Masters memories: Lexington was home to one of golf’s greats

Gay Brewer Jr., center, gets a helping hand from Jack Nicklaus, left, as he tries on his traditional green blazer after winning the Masters on April 10, 1967. Nicklaus had defeated Brewer a year earlier in a playoff at the event.
Gay Brewer Jr., center, gets a helping hand from Jack Nicklaus, left, as he tries on his traditional green blazer after winning the Masters on April 10, 1967. Nicklaus had defeated Brewer a year earlier in a playoff at the event. Associated Press File Photo

Fifty years ago this week, Lexington’s Gay Brewer Jr., who grew up playing the course that now bears his name, won the Masters, one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world.

“That’s the biggest thrill I’ve ever had in golf,” Brewer said about the moment in one of two videos posted on Spring Valley Golf Club’s YouTube channel. Brewer died in 2007 at the age of 75. “It’s something that you don’t realize that you’ve won until a couple of days later, it hits you all of a sudden.”

Brewer, born in Middletown, Ohio, but raised in Lexington, defeated fellow Kentuckian Bobby Nichols by one stroke to earn the coveted green jacket that is the tournament’s signature prize.

Spring Valley co-owner Dan Schneider said he couldn’t remember when its videos of Brewer were shot at the private club in Lexington. A Spring Valley member recorded Brewer reminiscing about his early days, his wins and the friends he made in golf. Brewer also offers a few golf tips. The tape had been lying around a few years until someone spliced it together and posted it in 2012. Schneider’s father, F.W. “Buddy” Schneider, “used to let all the better amateurs play at the club: Brewer, John Y. Brown (Jr.), Johnny Owens …” back in the 1940s and ’50s and Brewer had been a family friend ever since.

The Masters, one of professional golf’s four “majors,” begins Thursday at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club.

“He was one of best putters there ever was,” said Owens, a longtime friend, accomplished amateur golfer and former golf coach at the University of Kentucky, during the 2007 dedication of the Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome. “The worse the greens, the better he played. He could make ’em from anyplace.”

A few months after the dedication renaming Picadome, Brewer died of complications from lung cancer. Picadome, formerly known as the Campbell House Country Club, was built in 1927 as the first public golf course in Central Kentucky.

Former Gov. John Y. Jr. Brown Jr. played golf with Brewer at Lafayette High School and Kentucky. Brewer attended UK on a football scholarship because golf was not an official sport at that time. Brown walked the course with Brewer during his Masters win.

“Gay was the Tiger Woods of golf in Lexington in the ’50s. I was so pleased that we were able to honor him here recently for his lifetime of accomplishments as Kentucky’s most successful golfer,” Brown said at the time of his passing. Brown had helped push for the renaming of Picadome in his friend’s honor.

Brewer got his start in golf at what is now the Idle Hour Country Club, caddying at the age of 11 for 65 cents a round.

“The minute I started caddying I liked the game,” Brewer said in the Spring Valley video.

The game came naturally to him, and he began taking it serious about the age of 13. He would win the U.S. Junior Amateur at Congressional in Washington, D.C., at the age of 17 in 1949. He won three consecutive state championships from 1949 to 1951.

Brewer was known for his “whirlybird” swing which included opening his hips slightly to the target at address before a near complete turn away. The club at the top of his backswing pointed well off the plane most golfers try for today. He attributed the unique swing to a broken arm he suffered on the playground at Linlee School. But it worked.

The 1967 Masters ranks as the best of Brewer’s 11 pro tournament wins. And he almost won two of them. His three-putt bogey on the 18th hole at the 1966 Masters erased a one-shot lead and dropped him into a tie with Jack Nicklaus and Tommy Jacobs. Nicklaus went on to win the next day in a playoff.

“What that did for me, it gave me confidence that I could play that golf course, and I came back next year and won it. I just felt like I was going to win it,” Brewer said in the video.

A portrait of Brewer in his Masters jacket hangs in the Gay Brewer Jr. pro shop. The course’s shop and restaurant have dozens of photos from Brewer’s career on display.

Brewer also played for victorious U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 1967 and 1973.

“I got to play with him out here a few years before he passed away. I played with him and Johnny Owens. It was quite an experience,” said Mike Fields, director of golf operations for Lexington’s public courses. “He was a great guy.”

Bobby Nichols of Louisville is Kentucky’s only other major tournament winner, capturing the 1964 PGA Championship. Kenny Perry of Franklin has been Kentucky’s most successful professional in terms of number of wins on the PGA Tour with 14. He finished second at the Masters in 2009. J.B. Holmes of Campbellsville finished fourth at the Masters last year.

Gay Brewer Jr. career highlights

1949: Won the U.S. Boys Junior Amateur Golf Championship at the Congressional Course in Washington, D.C., beating Mason Rudolph in the match-play finals.

1949-51: Won the Kentucky State Boys Amateur three straight years. His high school team at Lafayette, coached by Dr. H.L. Davis, won three straight state titles. At UK, Brewer was on a football scholarship donated by Bear Bryant because the golf team didn’t have scholarships.

1956: Went pro at 24. In his first tournament, in Los Angeles, only the top 25 got paid, and Brewer finished 30th. At the next tournament, in San Diego, Brewer finished tied for seventh.

1961: Won his first professional tournament. He won three PGA events that year: the Carling Open, the Mobile Sertoma Open and the West Palm. He won the Waco Turner Open in ’63, the Greater Seattle and the Hawaiian Open in 1965 and the Pensacola Open in ’66.

1966: Surrendered a one-shot lead by three-putting for bogey on the 18th hole in the final round of the Masters. The next day, he and Tommy Jacobs lost the 18-hole playoff to Jack Nicklaus.

1967: Won the Masters. Tied with Ben Hogan after shooting 30 on the back nine that Saturday, two shots behind leader Bert Yancey. Brewer spent an hour before his tee time meditating, and when the final round began, he was ready. As Hogan cooled, Brewer grew hotter. He birdied 13, 14 and 15, then never relinquished the lead. He shot a 67, finishing a stroke ahead of his friend from Louisville, Bobby Nichols.

▪  Won the Pensacola again, this time with an amazing 25-under par, a tour record that still stands. It would be five more years, the ’72 Canadian Open, before Brewer won another PGA event.

▪ He played in the ’67 and ’73 Ryder Cups, part of victorious U.S. teams.

1984: On the Senior Tour, won the Citizens Union Senior Golf Classic, played in Lexington at Griffin Gate.

2006: Voted to the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame.

2007: The golf course in Lexington where he learned to play was renamed the “Gay Brewer Jr. Course at Picadome.”