.”
The absurdly good-looking Jones remained an amateur, and was so popular that he is still the only man to have had two ticker-tape parades through the streets of New York.
Yet despite all this, for Roberts image was everything. What was the point of fussing over and sanitizing the rest of the Masters tournament if, with Jones in a wheelchair, the prize-giving became a poor reflection on the club?
So Roberts banned his friend from the jacket ceremony, but implied – through the CBS television executive who was dispatched to pass on the news – that the network was behind the decision. It is questionable whether Jones believed any of this.
Perhaps Roberts, on the morning of his death, was feeling guilty over the way he had treated his friend. Indeed, the Jones family were so disgusted by the CBS incident that they did not invite Roberts to Bobby’s funeral in 1971.
Some believe that Roberts killed himself – as his mother had done when he was 19 – because of the cancer and a stroke that made him a virtual recluse in his clubhouse apartment.
Roberts’s planning was perfect. He bought a fresh pair of pajamas, which he would wear underneath trench coat and trousers. A note of apology to his wife was pinned to the doctor’s prognosis. He asked a guard how to operate the revolver, saying he had heard noises outside his apartment.
The next morning at around 8am his body was found. It had tumbled neatly into the pond.