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Coody Doesn’t Plan to Mail In Masters Finale

It has been windy in Abilene, but that doesn’t bother Charles Coody.

“It’s West Texas, isn’t it?” Coody said.

And next week, it’s going to be Augusta, Ga., for the 65-year-old Texan, who will play in the Masters for the 37th and most likely last time.

Until he received a letter from Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National, on Saturday, Coody didn’t have a choice about playing in 2004. But after urging by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Johnson altered the rules and rescinded the 65-year-old age limit.

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Former Masters champions can continue to play, as long as they feel they’re capable. That’s this year, said Coody.

Coody, who won the 1971 Masters when he birdied two of the last three holes to defeat Nicklaus and Johnny Miller, said Johnson did the right thing.

What Johnson had done before, when he instituted the age limit and notified the past champions by mail, was a mistake, Coody said.

“It’s a positive thing for the public to see that Hootie can say he made a mistake,” he said. “If he were so hard-headed as his critics say, he would never have been able to admit he was wrong.”

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Coody played the Masters for the first time in 1963, qualifying for the field when he was a semifinalist at the 1962 U.S. Amateur. He was 25 years old, shot 80-84 and missed the cut by 12 shots.

Last year, Coody shot 82-84 and missed the cut by 27 shots, his knees aching from arthroscopic surgery that was largely unsuccessful.

Besides the Masters, Coody won two other PGA Tour events and has won five times on what is now the Champions Tour. Coody has made more than $5 million as a pro, he’s a member of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame and his charity tournament at his club in Abilene is a longtime success, but he probably was fortunate to have any kind of career at all.

When he was 13, Coody had polio and he began playing golf for exercise because doctors ruled out contact sports. Five years later, Coody was an all-state basketball player.

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But playing hilly Augusta National is a haul for him now and with his knees not getting better, Coody can’t see himself in the Masters in 2004. So Coody figures next week is going to be it for him at Augusta, where he will say a quiet goodbye, completely in the personality of the player.

He remembers the first time he walked into the locker room and asked the attendant where he should sit. The right place was pointed out and Coody was told to just remove his shoes and leave them there. When Coody got back from his practice round with Chick Harbert, his shoes were gone.

Vic Ghezzi moved them. Coody had mistakenly sat in front of the locker Ghezzi had used since he played in the first Masters in 1934.

Coody, who will have his son, Kyle, 28, caddie for him at the Masters, says he has always been a traditionalist and that he has always loved Augusta. He said that after next week, he’ll just love it from a distance.

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Closer is Billy Casper, who played it for the first time in 1957 and is coming back next week too.

But at 71, Casper is through playing. He made his 44th and final appearance at the Masters in 2001.

The 1970 champion, who beat Gene Littler in an 18-hole playoff, has had hip replacement surgery but said he wouldn’t have played this year anyway.

“Even when Hootie sent the letter a couple of years ago that said we couldn’t play anymore, I had already made my mind up not to play years earlier, when I heard rumors that they were going to lengthen the golf course,” he said.

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Casper, Gay Brewer and Gary Player had been the most critical of Johnson’s decision to impose an age limit and Casper went so far as to skip the tournament last year. Player issued a news release this week that said he was pleased Johnson had done the right thing, what Player seemed to term his own vindication.

Casper would only say that it was Johnson’s call. He’s the boss, Casper said.

Because he was such close friends with the late Masters chairman Clifford Roberts, Casper often enjoyed Roberts as a house guest in Chula Vista. And Casper remembers coming off the 18th green in 1970 and seeing Roberts extend his hand, saying only one word: Congratulations.

“He was happy I won,” Casper said.

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And 33 years later, Casper is pleased he is making it back to Augusta National again, even if it is only to see old friends, soak up the atmosphere and dine out on the second-story veranda of the old clubhouse. He might even see Coody on his way to play the course one last time.

Next week, two of golf’s icons arrive in Augusta, where Palmer will play his 49th Masters and Nicklaus will make his 43rd appearance. The fanfare for their final tournament, whenever that time comes, clearly will be more than what Casper received, or what Coody will get.

Most in the gallery probably don’t remember much about him, Coody said, without a trace of bitterness.

Casper disagrees. People don’t forget, Casper said, especially at the Masters.

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