It was perhaps the most famous call in golf history. In 1986, a quarter century ago, CBS commentator Verne Lundquist watched Jack Nicklaus roll in a crucial birdie putt on the 17th hole at the Masters to take the lead. Lundquist happily proclaimed, "Yes sir!"
That phrase is now inseparable from that putt, that victory, and the Nicklaus legend. No retrospective of the Golden Bear's career will fail to include it. And yet something about that call has been lost to history.
Only minutes before -- 37 minutes to be exact -- on the 15th hole, Nicklaus made an even more important putt. This one was for an eagle, and it caused one of the loudest ovations anyone at Augusta can remember. And in the din of the moment, CBS commentator Ben Wright peered down from his tower and shouted to his audience of millions something that hardly anyone seems to recall:
The video is hard to believe; Wright's call is unmistakable, and perhaps even more stirring than Lundquist's considering Nicklaus' celebration and the sound of all the patrons around him. Wright even added a lovely coda: "There's life in the old bear yet!" And somehow the call, much like Wright himself, has all but vanished from golf parlance.
On Thursday morning, as the Masters begins, Wright sits alone in his living room, three hours north of Augusta.
He is nearly 79 years old, and 15 years removed from the end of his broadcasting career. He has only watched his un-famous call once, when a friend in Connecticut forced him to sit and watch it a few years ago. He's still a little incredulous that a beloved golf phrase he uttered will forever be tied to another broadcaster who said the same thing only minutes after he did.
"I'm very bothered by it," Wright says. "It does rankle. A lot of people don't want to give me credit."
In a recent story in Golf Digest, Lundquist says, "I was not aware of it. Maybe on some really subconscious level I was aware of it and that's probably why I said it, but until Peter Kostis brought it up to me six or seven years ago, I didn't know."
Wright is only somewhat relieved that Lundquist has acknowledged his catch phrase.
"Lundquist has admitted it," Wright says, "but he doesn't do it often enough."
What's even more remarkable about Wright's call is how close he came to never making it himself.
Ben Wright grew up 30 miles outside London. His love of golf began when his grandfather gave him a club with a hickory shaft for his 10th birthday. But Wright loved rugby and racing even more. He was an amateur driver until at age 19, crashing so badly in Essex that his face was disfigured and he was unconscious for three days. Medics had to use the handles of teaspoons to "pull the nose out of my face," he says. Not long after, he started covering golf for the Financial Times. That's where he stayed for most of his career, doing so well that he was summoned to Bobby Jones' deathbed so the legend could question him about a column he wrote about the slowness of play in the sport.
CBS Sports called in 1973 and flew him from England to the L.A. Open. Wright climbed the tower after a heavily delayed transatlantic flight and started commentating on a Friday round. When he saw a missed putt, Wright proclaimed, "It's a whole new ballgame."
Legendary CBS producer Frank Chirkinian, who died last month, became irate that Wright had used an American idiom. "We pay you to talk like an Englishman!" Chirkinian growled. "You're supposed to sound like you have a plum in your mouth! If I ever understand another word you say, you're fired!"
Wright, deeply hurt, immediately went to the corner of the tower where airplane timetables were kept. (No PDAs back in those days.) He looked up the next flight back to Britain. Wright considered himself a writer, not an "entertainer," which is what Chirkinian wanted. He found a British Airways flight that night and tried to book a ticket. But the flight was sold out.
Sitting in his living room Thursday, nearly 40 years later, Wright says he never would have covered the Masters at all for CBS if a single seat had been available that night.
Weeks after that L.A. Open, Wright called the Masters for CBS. He got the rookie tower, on 14. After his first go-around, Chirkinian heard from Masters officials that "Young Wright," as he was known even into his 40s, was quite good indeed. Soon the Englishman was promoted to the 15th hole. That's where he remained for years, and that's where he stood in 1986, when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus heard his son and caddie, Jackie, tell him, "An eagle would come in useful, Dad."
Wright had been around long enough to remember Nicklaus hit 4-iron to that green before, in the 1975 Masters, which he won. But that day, he missed a very similar eagle putt. This time, Wright noted to his audience, Nicklaus and his son "have really looked at this one from every conceivable angle."
Wright's voice lowered as the patrons hushed. "And he will wait," he said, "for absolute quiet ... "
There was a lot of absolute quiet in those days. Chirkinian screamed at commentators who told the viewing audience when a putt missed the mark. "Really?!" he would yell, "How many million people knew that, you dumb expletive?"
So after his "Yes sir!," Wright said as little as he could. He let the crowd speak for him, in part because the noise was so loud that he couldn't hear Chirkinian in his ear. "It was the noisiest adulation I've ever heard," Wright says now.
Ironically, two holes later, Lundquist did hear the iconic producer chide him for saying the same thing Wright did.
Hard to believe it's been 15 years since Wright was banished for comments he made to the News-Journal of Wilmington, Del. "Lesbians in the sport hurt women's golf," Wright was quoted as saying. He still says he was misquoted, then explains he was relaying the words of LPGA insiders, but a 1995 story in Sports Illustrated pokes plenty of holes in any possible defense. Wright never got another shot, and for years he was devastated. "I hit the bottle hard," he says. So hard, in fact, that Jim Nantz and Pat Summerall had to come to his house, pry him from his bed, and force him into rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic.
"I haven't had a vodka since," he says.
Wright no longer calls golf, and he no longer writes golf. He misses both dearly. He says if he could, he'd come back to the Masters as a commentator or as a writer. He was back in Augusta this week for Chirkinian's memorial. He got a hug from Lundquist and a standing ovation for his speech. He says the event was "very emotional." He still calls Chirkinian his best friend.
It's a bit strange that in the era of falling and forgiveness, Ben Wright is still in exile. "I thought America was a place where people get a second chance," he says.
There will be no second chance for him, though. As much as he is beloved by his CBS brethren and by so many golf fans, both his phrase and his reputation remain in conflict. And it's crossed his mind that both suffered because of the very thing that made him so endearing: his Englishness. Wright says the noise of the crowd drowning out "Yes sir" cost him a place in history, but when asked if his British background might also be a factor, Wright says, "Maybe it was because of a racial handicap. I don't think it helped me. I'm inclined to believe that might be true."
So yes, there is some bitterness. "TV is so politically correct," Wright says, "I'm almost glad I'm out." But he shows far more in the way of gratitude. Wright will truthfully answer questions about the '86 Masters and his '96 firing, but he'll more eagerly volunteer stories about staying in the Eisenhower cabin and playing 54 holes before afternoon cocktails. He loves the Masters without hesitation, without limitation, without remorse. He will be watching closely this weekend from his home in Flat Rock, NC. And even though most Americans don't remember Ben Wright's contribution to its greatest golf tournament, Wright knows Augusta never forgets.
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