Amen Corner leads to imprisoned man's freedom
Valentino Dixon had waited a lifetime to see Amen Corner.
He wasn’t going to let a little rain spoil his day.
Thousands of golf fans make the pilgrimage to Augusta National Golf Club each year, but his was different.
Dixon, 49, spent 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Long story short, Dixon was out on bail for a weapons charge on a summer night in 1991 when a fistfight escalated in Buffalo, N.Y. Seventeen-year-old Torriano Jackson was killed by gunshot, and three others were wounded.
Dixon was near the scene but not involved. Despite eyewitness accounts that exonerated him, he was sentenced to 39 years to life for second-degree murder, assault and weapon possession.
He was released last year after his appeal wound its way through the legal system.
His talent as an artist flourished while he was at Attica Correctional Facility, and he caught the eye of prison superintendent James Conway.
The warden asked Dixon if he would do a rendering of the 12th hole at Augusta National from a photograph. He did so using colored pencils, and it began a journey that led him to write Golf Digest’s Max Adler and, eventually, to his freedom.
“The reason I wrote Max was because his (series) was Golf Saved My Life,” Dixon said Tuesday. “After drawing the 12th hole for the first time, it really captivated me. I knew nothing about golf. The reason it captivated me was because the bridge was so pretty, and the flowers.”
Adler heard from Dixon in December 2011, and he published the inmate’s story in July 2012.
“I thought the idea of art being a redemptive force for someone was interesting,” Adler said. “I wanted to learn more about it.”
As the years went by, Adler kept fighting for Dixon.
“One thing we had, we have a big microphone, a big national audience,” Adler said. “Showing that there’s an innocent guy locked away, things would start to happen. But it was not that quick.”
Art fueled Dixon to keep fighting for his innocence.
“I would go through the golf magazines and there was no other course that could compare to this course,” Dixon said of Augusta National. “So I told Max that golf did save my life. At the time I had about 20 years in and we lived from day to day. You don’t know if you’re going to make it or give up completely.”
Dixon and Adler left Tuesday morning from Buffalo and New York, respectively. They met in Atlanta and made the drive to Augusta.
They had lunch in the press building - Dixon went with the chicken sandwich - and then ran into two-time Masters champion Tom Watson.
“That was nice because he stopped and spoke,” said Dixon, who gave the golfer an impromptu art lesson. “Really? This is Tom Watson. It blew me away.”
Dixon had never seen Tiger Woods in person, but got to check him out as the four-time Masters winner held his news conference and later on the practice range.
“I’m a big Tiger fan. Unbelievable,” he said. “Just to be that close. It was just awesome. At one point I thought I was in a dream or something. I’m always seeing him on TV.”
Then Dixon and Adler made their way to Amen Corner. The artist was overwhelmed.
“I’m able to see things that I didn’t see before,” he said. “Previously, I’m drawing from magazine pictures and stuff like that. I was observing details from a whole different perspective.
“A lot of it I recognized. This one tree that bends over, I’ve drawn it so many times, but just being able to see the detail in person, and the bridge and stone, and the coloring of the stone. A photograph can’t capture that.”
Dixon has a media credential for Golf Digest this week and will participate in the magazine’s time-honored tradition of “First Impressions.” Tom Brokaw and George Plimpton are former journalists who have participated in the program.
“I have ideas in mind already, some visions of future drawings, from different angles,” Dixon said. “I pretty much know every inch of that 11th and 12th. I don’t need to even see the pictures now. So many years of photos, now I’ve seen in person, it’s etched for good right here.”
Dixon and Adler have both come a long way since they met in a visiting room in Attica in 2012.
“I just want to say thanks to Max because without Max and Golf Digest, I wouldn’t be here,” Dixon said. “They took a chance on me and I don’t have the words to express my appreciation or gratitude to Golf Digest. I come from a different world. For this world to embrace me means everything. I was trying to hold back the tears today.”
Now that he’s out of prison, Dixon plans to make his living as an artist.
“This is my life now,” said Dixon, who spends up to 10 hours a day drawing. “I just completed a commissioned piece for a guy. I’m always looking for the next challenge. That’s what I see myself doing the next 20 to 30 years.”