Sports

April 10, 2014

Loran Smith: Meeting old friends under the big oak a tradition, too

The first time I was in a train station in Great Britain and saw a sign that read, “Meeting Place,” it brought me to a pause. How simple, how functional was this sign? In small towns it is not a problem to meet someone at Sheppard’s Filling Station or at the fireplug across the street from the Baptist church, but at a busy venue — like European train stations — there is nothing more sensible than meeting at the “Meeting Place.”

For the Masters, you probably could meet up with a friend at the tee box at one of the classic holes at Augusta National Golf Course, but that might become a needle-in-the-haystack episode. However, if you meet at the big oak between the clubhouse and the first tee, it becomes as simple as meeting at the “Meeting Place” at Victoria Station in London.

Outside the ropes near the clubhouse, many of the tournament’s badge-holders try to spot the famous golfers, other celebrities and the important industry people who follow them around. It was under the big oak that I met up with two old friends earlier this week — Verne Lundquist of CBS and Bill Griffin of Rutledge, the rural community of 783 people in Morgan County.

Lundquist is back for his 30th Masters, where he will work the telecast from his familiar position at the 16th hole. Recently, he was honored with the Blackie Sherrod Award in Dallas. He will receive the Vin Scully Award next month in New York. Both honors are for lifetime achievement in broadcasting. Blackie Sherrod, now 91, lives a very private life in Dallas, while Scully, 86, still broadcasts some Dodgers games.

For folks around the country — especially in the Southeast — Lundquist is perhaps best known for his play-by-play role with Southeastern Conference football in the fall.

Griffin, the consummate gentleman and a member at Augusta, didn’t join the conversation empty-handed. Three weeks ago, he made a hole-in-one at the par-3 No. 12. He hit a 7-iron 150 yards into the cup of one of the toughest holes in golf. Two well-known guests were playing Augusta that day — NFL quarterback brothers Eli and Peyton Manning.

Eli and Griffin have a mutual friend, which led to Eli sending a text message of Griffin’s signature moment. Make an ace at Augusta and your town crier becomes Eli Manning. Not bad for a kid from Rutledge.

Over lunch in the clubhouse, the conversation was highlighted by University of Georgia football talk and golf memories. Lundquist, a seasoned raconteur, became privy to the tale of a feel-good moment in Griffin’s life from the days when he was enrolled at Georgia.

Griffin and three buddies — Edward Hudson, Whitey Hunt and Wayne Tamplin — were big Masters fans and were part of “Arnie’s Army,” the pack of fans that followed golfing great Arnold Palmer around the course. They were there for Palmer’s fourth and final Masters title in 1964.

Even in those days, tickets and rooms were hard to come by for Masters week, but college kids with limited budgets know how to improvise. Griffin, Hudson and Tamplin slept in their car in the parking lot of the old Green Jacket restaurant on Washington Road.

They got up in the morning and took turns walking across to the Texaco Station with their shaving kits to freshen up for another day of following the King. With Palmer winning, they returned to campus early Sunday evening fulfilled. They had seen their favorite player win and were smitten like everybody else with the Masters scene, the traditions and the aurora of the tournament.

For eight years, Griffin served as president of Oakmont Country Club — near the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the course has hosted a record-tying seven U.S. Opens and will host its eighth in 2016 — and became friends with Palmer. When he was invited to join Augusta National, the first guests he invited were his Green Jacket parking lot buddies.

Not only is the Big Tree outside the club house a convenient meeting place, it’s been the site of some very interesting conversations over the years. The Bill Griffin story bespeaks warmth, charm and humility — a good guy not forgetting his old friends.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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