Masters History: Amateur Charlie Yates was hesitant to sing his own praises but he serenaded The Gatlin Brothers
St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church once asked members with military experience to reflect on their time in the service.
The Atlanta sanctuary compiled stories for a Veterans Day booklet. While most congregants elaborated on personal details, that wasn’t the case for Charlie Yates. The famed Atlanta golfer, who won low amateur at the Masters Tournament five times between 1934-1942, used merely half a page to describe his World War II involvement.
Yates casually mentioned that in March of 1942 he, “played some rounds of golf with Jack Kennedy.” In January of 1944, Yates was a Navy lieutenant on the destroyer USS Mayo when it struck a German mine in the invasion of Italy. Yates wrote of the attack, “Our ship was hit at Anzio, Italy, with many casualties.”
“Some wrote pages about their experiences. I was struck by the sparseness of dad’s entry, but that’s how we remember him. He just did not talk about himself, ” said ” Charlie Yates Jr., whose father died in 2005.
Similar to his service record, Yates rarely spoke about his personal accomplishments at Augusta National Golf Club. Not to family. Not to friends.
As a student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Yates competed in the inaugural 1934 Masters and captured low-amateur honors. Yates again won low amateur in 1937, 1939 and 1942, but arguably his most memorable Masters Tournament occurred 80 years ago in 1940.
The only thing more common than Yates at the award ceremony was inclement weather during the first six Masters. Rain again had plagued the first six Masters, and seemed destined to interfere with the opening round of 1940.
The Georgia skies cleared as players teed off, however, and remained benign until Sunday afternoon. Then, as Yates was on Sunday’s second nine, the heavens opened. According to O.B. Keeler of the Atlanta Journal, “I was wetter than a drowned rat. And there, out on the golf course getting wetter than that were Charlie Yates and (playing partner) Ralph Guldahl.”
At the 1940 Masters, amateurs were denoted on leaderboards as Mister. “Mister” Yates opened the 1940 event with 72 and was two-strokes clear of U.S. Amateur champion “Mister” Bud Ward.
Yates’ most notable shot Thursday came on No. 15 when he sailed his second shot toward the green and struck professional Willie Goggin in the head.
Before Sunday’s final round, the United States was preparing for a partial solar eclipse that was scheduled to occur late in the afternoon. Augusta Chronicle sports columnist Tom Wall wrote, “Today the sun will do what Willie Goggin, a professional from San Francisco, thought he himself might do after Charlie Yates’ full wood shot to the fifteenth green on the opening day of the Masters Tournament came squarely against Goggin’s noggin. The sun will go into a partial eclipse about 5 o’clock this afternoon.”
As steady as Yates played Thursday, his consistency vanished a day later. Struggling on the greens, Yates shot 75 to Ward’s 68, and the reigning U.S. Amateur champion entered the weekend with a five-shot advantage.
But Yates proved resilient. The Atlantan carved four strokes off Ward’s lead Saturday, then collared the amateur front-runner with a 38 to Ward’s 39 on Sunday’s first nine. Then, as rain pummeled Augusta National, Yates surged ahead over the final nine holes to best the U.S. Amateur Champion by two strokes. Yates tied for 17th in 1940 — his best Masters finish.
Keller glowed over Atlanta’s hometown hero, writing, “Our Charlie, steamed up by the demand on his resources, and perhaps by the fictitious report in a local paper that he was engaged to be married, traveled the last nine holes in 37, while Ward used 39 blows.”
The report of Yates’ engagement was indeed false. In describing his military experience, there’s only one exact date Yates provided: May 20, 1944. While the USS Mayo was docked for repair at Brooklyn Navy Yard, Yates married Dorothy Malone, who remained his bride for 61 years. Yates always said he “out married himself.”
In addition to golf, Yates was also known for his voice. When the United States lost the Walker Cup in 1938 — its first defeat since the inception of the event in 1922 — Yates honored the crowd at St. Andrews by singing the ancient Scottish song, “A Wee Deoch and Doris.”
Yates also sang at Augusta National.
Following the 1984 Masters Tournament, Yates, who served on the press committee, was tasked with bringing Augusta’s newest champion, Ben Crenshaw, from the Butler Cabin to the player’s locker room. As the sun set over Augusta National, Yates drove his golf cart toward the Clubhouse Oak tree when Crenshaw noticed two familiar faces.
“Ben said, ‘Charlie, these are my friends, Larry and Steve Gatlin. Can they come and get out of the cold?’” Larry Gatlin recalled. “In his Atlanta accent, Mr. Yates said, ‘Why surely, Ben.’ ”
As the men reached the locker room, Yates realized who Crenshaw’s buddies were. Without hesitation, Yates abandoned his role as Crenshaw’s chauffeur and became a member of the country western group, The Gatlin Brothers.
Undaunted by his company, Yates began to sing:
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.
“We’re in Augusta National’s locker room — just the four of us,” Larry Gatlin said. “And Mr. Yates starts singing ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee.’ We all start singing with him.”
Yates invited the Gatlin Brothers to return to the Masters in 1985 and requested their presence in the Butler Cabin. It was a tradition that lasted more than two decades, with the Yates and Gatlin families growing closer over the years. When Yates died in 2005, Larry and Steve were asked to sing at his funeral. They honored Yates in song, by reliving their first memory together: Just a Closer Walk with Thee.
The Gatlin Brothers (from left to right), Steve, Larry and Rudy, pose for a picture under the big oak during the second round of the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, April 10, 2015. [TODD BENNETT/THE AUGUSTA CHRONICLE]