This fateful suicide at Augusta’s Par 3 hole might have changed golf forever

It’s not often that you’d compare a suicide to the fall of the Iron Curtain. That’s exactly why we’re writing about this particular one that rocked Augusta’s cloistered world to its core.

83-year old Clifford Roberts, the club’s imperious chairman and figurehead, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger on the club’s grounds in 1977, toppling his own regime of extreme elitism and prejudice that shaped so much of golf culture for years. Of course, he only did this after getting a haircut at the barber’s, making sure that his coif was as immaculate as the manicured lawns he’d spent so many years supervising.

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That last little gesture is emblematic of the man who founded the club on a former plantation with debonair crowd favorite Bobby Jones in 1931 and the Masters Tournament in 1934. Roberts was a man who liked his domain clean. Described as “an iron fist in a velvet glove” by author Curt Sampson, the former Wall Street financier obsessively weeded and pruned any unsavory elements out of his pristine domain. Caddy Carl Jackson once said of him, “He (Roberts) hated to see a dead tree limb or anything out of place.” 

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Any of his fellow beings who were less than perfect were tantamount to bits of debris who had to be discarded. He showed no mercy to his own co-founder Jones, banning the formerly strapping amateur golfer from the Masters jacket ceremony for being confined to a wheelchair in his later years. He also showed no mercy to Frank Stranahan, throwing him off the grounds for hitting on-course practice balls before the 1948 Masters. Seeing how cruelly dismissive he was towards even his own friends, one can only imagine his attitude towards those who looked nothing like him.

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Yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds. The darkest stain on a career he tried so hard to keep spotless was his shameless exclusion of anyone who wasn’t white. Perhaps the most famous quote that could be attributed to Roberts was that infamously muttered “As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.” Under his leadership, the club remained fiercely resistant to anything resembling equality or fair play.

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Charlie Sifford, a talented African-American player who emerged into prominence during the segregated 60’s, was repeatedly deprived of his right to play at the Masters despite having all of the criteria required to join. It was only 14 years after the PGA Tour dropped its Caucasians-only clause that Augusta admitted Lee Elder into the 1975 Masters, two years before Roberts’ fateful suicide. Significant? Perhaps. Most disturbingly of all, the club hosted boxing matches where blindfolded black men were encouraged to fight practically to the death for the entertainment of the club’s moneyed patrons.

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Disappointingly, writer Curt Sampson argues, “I don’t think Cliff was motivated by racial issues at all. He was simply a product of his environment.” We think this is far too easy a fallback. Sure, Roberts’ day was a terrible time to be alive for anyone of color because racism was so widely accepted. People back in the day thought Roberts was being nice when he spoke of his black servants as though they were beloved pets. But it takes a special kind of bigotry to commit so fully to keeping those race and class lines so firmly drawn in the sand.

His active suppression of an entire group of people seems rooted the deep disgust for otherness Roberts’ entire career reflects. His feelings on racial integration were well-known, “It means mixed marriages. The mixed are the worst.. the most worthless in every respect.” It’s interesting to note how he considered those of a mixed race “the most worthless”, more worthless even than people who were fully African American. Homogeneity was clearly a virtue to him, as it was to Hitler.

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Say what you want about Clifford Roberts, he at least wasn’t a hypocrite. Just before he took his own life, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had suffered a debilitating stroke. It might seem strange that a sickly 83-year old on death’s door would plan his own execution, but we have to keep in mind how he felt about invalids. He could not abide to have his former friend Bobby Jones darken the jacket ceremony with his obvious feebleness and his own ill health would have been no excuse to disrupt perfection. Thus, he rid the impeccable Augusta landscape of its last blight, his old, frail self.

Not to dance on anyone’s grave, but perhaps there was something to his logic there. In 1983, 6 years after his death, non-black caddies were finally allowed on Augusta’s hallowed greens.

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