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Road to Masters used to feature a stop in Aiken for popular pro-am event

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Imagine a time when Augusta National Golf Club closed its gates because of a global crisis.

Imagine a time when the Masters Tournament was put on hold and not held in April.

Imagine when some of the world’s best golfers were not available to play.

Those scenarios would ring true about the 2020 Masters. When the coronavirus pandemic hit a year ago, the private club shut down, the tournament was delayed until November and some of the game’s best missed it because they tested positive for COVID-19.

But this story is about World War II and the impact it had on golf. Seventy-five years ago, the professional game was emerging from a prolonged period of uncertainty.

And, for a few years, the road to Augusta National and the Masters included a stop in Aiken.

America at war

The United States entered the global conflict known as World War II when Japan attacked American forces at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Professional golf continued to be played in the U.S. while the war raged overseas. The Masters staged its 1942 event, then went into a three-year hibernation.

The U.S. Open went dark after its 1941 tournament and didn’t resume until 1946. The British Open was on hiatus from 1940 through 1945, while the PGA Championship only skipped its 1943 event.

However, a new event emerged in 1945 and featured the top players in the game and the chance for them to make good money. The Devereux Milburn Memorial Trophy was held as a pro-amateur event at Palmetto Golf Club from 1945 through 1953. It became a strictly amateur event in 1954 and remains the jewel of Palmetto’s tournament schedule.

Milburn was a former secretary and treasurer of Palmetto who died while playing golf on Long Island in 1942. He also was considered one of the best polo players in the world and was a 10-goal player; he once appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice once wrote an article about Milburn and another Aiken polo legend, Tommy Hitchcock Jr. In the story, Milburn disputed the theory that winning is all that matters.

“That is a lot of nonsense,” Milburn said. “It’s the battle – the contest – that counts, not the score. If two meet, one must win and one must lose. But they can both have a great afternoon.”

Milburn was referring to polo, but his philosophy could easily be applied to golf.

“Evidently, he was a low-handicap player in golf,” Palmetto pro emeritus Tom Moore said. “When he died, they wanted to do something to honor him. At the time they were organizing the pro-am, and they named it the Devereux Milburn Memorial Trophy.”

Cows and turkeys

Barely four months after Pearl Harbor, the 1942 Masters went on as scheduled. It turned out to be one for the ages as Byron Nelson defeated Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff.

Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the two men who co-founded the Masters, decided soon after that they would close the club and not hold the tournament while the war was still going on.

While the Masters now generates millions of dollars in revenue through television contracts, merchandise sales and ticket proceeds, the club and tournament were not in a very good financial position in their early years. Augusta National opened during the Great Depression and had struggled to make ends meet in its first decade of existence.

To help generate revenue, the club raised turkey and cattle on its grounds during the war years. Roberts, known for his business acumen, later admitted that having cows roaming the grounds cost roughly $5,000.

“(The cows) also ate a large number of valuable azalea and camellia plants, together with the bark from the trunks of some young trees,” Roberts wrote in his book, "The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club."

The turkey enterprise, on the other hand, turned a modest profit.

“We have a better chance as a golf club rather than as live-stock feeders,” Roberts wrote in a letter to Augusta National members.

‘Like a million dollars'

The Devereux Milburn Memorial Trophy was first held in March 1945. A strong field of professionals teamed up with their amateur partners in the one-day event.

Byron Nelson won the last Masters that was played, in 1942, and he headed the field that assembled at Palmetto. Nelson was already on his way to one of golf’s greatest years; he had won four times that year, including the Miami International Four-Ball with partner Jug McSpaden the week before he arrived in Aiken.

The Devereux Milburn event wasn’t an official part of the pro schedule, but the stakes were high. Nelson and his amateur partner Eugene Grace, chairman of Bethlehem Steel, teamed for a score of 65 to win. According to published accounts, Nelson and Grace shot 31 on the first nine and came home in 34.

The field included 1941 Masters champion Craig Wood and future Masters winners Sam Snead and Claude Harmon.

After his victory in Aiken, Nelson went on to win 10 more tournaments in a row. He established PGA Tour records for consecutive wins (11) and most victories in a season (18). If the Devereux Milburn had been an official event, he could have added another win to each of those totals.

A big attraction for the professionals playing in the Devereux Milburn was a chance to earn money from the betting pool, commonly known as a calcutta. Nelson had earned $1,500 for his 1942 Masters win, but the Devereux Milburn victory was far more lucrative.

“It was customary for the member to split the calcutta pot with the pro,” Moore said. “Eugene Grace and Byron Nelson won it in 1945 – you’ll hear him talk about it was the 12th tournament he won – but when he won it Eugene Grace signed the whole check over to Byron. It was $10,000. That’s like a million dollars now.”

War ends, Masters resumes

After mixed results with turkey and cattle, Roberts began restoring the Augusta National layout in late 1944. German prisoners of war at nearby Camp Gordon were brought in to do work. After the U.S. and its allies secured victory, a formal announcement to resume the Masters was made.

“The nation’s second ranking golfing classic – the Augusta Masters tournament – will be resumed next spring after a four year period of inactivity caused by the war,” The Augusta Chronicle reported in its Nov. 18, 1945, edition.

A veritable who’s who of golf stars served their country during the war. While Masters champions Nelson and Gene Sarazen supported the war effort by playing exhibitions, others like Lloyd Mangrum saw actual combat duty. Mangrum, who had established the Augusta National course record with 64 in the first round of the 1940 Masters, was awarded two Purple Hearts.

Hogan served as a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and Snead was in the Navy until he received a medical discharge.

Even Masters co-founder Jones, who turned 40 not long after Pearl Harbor, received a commission in the Army Air Forces. He eventually became a military intelligence officer and was sent to England in late 1943.

In June 1944, Jones landed at Normandy the day after the D-Day invasion led by a future Augusta National member and president of the United States: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Upset in Augusta

A robust field headlined by Nelson teed it up at Palmetto on March 19, 1946 for the second annual pro-amateur tournament.

But it was Bob Hamilton and amateur Jimmy Knott who claimed first prize despite a field that included Snead, Hogan and Jimmy Demaret. A little-known pro named Herman Keiser tied for third in the individual competition, but his status as an unknown was about to change.

Two weeks later, Keiser continued his hot play with an opening-round 69 to share the lead at the Masters. In the first tournament at Augusta National since the war had ended, the field consisted of only 51 players. No international players made the trip to Augusta.

Keiser, known as the “Missouri Mortician,” followed up with 68 in the second round. A 71 in the third round kept him on top going into the final round; the Big Three of Hogan, Snead and Nelson were all five shots or more behind.

The final round turned out to be a two-man race between Keiser and Hogan. Over the years, a popular conspiracy theory emerged that the private club wanted Hogan to win because some of its members had placed a sizable wager on him. Keiser was the one promoting the theory, and was often quoted in his later years on the matter.

But, as David Owen pointed out in his book, "The Making of the Masters," most of Keiser’s claims can be debunked. In those days, the Masters didn’t pair players by score with the leaders going off last. Among Keiser’s assertions was that he almost missed his tee time because he assumed he would go off last.

Keiser wobbled a bit in the final round, shooting 74, and Hogan made up the five-shot difference between the two. With Keiser already in the clubhouse, Hogan came to the 18th needing a par to force a playoff or a birdie to win outright. But his birdie putt missed and wound up about three feet from the cup, and Hogan missed the comeback. Keiser was the Masters champion.

It was fitting that Keiser won golf’s first major championship after the war. He had served in the Navy aboard the USS Cincinnati. All of the other majors in 1946 were also won by veterans: Mangrum (U.S. Open), Snead (British Open) and Hogan (PGA).

End of the Pro-Am

All good things must come to an end, the saying goes, and so it was with the Devereux Milburn Pro-Am.

Multiple reasons have been given – concerns over the calcutta betting pool and an inability to schedule the event close to the Masters – and the pro-am was last played in 1953.

Auction, or betting, pools were commonplace in golf at the time. One was regularly held for the Masters at the Bon Air Hotel, and Augusta National itself had one until 1952.

Bobby Knowles, a prominent Palmetto member and a player of national caliber, had drawn the scrutiny of the U.S. Golf Association in the 1950s for his role in running the Devereux Milburn calcutta.

“It was a pretty big calcutta,” Moore said. “Richard Tufts, he was president of the USGA, and he called down here and said, ‘Knowles, you’ve got to quit having that calcutta.’ And Knowles said, ‘Well, if we quit having the calcutta, we’re going to have to close the club.’”

According to Moore, the club proposed a date for the 1954 pro-am at Palmetto but was told by the professional tour that date wasn’t available. That didn’t jibe with the club schedule, which was more seasonal at the time.

“The players heard about it and started raising hell,” Moore said. “The PGA came back and said sorry, we made a mistake. The club said forget it. These were some of the richest people in the country. They weren’t going to let some nobody tell them what to do.”

One published report indicated that the Devereux Milburn Pro-Am was scheduled for March 25, 1954. That was sandwiched between the popular Seminole Pro-Am in Jupiter, Fla., on March 23-24 and the Azalea Open in Wilmington, N.C., on March 26-28. Logistically, it would be almost impossible for the top pros to make the stop in Aiken.

Knowles and the other committee members canceled the Palmetto pro-am event, and it became a strictly amateur event contested over 36 holes.

Knowles was one of the organizers, and he would regularly bring in celebrities like Bing Crosby and Phil Harris to compete in the tournament.

Like the more famous tournament across the Savannah River, the Devereux Milburn Memorial Trophy is fiercely contested each spring. The winners’ names are enshrined on wooden boards that feature prominently inside Palmetto’s clubhouse.

The idea was “to get a congenial bunch together for two days of golf,” Knowles once told Sports Illustrated. “They don’t have to be good golfers, but they have to like to play, and we want them to be fun off the course as well as on.”

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