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Mrs. Masters: Gainesville native has seen it all in 50 years at the Masters
Marilyn DeLong McNeely’s collection of past Masters credentials. - photo by Scott Rogers | The Times
In 1967 PGA legend Ben Hogan, at the age of 54, arrived at Augusta National for what would be his final Masters Tournament.

The winner of nine major tournaments, including two Masters, was hampered by a bothersome left shoulder, one of the residuals from a 1949 car crash that nearly killed him.

Virtually unable to draw a club back for a tee or a putt, Hogan battled in the first two rounds to finish tied for 23rd.

The third round, played on April 8, 1967, was a glimpse back to Hogan’s early days where he dominated the PGA circuit. He finished with a 66 to trail the leaders by two shots.

On each of the 18 holes Hogan played that day, the gallery of fans waiting stood and applauded in appreciation for the body of work and the man. They did the same in the final round the next day despite Hogan shooting a 77, which dropped him into a tie for 10th.

Gainesville High graduate Marilyn DeLong McNeely was there in 1967 and stood among the throngs of fans, clapping while the legend played his final round at Augusta National.

“He’d walk up each fairway and people would give him standing ovations,” McNeely said. “It was really thrilling to see that.”
Hogan’s final Masters was McNeely’s ninth straight, and Monday she left her home in Clarkesville to attend her 51st.

The former Miss Gainesville High School and Miss Pandora at the University of Georgia hasn’t missed a Masters since 1959, when she was 18 years old.

“(Going to the Masters) was kind of the thing to do at the University of Georgia,” McNeely said, “There were big parties and that type thing so you looked forward to going down.”

McNeely became a fan of the game at a young age when she watched the likes of Patti Berg, founding member of the LPGA, and Babe Didrikson Zaharias play in a tournament in Gainesville.

She began playing while attending college in Athens after meeting her future husband, an avid golf fan.

For more than half a century, the annual trip to Augusta has cultivated her love for the sport. It’s also a place that houses some of her best memories.

It’s where her husband, Hal McNeely, proposed to her in 1960 and it’s where Lee Trevino sang Happy Birthday to her at his first Masters in 1968.

“My husband had gone to the bathroom and brought back this fella that he says is a golfer,” McNeely said. “(Trevino) sang to me and then we chided Hal the rest of the night about how that couldn’t have been a golfer.”

Trevino, who would go on to win six majors in his career, led the field the next day at Augusta National.

The Masters is where she ran with Arnie’s Army, fell in love with Phil Mickelson’s game, saw Bobby Jones play and witnessed Jeff Sluman shoot the only hole-in-one ever on hole No. 4, a par-3.

“We ran with hundreds of people from one hole to another to get our position,” said McNeely of following Arnold (Arnie) Palmer.
“He was absolutely thrilling and had a charisma, he just captured people.”

And the Masters is where where she sought solace after her husband passed away in March of 1978.

“That first year after he died I carried my girls,” McNeely said. “I couldn’t feel sad even though I obviously was, because I felt I was closer to him being at the Masters.

“He loved it so and I couldn’t not go. I got my children out of school and took them with me and we felt like we were doing this for Hal.”

In 50 years McNeely has seen it all, with the exception of one thing: her old high school friend Tommy Aaron’s win in 1973.

“The year he won we decided to go back that Sunday morning,” said McNeely of the day of Aaron’s final round. “We had no idea he was really in contention.

“We went home and wanted to get there early enough to see the end and, by jingo, he won it. We immediately jotted off a telegram to him because we were so excited that he had done it.”

While the thrill of watching the best golfers in the world play arguably their best golf has been a mainstay, there have also been changes witnessed by McNeely.

For instance, practice rounds that nowadays fans need tickets to view, used to house the golfer and his caddy along with maybe 10 oglers able to get an up-close view for free.

That goes hand-in-hand with what McNeely sees as the biggest difference between then and now: The players accessibility has dwindled to the point of being non-existent.

“It used to be exciting to go to a restaurant because you usually saw a golfer,” McNeely said. “I was at the Waffle House and there was Jacky Cupit (PGA’s Rookie of the Year winner in 1961) next to me, and Julius Boros (PGA Player of Year in 1952 and 1963) was with him. Sam Snead (winner of seven majors) was at the Augusta Country Club while we were having dinner once
and Corey Pavin (15 PGA wins) was shopping at the grocery store.

“But it’s rare to see a golfer out and about now.”

McNeely will spend her 51st Masters, which begins today, doing what she’s done every other year. She’ll watch the best the PGA has to offer tee off, and then hope for that one moment that can live in her memory with the likes of Hogan, Palmer, Trevino and Aaron.

“(The Masters) is like the rights of spring,” McNeely said. “The week at Augusta National is springtime come alive for me.

“Going to the Masters is like going to my World Series.”
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