Letter-writing tradition continues among golf champions
Danny Willett knew the winner of the Masters Tournament received a green jacket among his many perks.
What he didn’t realize was that he would receive congratulatory letters from so many greats of the game.
“They are the kind of things when you’re a kid that you don’t realize, you don’t expect,” Willett said.
Fellow Masters champions Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle were among those who wrote Willett, but the letter he received from Arnold Palmer stood out. The four-time champion died in September, making the letter to Willett the last he wrote to a reigning Masters winner.
“Mr. Palmer sent us a letter,” Willett said. “Basically just saying that he watched and how spectacular an event it was, and then went into saying that he hopes my wife and Zach are all well.”
Palmer’s tradition of writing congratulatory letters to golfers, professionals and amateurs who had won a tournament or achieved something special is well known in golf circles.
“For him to take the time to write you a note and write you a letter, it tells you something about the person that he was,” Willett said.
In an era in which professional golfers are more likely to send a congratulatory text on their smartphone or post a message to someone via Twitter, Palmer’s practice was a throwback to the days when Bobby Jones and his contemporaries would communicate via letters and telegrams.
Into The Archive
Augusta National Golf Club possesses numerous letters from past Masters champions and participants. Some are straightforward letters of thanks, while others led to some of the tournament’s most cherished traditions.
Few Masters invitations have ever been turned down – Gene Sarazen was a famous exception at the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934 – and the club’s archives are full of responses from players eager to tee it up in Augusta.
“I want to thank you for the invitation I received to play in the Masters Golf Tournament,” Herman Keiser wrote in 1946 from Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. “It will be a pleasure to be there.”
Before tournament purses skyrocketed, many players were attached to other clubs or spent their winters in warmer locales. Thus, they would often send back their replies on fancy hotel stationery.
“Received the invitation to participate in the 1949 Masters Tournament and I accept with pleasure,” Sam Snead said in a handwritten note on Hotel Dallas Park stationery.
Doug Ford penned a note in 1957 from The Sands Hotel in Tucson, Ariz.
“Very honored to again be invited to your great event. Looking forward to seeing you and old friends,” he wrote.
Claude Harmon, the 1948 Masters winner, almost didn’t receive his invitation.
“I accept, with pleasure, your invitation to the Augusta National Master’s Tournament. I am sorry I haven’t answered sooner but the mail was sent to my New York address,” Harmon wrote from Seminole Golf Club in Palm Beach, Fla.
“It’s my wish to invite all the Masters Champions who are going to be here, plus Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts... My only stipulation is that you wear your green coat.”
On March 31, 1952, defending Masters champion Ben Hogan issued an invitation of his own. He wrote a letter to Clifford Roberts inviting the chairman of the club and tournament to a special dinner he had planned for the Friday evening of Masters Week.
“It’s my wish to invite all the Masters Champions who are going to be here, plus Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts,” Hogan wrote in the single-spaced, typed letter. “… My only stipulation is that you wear your green coat.”
The Champions Dinner, or Masters Club as it is formally known, was born.
Writing a letter of thanks to a tournament host is not only good manners, but a time-honored tradition in golf.
The Masters has received its share of letters from participants, and a few from champions stand out.
After capturing his fourth Masters win in 1964, Palmer and his wife, Winnie, wrote a letter to Roberts to thank him for scrapbooks he had prepared for them. Roberts was especially fond of Palmer, and the golfer made note of their friendship in his letter.
“Please know that we do both appreciate all your efforts on our behalf, and also your great contributions to golf and Augusta,” the Palmers wrote on March 10, 1965. “Thank you for being our friend.”
In 1965, Nicklaus obliterated the tournament records for 72-hole score and margin of victory. His 271 total produced a nine-shot victory over Palmer and Player.
“Jack Nicklaus is playing an entirely different game, and one which I’m not even familiar with,” Jones famously said of Nicklaus.
In a thank you letter to Jones and Roberts, dated April 20, 1965, Nicklaus wrote, “Coming from a man of your stature, and a gentleman whom I have always respected and admired, Mr. Jones, the words that you said at the presentation are words I will cherish all my life. It certainly added to an already memorable week for me.”
"I shall always attempt to carry this victory with the conviction that The Game is the thing, not anything else, along with a happy and life-giving memory."
Ben Crenshaw, known as a student of the game’s history, used the occasion of his first Masters win in 1984 to express his feelings about the club and tournament.
“I shall always attempt to carry this victory with the conviction that The Game is the thing, not anything else, along with a happy and life-giving memory,” Crenshaw wrote in a letter dated May 30, 1984, to Chairman Hord Hardin.
“Everyone at Augusta National Golf Club can be certain that a substantial piece of my heart will always be there as long as I live.”
The Tradition Continues
After playing in his first Masters as an amateur, in 1995, Tiger Woods wrote a letter to the club thanking them for the experience. He said he felt like he entered as a kid and left as a man.
Two years later, Woods shattered tournament records on his way to becoming the first black golfer to win the Masters. He expressed what it meant to him in a letter to club and tournament Chairman Jack Stephens.
“Winning the Masters Tournament was the realization of a lifelong dream, not only for myself, but also for my parents and the black pioneers of golf, who sacrificed so very much so that I could be there,” Woods said. “They were all in my thoughts as I proudly slipped on the green jacket as the 1997 Masters champion. The memories of that glorious day will forever be etched in my mind.”
Getting a letter from one of golf’s greats never grows old.
Rickie Fowler, who is 28 but steeped in golf’s traditions, said he would get excited just seeing an envelope with Palmer’s letterhead on it after he won a tournament.
“I know everyone’s going to miss those,” Fowler said. “You knew there was a good chance that Arnold was watching and he was going to be sending a letter out.”
The same goes for Jimmy Walker, who won his first major last summer at the PGA Championship.
“One of the coolest things I got was a handwritten note from Jack Nicklaus that was very nice, to go out of his way to do something like that,” Walker said.
Prolific letter writers like Palmer and Jones are no longer with us, but the tradition still lives. Nicklaus, for one, has picked up the habit and sends letters for special achievements.
“Anytime you win a golf tournament or do anything of note, the one really classy thing that both Arnie and Jack Nicklaus do is write you a letter,” Rory McIlroy said. “The first letter I ever received from Arnold was after I won Quail Hollow in 2010, my first (win) on the PGA Tour. Then basically after every win since I’ve gotten a letter from him.”
"They have set a precedent for the younger generation to follow in their footsteps and do these things."
After McIlroy won his first major, Palmer pointed out that the victory carries with it certain obligations.
“I remember getting that letter after I won the U.S. Open from Arnold and when he said, ‘you’re now in a position where you have a responsibility’ … it hits home with you,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy, one of the game’s top players, said his team sends letters to sponsors after each tournament.
He intends to write letters in the style of Palmer and Nicklaus – “I obviously don’t write to other players when they win, because I would rather be winning,” he said – once he retires.
“They have set a precedent for the younger generation to follow in their footsteps and do these things,” McIlroy said.
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.