Yates has been there for all 77

By Steve Hummer - shummer@ajc.com 

Tiger Woods was not the only Masters dignitary grappling with whether to attend this year’s tournament.

Atlanta’s Dan Yates, who was there as a 15-year-old in 1934 when Bobby Jones invited some friends to the first Augusta National Invitation Golf Tournament, and hasn’t missed a single one since, almost WD’d.

He had to fight off pneumonia — no tap-in for a 95-year-old — and rally hard down the stretch of March to protect his status as the only soul to have been at every Masters.

The streak will live, he said. Unlike Woods, Yates plans to be there for the start of competition. He likely will spend only Thursday, maybe part of Friday, at the course, and he will venture out little from the shady comfort of the clubhouse. But the streak will live.

When a tournament pass was $5 and could be had as readily as a movie ticket, Yates was there. He was following his brother Charles, who played in that first event — and 10 others — and became an Augusta National member in 1940. Dan gained membership 20 years later. His son, Danny, followed.

When Gene Sarazen holed his 4-wood for double eagle in 1935, Yates heard the cheers echo up from the hollows of the back nine to where he was stationed near the 18th green. In its own way, that place has the acoustics of a symphony hall, and those who know how to listen can discern each telling note of a tournament.

In 1946, when the Masters resumed after four years of war, he was there when the great Ben Hogan three-putted the 72nd hole, missing a two-footer that would have forced a playoff with Herman Keiser.

 A most memorable Masters, that one, for a variety of reasons. “I had just gotten out of the Army and I went down there and you could buy all the tickets you wanted. I’d buy 20 tickets. The Chamber of Commerce would find us a room in somebody’s house,” Yates said.

When Arnie charged and the Shark shrank, when Seve swashbuckled and Olden Bear Jack Nicklaus did his last victory lap at 46, when Woosnam won for the little guy and Tiger won for the ages, Yates was there.

“It’s amazing that for one reason or another that I haven’t missed the tournament,” he said. Of course, this is a guy who still goes into his Atlanta insurance office every morning of the work week.

 How long does his life in golf reach?

Yates, an accomplished amateur golfer in his day, whose brother won the 1938 British Amateur, received one of his more enduring lessons from a family friend by the name of Bobby Jones. His family grew up near the fourth hole of Jones’ home course, East Lake Golf Club.

“He told me: ‘The first thing, don’t think of more than one thing at a time. And remember to stay behind the ball.’ Every time I hit a golf ball since then I’ve thought about that, I really have,” Yates said.

Yates has shot low rounds of 63 at both Augusta National and East Lake, the latter with a set of hickory-shafted clubs. (His playing days are behind him now, but when he takes friends to Augusta National, he might chip or putt a bit).

Augusta National and the Masters have been a central theme to the Yates’ family tradition. Dan is a dedicated Georgia Tech man, who despairs that he may never see a Yellow Jacket in a Green Jacket. Son Danny is a member of the Georgia Bulldogs golf hall of fame. But what they have in common is the abiding connections to a certain former indigo plantation off Washington Road in Augusta.

Back in his day the elder Yates dealt with the ultimate autocrat, the first Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts. He had curried some favor with Roberts during the war by procuring precious rationed cigarettes for the chairman — Chesterfields, to the best of recollection — but that bought Yates only a limited grace. Roberts had a way of reducing very accomplished members into misbehaving students called into the principal’s office.

After one incident in which Yates backed into a Pinkerton security man with a golf cart, “Cliff Roberts called me in and gave me the worst going over I ever had in my life — up and down and all around,” Yates said.

No matter that the next day Roberts knocked over a trophy on display outside the clubhouse in another carting mishap. No one scolded him.

Chairmen have come and gone. The course that Yates got to know so well — both by playing it and at one time serving on the Masters rules and pin-setting committees — has undergone continual change. A tournament badge, once so easily had, is now a trophy in itself. Bobby Jones’ little gathering has become one of golf ’s more cherished international brands.

Yet, what doesn’t change is the affection for the setting come early April.

Yates does not get around the course like he used to. He hasn’t played a round there in years. So his response to the question of his favorite spot at Augusta National serves him particularly well: “My favorite part is wherever I am at the time.”

Then ask the man who has been to every one of the 77 Masters, who presumably has experienced all this tournament can offer, if he still feels a little thrill whenever the pollen rises and the cloister gates open to the public for a week and there’s serious foot traffic on the Hogan Bridge. That answer comes at the speed of true conviction.

“Oh, I surely do.”