BBC legend Ken Brown reveals how he once sneaked in to the Masters without an invite, got told off for kicking a football down the fairway and crashed into another player’s car with Seve, Woosie and Langer in the back seat…
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Ken Brown can still remember driving down Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane for the first time. It was always his lifelong dream to do so, and he got the chance to live it in 1985. What he elected not to tell anyone at the time was that he shouldn’t have been there. He hadn’t even been invited.
He drove to Augusta on the off-chance and, on spotting his PGA Tour credentials, security assumed he was playing and granted him access to the car park, just outside the clubhouse. He spent a practice day roaming the course and driving range, soaking up the atmosphere and making notes. They’d come in handy when he returned three years later; this time with an invite to play.
He was one of two Brits to make his debut that year, and the only one who made the cut. A victory of sorts? If it was, it was a hollow one. Needing to finish in the top 24 to automatically qualify for the following year, Brown “blew” his chance – and never played at Augusta again. Instead, he watched as Ian Woosnam – the same rookie he overshadowed in 1988 – slipped on the Green Jacket three years later. Woosnam now has Ryder Cup winning captain and Hall of Famer against his name. Brown’s CV isn’t quite so illustrious. A European and PGA Tour pro turned BBC broadcaster, who once used a banana to illustrate a fade and a rubber duck to show how the Swilcan Burn flows.
Ask anyone under the age of 21 and Brown is probably better known for his “Ken on the Course” segments on TV than his five Ryder Cup appearances, or four European Tour wins. Not that he has too many regrets. The perks of swapping his golf clubs for a microphone mean he’s probably walked Augusta more than the world’s top 10 have played it. He’s got the props, memorabilia and yardage books to show for it – and plenty of stories to go with them…
Back in 1988, it was virtually impossible to get into the Masters if you were an overseas player. If you competed on the European Tour, the only guaranteed way to get in was to win the Order of Merit, or the Open. I got in from winning in America in 1987 on the PGA Tour. I was pleased as punch because it was a dream come true. I was one of 18 overseas players that year, and a number of them were past champions. Now, there are just as many overseas players competing as Americans.
I’d already been to Augusta in ’85. It was almost a direct drive from Hilton Head. In American terms, it was on your way. I played Greenbrier before and thought I’d call in and watch the lads practise. I loved the place. Some people don’t like the quirkiness of the course, but in our day it was even more quirky because the greens weren’t consistent. To get the speed up, they had to get them hard. The greens used to go brown and visually they gave you a fright. They were incredibly fast. Now, all the greens look luscious and the putts roll perfectly.
I remember turning up four or five days before the start of the tournament in 1988. I had the course to myself for the first couple of days, took a local caddie and worked out the geography of the place and the basics of the greens. I had an idea of what was going on, having watched it on TV and been there before. But you had to be right on your wits end. In those days, you didn’t have to be an enormously long hitter. The hardest part was working out where the pins might go and how you were going to best play the course. But I was wary of wearing myself out trying to learn the course and running out of puff at the weekend. That’s what a lot of first- time players do.
I played the Par 3 contest with Lanny Wadkins and a thunderstorm came through and cleared the place out. So, I’ve never had the chance to play eight and nine.
I shot a 73 on the first day and that was the best score of the morning starters. It was blowing an absolute hooley. It died down a little in the afternoon and the best score of the day was 69. I can remember going to the media centre, in a little hut, and it was like I was being interviewed by a parrot. A lot of the media at the back couldn’t hear so they ended up asking me the same questions.
Everything was always so controlled, though. It was super organised. They’ve moved it to leagues above now. In those days, they had the overseas dinner and I was the designated driver. I picked up Faldo, Langer, Woosie and Seve. I was given a free car – a white Cadillac – and drove us in. There was a car in front and the lads were egging me on to nudge the back of it. It was only a gentle hit and we could see the driver turn around slightly. Then at the next set of traffic lights, I thought I’d hit him a bit harder. He got out. It was the Australian player, Rodger Davis. He was fuming, called us ‘f****** a*******s!’ We were killing ourselves laughing.
Funnily enough, I actually played with Rodger on the final day. I remember making a stupid mistake on the first hole and took a six. I had my back to the wall from there, but I learned such a lot. I shot 78. I wish I’d had another chance to play there. I finished tied 36th.
It was a difficult challenge, but there were tougher courses I played. Plus, it’s probably got slightly easier over the years. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it doesn’t scare you very often. If the course is soft, I do think the course record (63) could be in danger this year. When it rains, Augusta are powerless to stop the course from softening up. Otherwise everything is absolutely controllable. They can put moisture in and take it out, and put pins wherever they want. They have 15 people on what’s called the Greens & Tees Committee, who march around and decide how to set up the course.
There are still a lot of holes where if you are just fractions out, they can make you look silly. If you’re a bit nervous on those four-to-six- footers, you might as well go home. You have to hole those with confidence; you can’t necessarily roll the ball up dead. You need to be on the money with your irons, too. The modern ball means it’s a lot easier to be in command of your golf ball. If you go back to the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the balls used to come in flatter and with more spin, so it would skid on. The equipment has made everything more controllable.
I think it helps being able to draw the ball, but it’s not essential. The way Rory is hitting it at the moment… if he has a good week, the course is so perfect for his game. It’s set up for him. It doesn’t make it easy for him, because he knows that. People like Rory have moved things to another level. He’s hitting it absolutely miles. I remember when Bubba hit a drive right around the corner on 13 and had a wedge into the green. I was taking a 4-wood in there! Very few people got there with an iron in 1988. On the 16th, I took a 7-iron one day and then an easy 5-iron from 172 [yards] in practice. It was a different game.
Augusta is the only place that’s said if the ball keeps going further, we’ll give everyone the ball we want them to use. I wouldn’t like to see it and hope someone does something about it. But a hole which was a driver and a 4-wood in 1988 is now a driver and a mid-iron at most. Something’s got to give. Augusta has bought some more land so they can extend the 5th. The trouble is when you go back, it changes the structure of the hole which is a fierce dog-leg. If they go too far back, the whole risk and reward would go.
The whole place has evolved massively over the years. They changed the practice ground last year. It used to be a rough old car park, full of rocks and now it’s full of trees, with greens like billiard tables. It’s as good as any practice ground in the world. They’ve got a new caddie area and then there’s the media centre, which is ginormous. They’ve built underground tunnels which run from the clubhouse to the media centre. There’s more than one tunnel as well. It’s incredible.
I don’t know anybody who’s gone there and said ‘I’m disappointed’. It’s a really magical week, a one-off spectacular. It’s never inundated with people, there are plenty of vantage points and you can buy a sandwich for $1.50. I buy flags every year and donate them. I try and get a flag signed by the winner every year. I’ve already got Sergio’s; I need to get Bubba’s this year.
I probably know the course as well as most because I’ve been out there flitting around for years. But no one has ever come up to me asking for advice. They are quite strict at Augusta as media don’t have access to the range. It’s only for players, caddies, coaches and past champions.
There’s an oak tree outside the clubhouse and you can see the who’s who in golf just wandering past. In the early days at BBC, I used to interview everyone there. I would be stationed there on the Monday and Tuesday. Back then, we used to visit Seve. His birthday was that week so two or three times over the years we went to his house and gave him a birthday cake. That was always good fun.
My son and I had breakfast in the clubhouse one year. When it came to paying, I offered my credit card and was told they don’t take cards. I only had about $5 on me. I started looking around for someone I knew, and Nick Faldo came out of the Champions Locker Room. I asked him if there was any chance I could borrow $20. Sure enough, he covered the bill. Twelve months later, I saw him on the range walking past. I said: ‘Nick, Nick, here’s that $20 I owe you.’ Thinking he was going to reply, oh don’t worry about it. No, he whipped it out of my hand, said ‘thanks, Ken’ and marched off!
If you try to break the rules at Augusta, they’ll be on you very quickly, believe me. They give us two days – Saturday and Sunday – to film the Ken on the Course segments. They used to give us 45 minutes, but we’ve extended it slightly so we nearly get an hour. In that time, I get eight or nine pieces filmed. We always do it on two consecutive holes, like the 1st and 2nd or the 15th and 16th. The only thing that someone has ever said to me is, ‘Ken, no footballs!’ I kicked one once to illustrate a draw shot.
I still carry my yardage cards, which have all my notes from every Masters since 2002. They tell me where the flags were on the final day, how many bunkers are on each hole and how far you need to carry over different hazards. I very rarely look at them to be frank; I know the course so well.
I don’t mind being made to look silly by hitting a putt miles off the green. It can happen at Augusta. But sometimes things go better than I expect. I remember one occasion on the 2nd hole. It was a Sunday pin and I wanted to show how big the slope was on the green. I thought the best way to do that was by saying if you can’t go for the green in two, you need to make sure you find the best place to lay up. I dropped my ball down about 30 yards short of the green, chipping up the slope. The grass was cut against the grain so I played the ball off the back foot, trying to scuttle it up. I thought that’s not bad, that should come round. I had 30 yards to talk while the ball started taking the slope. It nearly touched the back of the green and then came down towards the hole. Everyone started clapping and it ended up lipping the back of the cup.
One of the most ridiculous pieces I filmed was on the 8th. The green is shaped like a bowl and where the pin was positioned, I knew you could start one putt off to the left and another to the right and they’d meet in the middle. I was 40ft away and quickly hit both putts. Up they went and at one stage they were about 15ft apart. They both ended up about six inches behind the hole.
The best shot I’ve ever seen was Tiger’s chip on the 16th. What a lot of people didn’t know at the time was that Tiger wasn’t a great fan of Chris DiMarco. There was a personal competitiveness. DiMarco was getting the better of him until he chipped that one in.
There have been so many dramatic moments, but one that stills stands out is Norman and Faldo in 1996. I bumped into Fanny (Faldo’s caddie) that Sunday as she was plotting the pins. They were six behind and I told her, ‘you can still win this’. She knew the same thing. If you can get off to a decent start, you can put the pressure on. Norman hit a bad tee shot on the first and never gathered his mojo after that. I’ll always remember Norman coming into the media centre. He had just been filleted, yet he handled everything amazingly well.
I had one horrendously bad interview where I’ve been caught out. The last event I did for Sky was in Malaysia at the end of 1999. A local bloke had won and I needed to do a quick presentation interview for TV. There was a chap called Rory looking after the winner and I said: ‘He does speak English, doesn’t he?’ Rory said: ‘I’ve just been chatting to him; he speaks perfect English, Ken.’
The presentation started, I asked the winner a question live on air, and it was painfully obvious he didn’t speak a word of English! As it was my last event, I had the producer in my ear laughing, saying, ‘We’ve got you there, haven’t we?’ I was panicking by this point. I asked the question again, slowly, but got nothing back. In the end, I just said congratulations to the winner. I was so cross. I don’t mind a bit of fun, but that was really stressful.