In 1963, Jack Nicklaus won the first of his six Masters tournaments at Augusta National Golf Club.
Dr. Tony Musarra was there to see it.
Nicklaus went on to win six green jackets, and Musarra was there to see them all.
Musarra also saw Arnold Palmer win his last title in 1964, then watched Tiger Woods win four, and Phil Mickelson and Nick Faldo win three each.
But Musarra, a plastic surgeon at the Plastic Surgery Center of the South in Marietta, wasn’t just at those Masters tournaments. Since 1963, he has been at every Masters.
From the time he was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, Musarra has made the trek to golf’s first major tournament of the season. And this year, he will make his 51st consecutive trip to Amen Corner.
In that time, Musarra has seen almost every great player of the game, and he’s been on hand to see significant culture change. He was there in 1975 when Augusta National Golf Club allowed Lee Elder to become the first black player to compete in the tournament. And this year, he may have the opportunity to see the club’s first two female members — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and financier Darla Moore — wearing their green jackets.
“We were happy to see the first black player,” said Musarra, who added that if there were any racial incidents around Elder, Musarra didn’t see them. “The crowd was very respectful.”
He’s also seen the course itself change with the times and the evolving golf club technology. Musarra was there when Augusta National changed from Bermuda grass greens to bent grass in the early 1980s, and he’s seen it lengthened from 6,800 yards to nearly 7,500 to keep up with the ever-increasing driving lengths of Woods, John Daly and Rory McIlroy.
Musarra also had a chance to meet many of the game’s greats.
“I met Jack Nicklaus,” he said. “He’s very nice and very friendly.”
He’s also had the chance to meet Tom Watson, Ray Floyd, Hubert Green, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw and his favorite player — Palmer.
For the 69-year-old Musarra, a 1961 Marietta High School graduate and former football player for legendary Blue Devils coach French Johnson, he said he understands the historical significance of the things he’s seen within Augusta National’s gates.
“I do think about it,” Musarra said. “I’ve had an opportunity and the privilege to watch the very best play the game of golf and see (Augusta National’s) place in the world.”
On spring break
Of course, Musarra didn’t always feel that way. His annual journey to the Masters didn’t originally begin just to see the greats of the game, or because he loved the game of golf. That would come later for the Marietta Country Club member who holds a 16 handicap.
Musarra’s first trip came when he was a student at Georgia and the Masters happened to coincide with spring break. One day, he said he was walking through his Kappa Sigma fraternity house and saw a stack of forms to apply for tournament tickets. It was then when Musarra decided that Augusta would be where he and his fraternity brothers would spend their vacation.
“We got 16 tickets,” he said. “We had so many, we couldn’t give them away.”
Once he was there, Musarra said he was drawn to Palmer, arguably the most popular player in Masters history, because of his charisma and aggressive style of play.
Musarra said his favorite Masters was the second he attended, when Palmer won his fourth green jacket and the final major of his career in 1964. Palmer shot 12-under par and beat Nicklaus, the defending champion at the time, by six shots. Player and Billy Casper, the other top players of the day, also finished the tournament in the top five.
“I loved Arnold Palmer,” Musarra said. “Arnie’s Army was always the best following group.
“Nicklaus always had good cheers, but you could always tell a Palmer roar. It was more of a shrill.”
Nicklaus was just becoming the player that would dominate Augusta National and the PGA Tour at that time and, to many of the golf fans — including Musarra and his fraternity brothers — Nicklaus was still known as “Fat Jack.”
But by the time Nicklaus had won five green jackets and 17 major titles, Musarra had grown to cheer for him, too. It’s why 1986 also ranks at the top of his memory list.
Nicklaus was 46 years old and had not won a major in six years, or a regular tour event in two, heading into that tournament. But with a final-round 65, and a back nine of 30, he turned back the clock to win his sixth Masters.
“We had all come to respect him so much,” Musarra said of Nicklaus holding off the likes of Greg Norman, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Kite on that Sunday. “It was very moving to me. It was a very emotional thing to see.”
Considering that the 1986 Masters is considered the greatest in the 76-year history of the tournament, it would have been a shame if Musarra would have missed it, but his five-decade long string of Masters nearly ended before it really got started.
“During my third year at Georgia, someone took my ticket and made copies of it,” Musarra said. “Some of those people (using counterfeit tickets) got rowdy and had their tickets confiscated and the club traced the number back to me.”
Augusta National officials are notoriously strict when it comes to patron conduct, and if a person is found to have broken the rules, it’s not uncommon for the club to take away the offending patron’s tickets permanently.
“I got called into the Dean’s office (at Georgia) with the security people, and I was thoroughly questioned for more than 2½ hours,” Musarra said. “They didn’t believe me at first (that I had nothing to do with it). I was sweating, but I never changed my story. I guess they finally just believed me and let me go. I think (that incident is) what led to tickets becoming more sophisticated.”
Musarra no longer has 16 tickets. Over the years, the tournament slowly curtailed how many each person is allowed to purchase, but when Musarra did have larger amounts, he took the opportunity to bring friends, family and colleagues to experience the things he looks forward to every spring.
The joy of sharing
The current limit for badges is four per patron. But while the numbers of friends and relatives Musarra can take has decreased, the joy he gets from taking someone to Augusta for the first time never fades.
“It’s always such a pleasure to do it,” he said. “For people that haven’t seen (Augusta), it’s always great to be able to share in letting them see it for the first time.”
With more than 50 years of watching the Masters, Musarra has developed a routine for seeing some of the best golf on the course.
“I start off at No. 2 green,” he said. “There, you can see play on Nos. 2, 3, 7, and there is a big scoreboard. From No. 2, I’ll go to No. 9, and then I’ll walk down to No. 13, and then No. 16.
“Sixteen is always in my heart.”
The par-3 will always be special to Musarra because that is where he and the large contingent from Georgia would sit every spring, root for Palmer and razz Nicklaus. He and his friends would sit on the large mound that is left of the green and watch group after group come through.
On those first visits, No. 16 was where the party was most likely to break out.
“The first few years I was there, the club would allow us to bring coolers in,” Musarra said. “It could get a little rowdy down there. I think the rules may have changed because of the college kids.”
Musarra said his routine of starting at No. 2 and eventually arriving at No. 16 has allowed him to see some of the greatest shots in the history of golf, and two recent shots are right at the top of his list.
In 2005, Woods came to No. 16 in the final round trying to hold off a charging Chris DiMarco.
Woods’ tee shot finished over the green and left him with a chip shot that he could not play toward the hole if he had any hopes to make a par. He had to chip into the slope of the green and let the contour bring the ball back to the cup.
The chip shot did exactly that, and instantly became a Nike commercial when the ball hovered over the hole with the “swoosh” on the ball in plain view of the camera, before falling in the hole for a birdie.
Musarra had a slightly different view of the shot.
“I was on the other side of the pond,” he said. “I was 30 yards away. There was an absolutely huge crowd, and I was sitting directly behind the hole on the other side of the pond.”
For Musarra’s other favorite shot, he was a lot closer.
In 2010, Mickelson had the lead on Sunday as he came to the par-5 13th hole. He hit his drive through the fairway and into the pines that line the right side of the hole, and Musarra was one of the first to get near where Mickelson’s ball came to rest.
“The key to getting in position is to stand right at the rope,” he said. “When the marshal clears the area, he will take the rope down, and if you are there, you are going to be right next to the player.”
Musarra found himself less than 15 feet from Mickelson as he conferred with his caddie and decided how to play his second shot off pine straw, through what couldn’t have been much more than a 5-foot gap in the trees, which were about 10 feet in front of him.
“First, he took out a lofted club like he was going to lay up,” Musarra said. “But then he changed to (a 6-iron).
“I thought, ‘Surely, he’s not going to do this.’”
Mickelson hit his second shot, avoided the trouble and watched as the ball landed on the front of the green and stopped 6 feet from the hole.
“He had to come out from under the tree limbs to see (the shot),” Musarra said, “but you could tell he liked it. He pumped his fist and was very demonstrative.”
Musarra said he was amazed at what he had just seen, and it was that kind of shot that has drawn him to Mickelson as one of his favorite current-day players. It may also be because Mickelson’s style of play reminds him so much of Palmer.
“He’s a pretty aggressive player,” Musarra said. “He likes to charge ahead and try riskier shots. Palmer’s my all-time favorite, but I like Mickelson for those same reasons.”
As he has gotten older, Musarra has cut back on the number of days he attends each year. From 1963 until 1978, he never missed a day. This year, he plans on being there for the final two rounds.
Nothing better to do
Amazingly, in 51 years, he has never come close to missing a tournament.
“From time to time, I’ve thought there may be something better to do with that weekend,” he said. “But each time, I’ve decided to go, and I’ve always had the same enthusiasm.”
Augusta National was contacted about Musarra’s patron streak, but there was no response as to whether his story is unique.
“I can’t imagine many others that could have gone to as many in a row as me,” he said. “There may have been people that have gone to as many, but not in a row.”
Despite attending 50 straight Masters, Musarra said he has never had the opportunity to play the golf course, although he hopes to one day.
He also said he doesn’t have a number in mind as to how many Masters he hopes to attend, and Musarra’s not likely to know how long the streak will reach.
There’s one reason for that.
“I’ll probably go until I die,” he said.