The words used to describe Clifford Roberts were autocratic, mysterious, intimidating and often enigmatic. He seemed to rule the Masters tournament and Augusta National Golf Club from behind an iron curtain, yet those who knew him respected him and what he did for golf. While Bobby Jones got much of the credit, Cliff Roberts did most of the work.
They were the good cop and the bad cop, the ying and the yang, working together in creating and administrating two of the game’s most significant institutions.
"While we may not have expected it originally, we have created a tournament of such importance that we are bound to see that it continues."
Roberts was the perfect complement to Jones, who was loved and revered, and whose influence made the Masters one of golf’s major championships. As approachable as Jones was, Roberts was just the opposite. He worked behind the scenes as an administrator, helping to mold the club’s conscience and the tournament’s reputation as the best-run golf event in the world.
Herbert Warren Wind provided this description of their chemistry when Roberts died in 1977 at age 83 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound: “Jones imparted to the Masters an atmosphere of golf at its best. He was the perfect host since it was a true pleasure for him to greet old and new friends and to see that they were made to feel at home. Roberts, on the other hand, was of an extremely reserved disposition. Spare in build and somewhat stonefaced, he said no more on any subject than he had to.”
Roberts was a Wall Street financier who came to enjoy the Augusta spa with friends in the 1920s. It was a time when Jones would travel from Atlanta to play golf, and as Augusta regulars, they formed a bond that would result in the construction of America’s most famous golf course and tournament. It was Roberts’ idea to form a holding company and sold Jones on the idea of a national membership-no more than 30 people from the Augusta area would be allowed to join the club.
The initiation fee was set at $350, with dues at $60 a year. Together, they passed over Donald Ross and decided upon Alister Mackenzie as the course architect. They purchased a 365-acre, pre-Civil War indigo plantation that had been turned into Berckmann’s Nursery and made it into a golfing landmark.
When illness struck down Jones, Roberts assumed total responsibility over the club and the tournament. It was the unbending manner in which he refused to grant special favors that made the Masters such an efficient operation. “The standards and quality with which he conducted the Masters are unmatched anywhere,” said Jack Nicklaus. “All of us in golf appreciate what he has done for the game.”
It didn’t matter whether it was a member of the media pressing him for tournament attendance figures or a member of the club pushing him on policy. Roberts, as veteran columnist Tom Callahan once wrote, was something of a stone monument.
One year, a member suggested that a mound be put behind a certain green. “Fine, we’ll do that,” Roberts reportedly said. Several months later the member received a bill for the entire cost of the improvement. Asked in later years if that ever happened, Roberts replied firmly, “I don’t remember it.” Roberts instituted such innovations as gallery roping, pairings sheets, course maps, stadium mounding and an elaborate scoring and leader board operation.
“Although he was a tough man, he was a person who was truly dedicated to golf and the quality and standards of the game,” Arnold Palmer said. “And when you got to know him-as I was fortunate enough to be able to do-you found him to be a very nice and warm person. I liked and admired him very much.”