Denver’s Master of the Masters


Fifty years ago, the revered golf scrivener Herbert Warren Wind gave the readers of Esquire 11,000 words refuting the notion the Masters was an overrated tournament.

It won’t take me nearly as many. Simply put, the Masters is the event by which all others are measured. And I have covered it since 1963. Among the qualities that distinguish it, as Wind pointed out, is The Masters, unlike many other professional golf tournaments, is beholden only unto itself. It relies solely on invited players and patrons. It controls all pricing, it controls play, course condition and qualifications for player invitations. The club chairman and his appointed committee members run it.

And did you know one of the most influential club members at this incomparable event lives some 1,550 miles from Augusta, in Denver? Will F. Nicholson, Jr., a lifelong Colorado resident, has been a guiding light for the Masters almost from the moment he joined Augusta National Golf Club in 1981, the same year he ascended to the presidency of the United States GolfAssociation. Nicholson retired 18 years ago as Chairman, CEO and President of Colorado National Bankshares, Inc., but before and since has been on more boards than a master carpenter—and has chaired them all.

None has been more compelling, more fulfilling or more up his avenue of expertise than when in 1991 he was named Chairman of the Masters Competition Committee.

“I have just two comments to make,” Will said to me recently when I tried to pry into his depths about The Masters.

“One, was right after the dinner announcing Jack Stephens would succeed Hord Hardin as chairman of Augusta National. As we walked out of the dining room, Jack said to me, ‘You’re going to play golf with me tomorrow.’ The next day, after we’d teed off and rode to the bottom of the hill on No. 1, he stopped and said, ‘I don’t know anything about running a golf tournament and you do. Would you agree to run the tournament for me?’

“I said I was honored, flattered and most appreciative, and of course I would run it. And, I told him with a smile, ‘Of course you know you have a thirty-second resignation from the committee if it doesn’t work out.’

“We went up the hill and, flashing that great big smile of his, he said, ‘Of course you know, the resignation has a shorter fuse than 30 seconds.’”

And two? “What a great pleasure it was to work with Jack Stephens. The weekend following the first tournament where I was in charge, we discussed the tournament and changes I’d like to make. I asked him to go with me to the second green, where the ropes had been placed right up to the edge of the green. I told him I wanted to move them back to bring the huge swale behind the green into play. Jack looked at me and said, ‘I agree with you. Go ahead and do it.’ The next year I said I had some other changes I wanted to make. ‘You were exactly right on No 2,” he said. “You do what needs to be done.”

Nicholson knew whereof he spoke, having chaired the event’s Rules Committee virtually from the day he joined the club in 1981. Adding the Competition to his charge was tantamount to shouldering the whole load—course set-up, pin and tee placements, pairings, starting times and Rules. Although he’s quick to single out capable committee members such as Fred Ridley and David Graham, Nicholson for 17 years was the man on the hot seat.

Nicholson never felt the heat. Yes, he says, he erred in 2004, when Phil Mickelson beat Ernie Els. “We’d had a terrible ice and windstorm in late January, lost trees and had branches all over the course. In the third round Ernie called for aruling when he drove into the left trees off No. 11, into a pile of loose branches stacked for removal, a number of which had fresh saw cuts. We justdon’t have loose branches at Augusta, so my ruling was that he would get relief. The ruling wasn’t a mistake; the mistake was not emphasizing to the Rules Committee about the piles of broken branches in the woods.” It mattered not that Phil won and Ernie wasn’t close.

Nicholson’s rapport with the players generally was impeccable. Nicholson was ever amenable lending an ear and hearing what contestants thought. At the 2004 event he encountered defending champion Mike Weir, the first lefty to win the Masters, dejectedly leaving the clubhouse after missing the cut with rounds of 79-70. “I offered Mike my condolences and asked what he thought any problems might be. He eyed me and quietly replied, ‘I think you cut the pin way too close to the slope on the back of the 18th green.’ I said, ‘Mike, I’ve looked at it you are absolutely right.’ And that was that.

“I always remember my dad (former Denver Mayor and Colorado Golf Hall of Fame member Will Nicholson Sr.) saying, ‘When you make a mistake, admit it and get on with your business.’”

Which was most challenging or stressful, the USGA presidency or sitting in those electric chairs at Augusta?

“Comparable in a way,” he allowed. “USGA duties last all year; at Augusta it’s the long haul nine very intense days from early morning and deep into the evening. You think you’ll get to sleep in on Saturday and Sunday mornings because the field is cut sharply and play doesn’t start until maybe 10:30—and you’re wrong because of weather problems. Invariably you’ll have Friday rounds finishing Saturday, Saturday rounds finishing Sunday and on occasion the final round Monday.”

Conservative with words, he incessantly was the go-to man for sticky questions at Augusta, whether regarding rulings, course setup or playing conditions. And as the right hand for Chairman Jack Stephens, whenever the media raised thorny queries during the traditional Wednesday morning State of the Masters sessions, Stephens would pause, slowly clear his throat, eye the messenger and reply, “I believe I’ll lateral that one to Will.”

Nicholson would reply with the same laconic, decisive precision with which he would continue to run the Competition and Rules committee after Hootie Johnson succeeded Stephens in 1998. Eight years later, after the 2006 Masters, Nicholson retired from the committee. Fred Ridley, who had served on Nicholson’s committee, now runs it.

Far from retiring, even in his golden years Will never found a chair he didn’t fit. He most recently was named chairman of the Colorado Golf Association’s new Colorado Golf Foundation, which came about as the result of a $2 million lead gift from George and Carol Solich. He once chaired the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is on the Colorado Golf Association board of governors and is a member of Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament Captain’s Club; was confidante and advisor to Jack Vickers’ International Tournament, and so on. The man should open a furniture store, he so revels in chairing major projects, be it in business, sport or pleasure.
Does he miss the Masters duties? “I don’t miss the long hours, but I do miss the excitement. I’m still involved to a degree. My wife Shirley and I go down every year for three days before the week of the tournament and play golf—though my golf isn‘t what it once was—and we stay for the entire tournament. I still have some daily assignments.”

And what a tournament it is—and what a guy.


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