Friday 30 September 1977. The Augusta Chronicle’s front-page headline is profound: “Roberts found dead; Masters co-founder”. As detail is subsequently relayed, that the 83-year-old chairman of Augusta National had been discovered on the property with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the widespread perception of Clifford Roberts is easy to detect.
He was, the newspaper insisted, the chairman “with an iron hand”. Inside, an editorial portrays “a genius organiser” and “the indestructible man, the forceful personality whose iron will would normally carry him through any crisis, physical or otherwise”.
In reality, deteriorating health proved too much for Roberts to bear. He had not been able to leave his bed during the Masters that year. He killed himself, just as his parents had done in what represents a horribly sad culmination of circumstances. Roberts, with hair cut and dressed in new pyjamas, was found close to the water on Augusta National’s par‑three course. Alongside a pistol were a brief note of apology to his wife and, by way of explanation, a copy of his medical records.
The Roberts story is not one anyone in Augusta is encouraged to revisit, for pretty obvious reasons. Nonetheless, his role in the formation of not only a club but also one of sport’s most identifiable events is a fascinating one. It is generally overlooked. Roberts is virtually absent from view, save a three‑minute YouTube clip which reveals his curious speaking style.
Roberts, who was widely credited with managing the fiscal affairs of Dwight D Eisenhower, formed a friendship with Bobby Jones in New York which was to culminate in the realisation of the golfing great’s dream. Jones wanted to create a golf venue, if initially not one remotely on the scale of what has evolved since its opening in 1933, with Roberts the great facilitator. Roberts’s investment-banking history on Wall Street belied the Great Depression as Augusta National rose on the site of a former plant nursery.
This year, as is standard, Dr Robert Jones IV, the grandson of Bobby and an individual who retains the charm of his legendary relative, will watch the Masters from Augusta National. He had met nieces and nephews of Roberts – who had no children of his own – at the property but they are now conspicuous by their absence. No relatives of Jones or Roberts are believed to be current Augusta members.
“The relationship between Cliff Roberts and my grandfather is one of the most interesting things I have studied,” says Dr Jones. “There have been two ways of presenting their relationship; one to portray as my grandfather wore the white hat and Cliff wore the black hat, which I don’t think is particularly fair. The second portrayal is that they were the dearest and closest of friends and remained so until their dying days. To be honest, that is as artificial as the other one.
“Here’s where the truth lies, I think. They were both very powerful men. Each of them had extremely unique skill‑sets. My grandfather wanted an informal, relaxed club where friends could gather and occasionally have a tournament among buddies in the spring. He wanted it to be the Augusta National Invitational. Cliff had a very different vision. He was much more detail-conscious and extraordinarily focused on the mission. He saw the Masters for what it could and has become.”
Augusta’s link to endemic racism is such that Roberts cannot emerge without implication. Far from it, in fact. “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black” is the most infamous remark attributed to him. In his own acclaimed writings, the author Tom Callahan sharply remarked: “Jones and Roberts might not have been any more racially bigoted than the average American born in 1902 or 1894, but neither of them was a champion of affirmative action.”
Callahan tells a cringe-inducing story from the 1974 Masters, whereby Roberts seeks to pre-empt the possible qualification of Jim Dent, a black player. Roberts reveals the player’s cousin is the Augusta National maître d’. When asked for the cousin’s name, a top-table whispering discussion ensues. “We just call him Dent,” replied Roberts.
Ludicrous as it may appear against such a backdrop, perhaps elements of history have treated Roberts unfairly. He was largely responsible for hauling Augusta National back from the financial precipice more than once. And on the precipice it was; at one stage there was no money to buy toilet rolls. Alister MacKenzie, the course architect, was given a notice of debt as owed when seeking payment – in the knowledge that nobody in Georgia would be willing to accept it as credit.
Dan Jenkins, the renowned US sportswriter and a man who knew Roberts better than anyone on the “outside”, paints a picture not regularly seen. “I saw nothing but his warmth in person,” he explains. “He had committeemen to do some of the dirty work for him, like all great leaders.
“In the early days, my wife and I were twice invited to join him for dinner in the clubhouse. It was just the three of us.
“He waved us over. Otherwise, he would have dined alone. He was great to us and always to me. He would comment on something I’d written. Once or twice he said: ‘You should have asked me about that. But if I told you the real story, you couldn’t have printed it.’ It took a man like Cliff to get the Masters going.” And go it did. This week marks the 82nd edition. If Jones’s fame rightly went before him, the Roberts impact remains identifiable.
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org