THERE'S A TWINKLE in Luther Stafford's sky-blue eyes and a smile on his lips as he lines up his putt on the practice green at Forest Lake Club. His weathered hands take back the putter and gently stroke it, and the ball glides 15 feet to nestle next to the cup.
It's a beautiful spring day, and Stafford, 88, soaks it all in. This is his favorite time of year, for a lot of reasons, but mostly because his favorite annual event, the Masters, is less than a week away. "We've gone every year since I moved to Columbia (in 1945)," he says. "The scenery, the beauty - you don't have to be a golfer to have it take your breath away."Stafford -"Bootsy" or "Boots" to friends and family - understates his history and appreciation for the golf tournament and golf in general. Doubly so, in fact.
First, he is, and has been for 80 years a golfer, a one-time prodigy who played with some of the game's giants, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Ralph Guldahl and Horton Smith, the winner of the first Masters.
Second, Stafford was visiting Augusta National long before he made South Carolina his home. In fact, he was there for the christening of Bobby Jones' fabled golf course when the first Masters was held in March 1934.
Oh, the stories he could tell. And he does.
Stories of idolizing Jones, the icon of American golf: "I tried to do everything like him. We sort of worshipped him. He was a golf god."
Stories of working as a gallery guard at Augusta's par-5 15th hole in 1935 when Gene Sarazen hit his famous "shot heard 'round the world," and Sarazen's words before launching his 4-wood shot that went in for double eagle. "He said, 'Push 'em back, sonny,' then he hit the shot," Stafford says.
Stories of working, years later, for Citizens & Southern Bank and Dewey Johnson, whose son Hootie would grow up to become chairman of the Masters: "Dewey would call a manager and say, 'Take this man's books. We're leaving.' And we'd go play golf."
On this, the 70th anniversary of the Masters, Stafford is that rarest of treasures: a living link to history. His mind and his memories are as sharp as his game at its zenith. You listen, and he takes you back to a time before Tiger Woods (or even Earl Woods), before Hootie and Martha Burke and all the rest.
Back to when he and the Masters were young.
PLAYING IN RAE'S CREEK
Stafford was born Feb. 24, 1916, growing up in a large, Spanish-style house at 1316 Highland Avenue in Augusta, a few blocks from the former Fruitlands Nursery that became, in 1932, the site of Augusta National. He played in Rae's Creek on hot summer days, trying to splash fish onto the creek's sandbars, long before golf balls first splashed there.
When "Bootsy" - so nicknamed because as a toddler his first words were "boots, boots" - was 8, his father, Thomas H. Stafford, presented him with his first golf club.
"It was a mashie, the equivalent to a 5-iron," Stafford says. "The wooden shaft was sawed down to fit my size."
Bootsy hit balls constantly with his club. A year later, he received a putter.
"I really loved that club. It sounds funny, but I would stand it by my bed at night when I went to sleep."
Stafford's father and his older brother, Thomas Jr., played at Augusta Country Club. Before long, so did Bootsy. At 14, he won his first Richmond County-Junior College of Augusta Tournament championship over players as old as 18. A year later, he won a sterling silver bowl, which he still has, in the Biltmore Forest Country Club (Asheville, N.C.) Invitational.
"That was big time," he says.
The Depression was in progress, but 16-year-old Bootsy had golf on his mind during 1932. Especially when he played Augusta Country Club's ninth hole, where he would watch construction of Augusta National's 12th and 13th holes.
"We could see the workers shaping those holes, using mules to pull pans to haul dirt," he says.
Like most of Augusta, Stafford was excited about Jones' new course. Unlike most, he had insider knowledge. His older brother became an original member when his stock brokerage, Fenner and Beane (later Merrill Lynch), bought him a membership.
Bootsy also dated Mary Alice Berckmans, whose family had owned the nursery on which the club was built. For their first date, he "called on her" at the family home - the present-day Augusta National clubhouse.
"It was very impressive, at 16 or any age, to drive up Magnolia Lane," he says with a chuckle.
So when the call went out for volunteers for the first "Augusta National Invitation Tournament" (it officially became the Masters in 1938), Stafford signed up. Wearing his Richmond Academy uniform (he was by then at the junior college, now Augusta State), Stafford undertook that era's version of "crowd control."
"We kept the galleries back with 10-foot bamboo canes held between us," he says. "The crowds (which he guessed totaled 2,000-3,000) were allowed to roam the fairways, and we held them back while the players hit shots."
For Stafford, "everything was golf," and Jones was his ideal. He wasn't alone. Newspaper accounts of the first Masters focused mostly on the legendary player. But Jones' prime had been in 1930 when he won his "Grand Slam." In 1934, he never challenged, finishing 10 shots behind winner Horton Smith. Stafford wasn't disappointed, though.
" (The Masters) felt special from the beginning," he says. "It was the most exciting experience we'd had in golf."
A year later, that excitement was upstaged by one of the great moments in sports history. Craig Wood, who finished second in 1934, seemed destined to win in 1935. On Sunday, he held a three-shot lead over Sarazen, who was still on the course. Stafford's volunteers were sent to keep fans at bay as Sarazen played in.
At No. 15, the young volunteers held their bamboo canes as Sarazen eyed the green from 235 yards out. A moment later, history happened: Sarazen's double-eagle tied Wood, and he won the next day in an 18-hole playoff.
"We lost (the ball) when it hit the green, because the crowds closed in around the green," Stafford says. "But we knew it was close. Then word came up the hill it had gone in for a two."
Here, you might raise an eyebrow. After all, thousands since 1935 claimed to have witnessed Sarazen's shot, which might have saved the struggling Masters. But Stafford only smiles at skepticism.
After all, in his golfing life, that moment is merely one of many. And hardly the most amazing.
A TALENT IN HIS OWN
Inside his home, Stafford retrieves a collection of newspaper clippings spanning seven decades. And you read how he not only met the finest golfers of his time, but was a pretty fair player himself.
In 1933, Stafford was paired in the Southeastern Open at Augusta's Forest Hills Country Club with Smith and Tony Manero, who would win the 1936 U.S. Open. The same year, he set the course record at Augusta Country Club. Playing against a friend, Frank Mulherin, Stafford played the final eight holes in 8-under to finish with a 64, which stood until 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize broke it a half-century later.
In early 1934, Stafford and Mulherin were picked to play a Junior League exhibition with two women professionals: Helen Hicks and Mildred "Babe" Didrikson. Stafford and Hicks won, and Didrikson, who as Babe Zaharias won U.S. Women's Opens in 1948, 1950 and 1954, was impressed by the 17-year-old.
"When we finished - I'm not bragging now - she asked would I like to go to Australia with them for exhibitions," Stafford says, laughing. "I hadn't been around much. I told my mother and she said, 'Are you kidding?' But it made me feel like I was 21."
Stafford soon felt plenty grown up. After graduating from junior college in 1935, he worked a year as a bookkeeper for C&S Bank and its executive vice president, Dewey Johnson. Stafford once dated the boss' daughter - he remembers young Hootie Johnson, then 4, "jumping up and down" in the living room - but mostly the relationship was about "playing golf every Saturday morning with Dewey."
In 1937, when he was 21, Stafford left Augusta to study at the New York Stock Exchange Institute and work for Fenner & Beane. He had little time for golf, though he would slip away on weekends and take a train to Long Island, where he played at Bethpage State Park, future site of the 2002 U.S. Open.
From New York, he was sent to San Antonio, Texas. There he met Katherine and married her in 1940. He also revived his golf game, playing around Texas with 1939 Masters winner Ralph Guldahl, Hall of Fame member Betty Jamison, three-time Masters champion Jimmy Demaret and Lloyd Mangrum, who won the Masters in 1940 and 1949 and the U.S. Open in 1946.
But Stafford's prized remembrance from Texas came from, of all things, the Galveston Country Club championship. He shot a 65 and was given a gold golf ball, which he kept for years.
When World War II broke out, Stafford joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, becoming an instructor for pilots of the B-25 bomber. He flew 2,100 hours in Texas and Oklahoma, specializing in instrument flying. After the war, Stafford returned to Merrill Lynch and asked to be transferred home to Augusta, but settled for the closest city available.
The Staffords arrived in Columbia in October 1945, and Bootsy retired from Merrill Lynch in 1982 after 45 years with the company. He and Katherine, who died a little more than a year ago, raised four children. Each spring, the family went to Augusta for the Masters. They still do, sharing two tickets so everyone gets a day.
The story might end here, but it doesn't. There is a final chapter in Stafford's love affair with the Masters - one that will continue beyond his life.
Richard Phillips works for International Management Group, the Cleveland-based conglomerate whose clients include Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. A rising golf course architect, he has worked on projects in China, Canada and elsewhere around the world.
Despite possessing a scratch handicap, Phillips, 31, never considered professional golf. Instead, he studied architecture at Georgia Tech, and interned with IMG while in graduate school at N.C. State.
He worked with renowned golf architect Tom Fazio for a summer, when Fazio was working on design changes at Augusta National - changes initiated by the club chairman, Hootie Johnson.
That Phillips' life is rooted in golf, Augusta and the Masters is not a surprise considering how often he heard about those topics from his grandfather -Bootsy Stafford.
"I grew up with somebody who knew golf well, and it was ingrained in me," Phillips says. "The stories of him at Augusta National, winning his club championship at 16, all that was awe-inspiring to me."
Phillips still cherishes those memories. The same way he cherishes a 60-year-old gold golf ball, given to him by Stafford. A tangible link to golf's past, and his.
This week, golf again is the tie that binds the generations. Phillips will take his turn with the Stafford family tickets, joining the Masters gallery on Sunday.
But that will not be the trip's highlight. Saturday, he and Stafford will renew their golf rivalry at Forest Lake. That, like the Masters, is a family tradition.
"I'm looking forward to that more than going to Augusta," Phillips says. "Saturday, I'm playing with Granddad."