Masters (Weekend) Countdown: Who Was Clifford Roberts? (Part Four)

Charles, Clifford, Alpheus, Dorothy, Key, John, and Rebecca Roberts in 1907.

[Clifford Roberts was the co-founder, with Bobby Jones, of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was the chairman of both the club and the Masters from their beginning, in the early 1930s, until his death, in 1977. It’s often said that Jones conceived of the club and Roberts financed it, but that’s not the case. Roberts, unlike Jones, grew up poor, and during the club’s early years he was close to broke. But Roberts idolized Jones, and he was determined to help him fulfill his dream of building a golf course in the South that could host a U. S. Open. That the club and the Masters survived the Great Depression and the Second World War is a tribute mainly to Roberts’s determination to keep them going. Time, as Roberts measured it, began the day he met Bobby Jones. But the years leading up to that encounter are in many ways as interesting as the years that followed it. They are the years that shaped the man who shaped Augusta National and the Masters.]

In May, 1915, a little less than two years after their mother’s suicide, Clifford Roberts’s sister, Dorothy, began to keep a diary of her own. She was fourteen years old. Her father had married a considerably younger woman, from Missouri, and had moved the family to Kansas City, where he continued to pursue a bewildering variety of ill-considered business ventures. Clifford’s older brother, now called Jack, had married about a year earlier; he and his wife were living in Kansas City, too, but would soon move to California. Clifford made occasional appearances at home but spent most of his time selling men’s clothing on the road in a territory that covered much of the Midwest. His salary in 1916 was $1.30 a month plus commissions, and he did so well that he frequently was able to make substantial gifts to members of the family—especially to Dorothy, who had long looked up to him as more of a father figure than her father.

At different times over the next decade, Dorothy, Key, and Alpheus followed Jack to California, and all eventually settled permanently on the West Coast. Only Clifford looked east. As he traveled around the Midwest and South selling suits, he was planning a new life for himself. He studied the biographies of wealthy men, hoping to learn the secrets of their success. He decided—as he later told a relative—that he would rather be a little fish in a big pond than a big fish in a little pond. He assessed the advantages and disadvantages of living in various cities, eventually deciding that he would need to move to New York because New York was where the money was. He invested much of his earnings in nice clothes for himself, because he had decided that in order to make his way in the big city he would have to look the part. He memorized information about leading colleges and universities, so that he would not embarrass himself when introduced to men who had been far better educated than he. With the same unblinking focus that would later characterize his planning for the Masters Tournament, he studied the life he wanted to lead and then set out to lead it.

Clifford’s assault on New York was not an immediate success. In 1917, when he was twenty-three, he sold his share of some Iowa property that he and the other children had inherited from their mother’s side of the family, and with that money as a stake he set out to make his fortune in the East. Before the end of the month, he was back in Kansas City again and probably close to broke. “Think Cliff is going to make some money real soon,” Dorothy wrote. “Surely hope he does, for he has had so much hard luck.”

Shortly afterward, he tried again, and this time he stayed. He rented a room in a small residential hotel, and by early April, 1918, he was working for what Dorothy in her diary called “the Oklahoma-Wyoming Oil Company” and expecting “to make a small fortune.” One month later, the draft intervened. He was trained as a private in the Signal Corps. at Camp Hancock, in Augusta, Georgia—his first exposure to the small southern city that would come to dominate his life. He was shipped to France in October, 1918, roughly a month before the Armistice, and was shipped home six and a half months later, following an entirely uneventful tour of duty. (He passed some of the time by learning French from a Canadian soldier.) He was discharged on May 7, 1919.

After his return, he at first divided his time between New York and Chicago, where he was involved in a variety of investment deals. None amounted to much. A little over a year later, in a Christmas letter to Dorothy, he wrote, “1920 has been a rather rough and terrible year for me—the stock market has been shot to pieces and general business badly upset.” He was spending much of his modest income to help support various family members, including his father, who had suffered a stroke and would soon die. (Charles was buried in Kansas City. Of the five siblings, only Clifford and Alpheus—who was still living in Kansas City with their step-mother—attended his funeral. Dorothy scarcely noted the death in her diary.)

By 1922, Roberts was a principal in a struggling partnership called Roberts & Co., which that year had income of less than a thousand dollars. His net income the following year was a little more than $2,400. He made a little more than $7,500 in 1924. By 1925, he was associated with a New York firm called Banta & Morrin and was calling himself a “financial negotiator” and “stock-and-bond broker.” A nephew has said that Roberts in the early twenties put together an oil-and-gas deal that made him $50,000. That didn’t happen, but the nephew may be thinking of 1929, when Roberts’s tax return shows that he was paid a $55,000 commission by an investment-banking firm called F. A. Willard & Co. That year, his total net income amounted to just under $70,000—by far his most successful year up to that point.

Unfortunately, 1929 was a disastrous year in which to make a fortune. Roberts invested much of his windfall in securities that turned sour during the October Crash or in the dreary years that followed it; his 1929 tax return lists a number of stocks that he bought shortly before Black Thursday and sold at substantial losses shortly after. In 1930 and 1931, trading losses more than wiped out all his other income, leaving him with a cumulative net loss for those two years of more than $21,000. By way of comparison, in 1931, the year the club was formed, Bobby Jones had net income of more than $140,000—far more than Roberts’s total earnings during the fourteen years he had been in New York. The popular conception is that Roberts was rich and Jones was scarcely employed when the club began; in fact, the reverse was true.

During that difficult period, golf was a part of the New York social milieu to which Roberts was striving to belong. He had first encountered the game as a youngster in California, where he and his brother had caddied for fifteen cents a bag. He taught himself to play as caddies always have, by hitting found balls with abandoned clubs during the idle hours between loops. When he started to make some money in New York, he joined Knollwood Country Club, in Westchester County, and worked on his game and social connections there. At some point in the mid-twenties, he attended an exhibition at Knollwood in which Jones played—an exhibition that may have been the occasion of their first meeting. “Each time I saw Bob or read his public comments, I respected and liked him more,” he wrote in his book about the club. “I watched part of the final of the 1926 USGA Amateur Championship at Baltusrol, in New Jersey, in which George Von Elm defeated Jones two and one. Shortly afterwards, I was one of some half-dozen who were having a drink with the loser and trying to think of something comforting to say to him.” Jones’s effect on Roberts was similar to that, two decades later, of, Eisenhower, who also became a close friend. In an interview with a researcher at Columbia University in the late sixties, Roberts said of Eisenhower that “people just instinctively want to help him and to gain favor in his eyes by doing things that might please him.” Roberts could as easily have been describing his initial attraction to Jones.

Jones in those years often spoke of his desire to build a championship course in the South. One day in 1930, Roberts suggested building the course in Augusta, where both men coincidentally had played winter golf while staying at Bon Air-Vanderbilt Hotel, which was run by a mutual friend. Roberts, after his stint in the Army, had returned to Augusta for occasional golf vacations; he liked the city in part because it was warm in the winter yet far enough north to be easily reachable by overnight train from New York. Jones liked Augusta’s mild winter climate and believed that a club there might afford him some privacy—a scarcity at home in Atlanta. (“It had got so that he couldn’t even plan a weekday game without feeling like he was playing an exhibition,” Roberts told the Saturday Evening Post in 1951.) They agreed to proceed.

The notion of engaging in any sort of continuing project with Jones must have held extraordinary appeal for Roberts. Not many years before, he had been selling clothes and living out of a suitcase in a territory that extended from Chicago to New Orleans. Now he was living in the biggest, richest, most exciting city in the country and helping to implement a dream of one of the most celebrated athletes in the world. Years later, Roberts reprinted for club members a chapter from the book Farewell to Sport, by Paul Gallico. The chapter, called “One Hero,” was about Jones, and it was probably Roberts’s single favorite text. He quoted from it again in his book about the club: “I am, by nature, a hero-worshipper, as, I guess, most of us are, but in all the years of contact with the famous ones of sport I have found only one that would stand up in every way as a gentleman as well as a celebrity, a fine, decent, human being as well as a newsprint personage, and who never once, since I have known him, has let me down in my estimate of him. That one is Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., the golf-player from Atlanta, Georgia. And Jones in his day was considered the champion of champions.”

Roberts was, by nature, a hero-worshipper, too. He took enormous personal satisfaction from making himself indispensable to Jones (as he would again later with Dwight Eisenhower). Roberts’s deep, genuine, and enduring commitment to the game of golf did not predate their friendship. He said himself in later years that if he had never met Jones he would never have been more than a weekend golfer. He adopted the ideals of his hero and made them his own.

The Augusta project must have had a further powerful appeal for Roberts: It gave him an opportunity to become acquainted with and make himself useful to a large group of lesser heroes, the successors of the pioneering capitalists whose lives he had studied as a young man. Some of those same men would later become investment clients of his, but any personal financial gain would have meant less to Roberts than the growing ease with which he was able to move within their once inaccessible world. The club was so time-consuming from the start that its net effect on his investment business was probably negative. But he did not regret the loss. It was the life, not the money, that he wanted.

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