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Verne Lundquist, a Masters institution, gets ready to say goodbye

Verne Lundquist, a Masters institution, gets ready to say goodbye

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The tower near the 16th green stands about 15 feet off the ground. There are 13 rungs to climb before settling into one of the best seats in sports. It’s become tougher and tougher to navigate, but Verne Lundquist will do it for a final time this weekend, willing his 83-year old knees up the ladder, settling in his perch and once again telling the world the story of golf’s most storied tournament.

The green tower resembles a hunting shack, and from up top Lundquist has seen big game pass through for 40 years, Tigers and Bears and everything in between. He’s witnessed history and told us about it as only he can: understated, enthusiastic, passionate.

Lundquist is the rare broadcaster who’s seen it all, trusted by viewers and subjects alike. Those indelible Masters moments that replay on loop — sure, it’s Jack Nicklaus raising his putter in the air and Tiger Woods watching the ball drop — but it’s Lundquist walking us through it.

“Here it comes,” Lundquist said when Woods chipped in on 16 at the 2005 Masters. “Oh, my goodness! … Oh, wow! In your life, have you seen anything like that!?”

“I’ve heard that call a couple times,” Woods said this week with a smile. “I mean, he has just an amazing ability to bring in the audience and describe a situation and just be able to narrate it in a way that is poetic but it’s also — he describes it with emotionality. He just draws the audience in. … I will have that memory with Verne for the rest of my life.”

Lundquist began thinking a couple of years ago about the best time to walk away. He stopped calling college football games in 2016 and retired from college basketball two years later. But he was still drawn to Augusta each April, stationed between the 16th and 6th greens. He settled on his 40th Masters because it “had a nice round feel to it,” he said.

He first covered the event in 1983 when Seve Ballesteros won his second green jacket. He left CBS in 1997 for a brief stint at Turner Sports but was lured back. CBS chairman Sean McManus approached Lundquist at the Nagano Olympics, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Are you ready to come home?”

“That’s probably the greatest question I ever received in my whole life,” Lundquist said.

He returned to the network’s Masters coverage and has been an Augusta staple ever since. The Woods call is certainly memorable, but Lundquist said the 1986 Masters probably stands as his favorite.

Nicklaus sank a birdie putt on 17 to take the lead. Lundquist’s words as the ball rolled toward the hole still resonate today: “Maybe … yes, sir!”

“I can remember thinking to myself as he walked up, ‘Keep it simple and get your butt out of the way.’ I managed to do that. I boldly predicted ‘maybe’ when it was about that far from the hole,” Lundquist said, holding his fingers just a couple of inches apart. “Aggressive commentary.”

His smooth voice is both familiar and familial, and he’s known by generations of sports fans as “Uncle Verne.” He’s celebrated for calling epic SEC football matchups and Olympic figure skating, including the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding affair. But the Masters has always been a unique and special assignment. He’s been stationed in the same tower for a quarter century now.

“My life is kind of wrapped up in both holes,” he said.

The tournament, of course, is blanketed in tradition and mystique. Even after he signs off Sunday, Lundquist will forever be a part of that, said Jim Nantz, the veteran CBS broadcaster.

“Augusta is a place that I feel comes to life every April, not just because it’s a gathering of the greatest players of the world and there’s a golf competition. But it’s a week where history — where voices — they come back,” said Nantz, who first worked with Lundquist in 1985. “We hear them again. We still feel and have front of mind the legends of yesteryear. The Gene Sarazens, they make an earthly visit every April — Byron [Nelson], Ben [Hogan], Sam [Snead] and of course, Arnold [Palmer] — there’s one week a year where they come back, back in our lives, back in our planet, that’s the week. What I’m saying here is, Verne’s always going to have a home at Augusta. He’s going to be a part of Augusta forever.”

Lundquist gets around the course with the aid of a golf cart and a cane, and he still talks about the place with a sense of awe and amazement. The logistics of the week are certainly harder, but viewers would never know it.

“I’ve had a couple back surgeries so climbing that tower becomes less and less a feasible option,” he said.

But he will climb those 13 rungs for the last time on Sunday, take in the view and narrate history.

“I’ll be emotional,” he said. “There’s a spot in my left thigh that I’ll be pinching to make sure I don’t shed a tear on the air. It’s been a great run.”

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