In the lore of the Masters Tournament, which spares no detail of history, it will be remembered as the Great Downpour of '79, an afternoon of rain and lightning, fish and squish stories and momentary terror as a "tornado watch" became a more serious "tornado warning" at the Augusta National Golf Club.
The dreaded twister never materialized, fortunately, but enough rain fell (four inches in an hour) to turn fairways into bogs and spectator-covered hillsides into mud slides.
When it was over, three galleryites had been treated for storm-related minor injuries, and at least one golf cart capsized in swollen Rae's Creek. Golfers who resumed their rounds after a two-hour suspension of play looked like swamp-runners, and the aficionados who waited around to watch them could have used water wings more than mere umbrellas.
Torrential thundershowers are hardly new to golf tournaments, but it seldom rains in Augusta during Maters week, The elements had not interrupted play here since 1973, when the third round was washed out and the tournament did not end until Monday.
Locals have said through the years that rain is not permited during the Masters, lest the rites of spring be dampened. But the tournament is a week later than usual this year due to quirks of the calendar and CBS-TV scheduling.
Anger of the gods?
Who knows? Today was Good Friday. Also Friday the 13th. make of it what you will.
But from the time a tornado alert was posted early in the afternoon until the most violent part of a storm front had passed harmlessly to the southeast, there were tense, concerned faces all around Augusta National.
The temperature dropped 15 degrees within a few minutes. The sky turned a color approximately that of pine tar, and baleful gusts blew debris through a driving rain. Who could help but think of the graphic pictures of death and devastation they had seen from the killer tornados that ravaged texas and Oklahoma earlier in the week?
"I've seen tornados before," one of the guards designated by club officials as sentries whispered worriedly as he scanned the horizon for funnel clouds.
"It suddenly gets so quiet you can hear a pine needle drop. Absolutely quiet, like a church. And you better pray, because just as suddenly comes a horrible noise you can't describe. Like a freight derailing. The funnel sucks up everything in its path. It's the scariest thing I've ever seen."
After a morning of mist and intermittent drizzle, the deluge came. Play was suspended at 1:45 p.m. and "Tornado Watch" signs promptly posted around the course. These were changed to "Tornado Warning" 20 minutes later, after twisters were sighted in Washington County, 40 miles to the west, and around Macon, 60 miles further west.
The gallery of perhaps 25,000 spectators scurried into a procession slogging toward shelter and parking lots. Their umbrellas, like multicolored mushroom caps, made it seem as if there were thousands more-a mass evacuation of Cherbourg, perhaps.
Towering pines bent at unnerving angles in the wind. Willows weeped into the creek. One man's umbrella had its vinyl ripped from the ribbing, leaving the spokes bare and twisted. Others billowed, making it seem as if the people carrying them were about to fly away like so many Mary Poppinses.
Still, the exodus from the course was amazingly orderly. There was only one fleeting moment of nearpanic when a bolt of lightning lit up the somber sky.
There were a few piercing screams then, as the almost-spontaneous thunderclap verified how near the bolt of electricity had been. But still, nearly everyone remembered the admonishment of Masters cofounder Bobby Jones on golf Course etiquette: "Walk-never run."
"This is more like a parade then a stampede," observed a thankful Pinkerton guard.
For a few minutes, an ivory-colored windsock on the course grounds was full-blown and practically horizontal. But then the wind died down, and the shroud-like fog that had limited visibility to a few hundred yards moved on briskly.
In the first aid room, three people were treated for abrasions suffered when they fell in the mud, and one woman was X-rayed for a possible broken rib. "Luckily," said the medics in charge, "no one was struck by lightning or falling branches."
Even though it was still raining hard, water cascading down roadways and adding scores of impromptu water hazards to a course that threatened to become one big quagmire, the fun began.
The hardiest of spectators sloshed, barefoot and muddy, back out to their favorite viewing spots. Some stood, others sat down and reconciled themselves to a day at Soggy Bottom. They had no idea yet whether or not play could be resumed-as it eventually was at 3:45 p.m.
Youngsters body-surfed down the vast, grassy slope between the eighth and ninth fairways, and six people huddled to gether under a plastic bag the size of an oxygen tent.
In the Quonset hut that houses the press, Herbert Warren Wind, the great American golf authority, grinned and said, "I think I'll sit down and write a couple of sonnets. It seems the right weather. How do you think Shakespeare killed a couple of hours when it rained?"
Peter Ryde, of the London Times, noted that this was more like the climate of a British Open in Scotland than Augusta: "the kind of weather
When the rain finally let up, and it was announced that play would continue if the fairways could be found, CBS flashed dramatic pictures over its TV montiors: a grim-faced Jack Nicklaus looking as if he wished he knew how to walk on water; Rae's Creek surging under the Ben Hogan Bridge, with one wheel of a submerged golf cart sticking out like a buoy; several groundsmen, breast high in the water, releasing a dam so the creek would not overflow, oblivious to the fact that nearby on the previous day, Hubert Green had beaten a water moccasin to death with a two iron.
And finally, for a bit of levity, a memorable shot of an electric cart shooting enormous rooster-tails of water as it zoomed along a fairway, with a caption the sternly law-abiding Masters Committee must have loved: "Anyone apprehended driving a golf cart off paved pathways will be summarily executed."