Golf is a fine sport. But the uninitiated should be forewarned this week about much of the media’s worshipful, sappy treatment of the annual Masters tournament. Paeans to golf as “a game of honor and honesty” and the reverential homage to golf’s sacrosanct rules—said to guarantee more fairness than other athletic endeavors—tend to skip over the fact that golf long turned a blind eye to diversity and, at times, to common sense.
Not until 1975 was a black man, Lee Elder, allowed to play the Masters, and only 15 years later did the Masters’ home, the Augusta National, admit a black member. Still another 22 years passed before Augusta accepted women.
Rules, rules. At the 1968 Masters, an overzealous letter-of-the-law decree prevented Argentina’s Roberto De Vicenzo from advancing to a playoff after De Vicenzo’s playing partner, Tommy Aaron, entered a 4 on De Vicenzo’s scorecard—instead of the 3 De Vicenzo earned, fair and square—on the 71st of the tournament’s 72 holes. It was Aaron’s mistake, yet it was De Vicenzo who was held responsible for the error, thereby losing the tournament by one stroke because he signed the inaccurate card.
Such imperfections bring to mind celebrated golf writer Herbert Warren Wind’s famous description, “Amen Corner,” which Wind used to label the Masters’ difficult section at holes 11, 12 and 13. Wind, who died in 2005 at 88, wrote that he lifted the phrase from a 1930s jazz tune, without religious implications.
In fact, though, that old recording—“Shouting in the Amen Corner”—directly referred to a church environment. And, just for additional irony, given the Masters’—and golf’s—decades of segregation, the term specifically cited a tradition with Black Protestant congregations, in which church members continually exclaim “amen” during the sermon in response to the pastor’s words.
Furthermore, it could be that lyrics from “Shouting in the Amen Corner” apply to the Masters’ stuffy old exclusionary policies:
Brothers and sisters, we got hypocrites in this crowd
Brothers and sisters, some of you are shoutin’ too loud.
You’ll find out on judgment day, you can’t fool the Lord that way.
Brothers and sisters, hear all I’ve got to say.
You can shout with all your might, but if you ain’t livin’ right
There’s no use shoutin’ in that amen corner….
In 1954, there was a James Baldwin play, “Amen Corner,” with the protagonist’s conclusion that she should not have used religion as an escape from the struggles of life and love. Four years after that production’s brief run, Wind, in his report on the 1958 Masters for Sports Illustrated, first conjured his “Amen Corner” term to dramatize Arnold Palmer’s final-round eagle on No. 13, which secured the first of Palmer’s four Masters’ titles.
My one encounter with the erudite Mr. Wind was during the 1986 U.S. Open at Long Island’s Shinnecock Hills course, when a first round played in a downpour and shifting winds rendered the world’s best golfers helpless to approach the par of 70.
Many of the pros that day declared a more accurate par would have been as high as 77. So I approached Wind, the most experienced golf observer on the premises, with the proposal that par be adjusted, as warranted, in response to conditions beyond just the length of the hole.
Wind regarded my two heads and dismissed the idea out of hand, after he had filled me in on some of the history. That is, that the British invented an imaginary Colonel Bogey, against whom their scores were measured, and Americans later devised par as a more specific, rigid norm. My clearly wacky theory of some par-ometer, that could slide up and down to reflect whether a hole was playing long or short, whether greens were slick or slow, whether a monsoon or hurricane figured in the mix, was in no way acceptable to Wind.
Because the rules are the rules in golf, that most ethical and moral of sports. And, as a skeptical journalist, I qualified as a target of this line in the song….
If your name ain’t on that roll, all that noise won’t save your soul
So stop your shoutin’ in that amen corner.