Gainesville resident Ernie Williams was there when Sam Snead, who had just been in a car wreck, came to an Augusta hospital emergency room soon after the Masters.
He said he came to know another Masters winner, Ben Hogan, when the golfer was treated by Williams’ medical school teacher at Tulane.
In 88 years, Williams, a native of North Carolina who now lives in Gainesville, has done and seen a lot — on and off the golf course. He spent a tour of duty as a radar operator in the Pacific in World War II and has helped build a medical center in his home state.
For the last 62 of those years, the one constant has been his annual trip to Augusta in April for the Masters.
Now he’s heading down for trip No. 63 as the Masters gets underway this week, with the first round beginning Thursday.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Williams said.
As far as attending the Masters, his luck began when he headed to an Augusta hospital in the early 1950s to do his residency program after finishing medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Before the next Masters, Williams, who first picked up a golf club at age 7 and has played throughout much of his life, was ordering his first set of tickets to one of the world’s premier golf tournaments. He said early on he was able to get as many as six tickets each year, at a time when the event was less crowded and patrons could walk up the fairways behind the golfers.
It was a boon for Williams, who grew up an athlete.
“I picked up a golf club at 7 years of age, a 5-iron, my uncle had it,” he said. “I lettered in three sports in high school: baseball, basketball and ran track, and then I played basketball at Erskine (College), and was No. 1 on the tennis team my senior year.”
He even taught a number of his classmates how to play tennis, but he said all eventually became better than him.
Williams kept his golf game, however. He said he still has a radio he received for winning a medical society tournament at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina, where he practiced surgery for more than 30 years. Through them all, he kept up the tradition of going to Augusta that had started just after medical school.
In those early years spent in Augusta Williams said he also worked as a doctor specifically for the event, generally treating people who forgot to take medications or fell or were hit with a ball.
He was also invited to play at Augusta National a few times while he was still working in the city, but had to decline.
“I was invited three times, but it cost $110, and I was making $130 a month as a resident with two children, so I didn’t go,” Williams said. “But I know every hole and I’ve seen some unbelievable golf over the years.”
One shot in particular he remembered was a hole-in-one on the Par-3 No. 6 hole by Billy Joe Patton, an amateur golfer who nearly won the 1954 Masters.
“I was standing behind the green when the ball went into the hole,” Williams said.
Williams said he loved to bring his kids to the event, something that has endured to the point that now his oldest son also has two reserved tickets and Williams will drive with his grandson to the event. These days he just goes for the first two days though, leaving as the crowds increase for the weekend, he said, and giving the tickets to more family to watch.
Besides the golf, Williams said he also loves the immaculate appearance that Augusta National is known for.
“They have beautiful flower gardens, and the Azaleas are blooming,” he said. “It’s unbelievably taken care of.”
And it’s a place Williams has loved to share with his family.
“Our four children really enjoyed going,” he said.
One year, three of them were in school, and so Williams asked for just two tickets to the next Masters. His request was granted, but when he tried to get more again after a couple of years, he found he was no longer able to get six tickets like he had before. Already, the Masters was becoming ever more popular.
Williams said some of the best things he got from attending the Masters, though, happened in those early years, specifically meeting two of the game’s greats in Snead and Hogan.
This year, those two have been long since replaced by the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, not to mention the days of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicolaus, and the other great golfers who have walked the well-manicured course.
For many of their big moments, Williams has been there to see it. He’ll be there again Thursday and Friday, and for the weekend more of his family will come down to watch, enjoying the tradition that Williams began so long ago.
“I’ve lived a beautiful life,” he said. “And I’d love to live again and do the same thing.”