Augusta, Ga. — Bobby Jones, the quintessential amateur, founded the Masters golf tournament, to be played here for the 50th time this week. Yet an amateur has never won it. Oh, a few have come close. Ken Venturi, fresh out of the Army in 1956, led by four strokes after three rounds. Then, perhaps rattled by a final-round pairing with the legendary Sam Snead, he blew up to an 80 the last day and lost to Jack Burke by a shot.
Venturi, who comes back each year as a television commentator, calls it the greatest disappointment of his career. He also says it stimulated him to win perhaps the most dramatic US Open in history, eight years later.
Billy Joe Patten, the colorful Southerner with the big game, gave the galleries a thrill as an amateur in 1954. He went for the green in two on the par-five 13th hole the closing day after telling his fans, ``Ah didn't get in contention by playin' safe.'' He landed short of the green in the ditch, made a 7, and lost the Masters by a shot.
So it has gone for the amateur dream at Augusta National. Say hello now, though, to Scott Verplank, the college kid from Oklahoma State, who has a credible chance to win this week. Verplank beat the pros last summer to win the Western Open, a prominent stop on the PGA Tour, and his goal is to beat them again here.
Last year he missed the 36-hole cut in the Masters, and he arrives this time with a different set of priorities.
``I'm looking forward to going back because I consider it the greatest tournament in the world,'' he said in Stillwater, Okla., after a business class (he is an honor student and a senior). ``Last year I was awed by the whole atmosphere. I was just trying to make the cut and see everything that was going on around me.''
He also made the mistake of trying to adapt his game to the demanding Augusta National course.
``I heard so much about how you had to turn the ball from right to left there, I figured I'd better try to do that even though I'm a left-to-right player. I hit a few extremely crooked shots, and it cost me. This year I'm going to try to play my own game and let the course fit it, rather than the other way around.''
Verplank, a rusty-haired young man of 5 ft. 8 in. and 160 pounds, has impressed the pros most with his solid grip -- the foundation of a good swing -- and his versatile short game. ``He can scramble around the greens and putt like a 10-year tour veteran,'' says Jim Thorpe, who was second to Verplank at the Western Open. ``I hope he stays amateur a long, long time.''
Verplank says he will probably turn pro either just before or just after the US Open in June. The suspicion here is that he will play the Open as an amateur, out of deference to the sponsoring US Golf Association, which hopes he does.
Shortly before the Open he will help Oklahoma State attempt to win the NCAA team championship, which, despite his presence, it was unable to capture last year when Houston took the title.
``I returned to finish school instead of turning pro because I've put in three years here working toward a degree and being part of a great college program under Coach Mike Holder,'' he said. ``I made a commitment to coach and my teammates to finish my college career. This is the only chance I'd have to do that.''
What does Verplank know of Bobby Jones, the amateur who won the Grand Slam in 1930 and retired at a peak no other golfer has ever approached?
``I've read some books by and about him, and obviously he was the greatest amateur of all time. The Masters is a wonderful memorial to him.''
The people who run the Masters, from Tournament chairman Hord Hardin on down the chain of command, would love to see an amateur win Jones's revered tournament and the famous green jacket that goes with it. Who knows when another amateur will come along with such a good chance as Verplank has.
``There's a lot of excitement when an amateur gets in contention,'' Verplank says. ``I think the Masters people would like to see an amateur win. I'd kind of like to see something like that happen myself.''