One legendary player’s Augusta obsession and the tragedy of a career cut short before the big win could happen.
In 2002 I won the Bert Yancey Junior Invitational golf tournament. I was fifteen years old then and the trophy from that victory still sits at my parents house. When I won the event I never knew much about the it’s namesake. I had no idea who Bert Yancey was or why his name was on my new trophy.
Some years later when I was headed off for college, I was given a book by my grandfather on the history of the Masters tournament. I flipped through the pages of the book and admired the photos of the Masters competitions of yesteryear. Somewhere in the turn of a page I stumbled upon a photograph of Bert Yancey. Much to my surprise, I learned that he had been a top player there in his time and he had nearly won the tournament.
Bert Yancey was actually one of the great golfers of his generation. He was one of the top players on tour until his career was cut short by the side effects of a mental illness. Yancey dreamed of winning the Masters, and during a four year stretch from 1967 to 1970 he came extremely close to earning a green jacket. His desire to earn a victory at the Masters was borderline obsessive and his commitment to the tournament paid off with three top five finishes in four years.
Bert Yancey never found his way into Butler cabin, but he overcame a serious chemical imbalance to get within a few strokes of golf’s greatest glory. His mental illness ended his golf career, but instead of that being the focus of his story, It should be how he used his excessive preparation and great playing to overcome his challenges and nearly win at Augusta National.
Albert W. Yancey
Bert Yancey grew up in Tallahassee, Florida where his father was a city manager. Yancey spent his youth learning the game of golf at Capital City Country Club where he developed a great talent for the game. He was a naturally gifted swinger of the golf club. Yancey rode his smooth swing and sharp intellect all the way to West Point where he played and captained the golf team for the United States Military Academy.
At West Point, Bert Yancey made the dean’s list and rose to become one of the top collegiate golfers in America. He was loved by his fellow cadets and was on track to have a great career in the military. That all changed when he experienced a mental breakdown during his senior year. Yancey went through a period of sleep deprivation and troubling behavior that led to him being sent to an Army psychiatric hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. During his stay at Valley Forge he received electroshock therapy and other treatments aimed at curing his diagnosed illness.
Yancey was discharged from the Army and he returned to Florida. His episodes continued for a some years, but as they began to fade away Bert Yancey decided that he was able enough to pursue professional golf. Those efforts led him to a club professional position in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His natural kindness and enjoyable demeanor made him popular with the club members. Through the club he gathered supporters and investors to finance a run at the PGA Tour and the glory of golf’s great championships.
In 1966, Bert Yancey found his stride on the PGA Tour. Yancey won three separate golf tournaments that season. Those wins would put him on track to becoming a great tour player and a hard-to-shake competitor. He would soon be receiving invitations to compete in all of the major championships including the Masters, a tournament he had long dreamed of winning.
Green Jacket Dreams
Bert Yancey adored Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters tournament. The beauty and the pageantry of golf’s grand ritual of Spring is alluring to everyone who loves golf, but it meant even more for Yancey. He was a player who thrived off a personal passion and conviction that was layered with a cerebral approach to golf.
Yancey was not just a golfer at West Point, but an accomplished scholar. He brought that same attention to detail from his academic work to his efforts to conquer Augusta National Golf Club. Perhaps it was that military training that led him to building the clay models of Augusta’s greens. Only a military man would go through that level of preparation.
Bert Yancey painstakingly constructed models of each green complex of Augusta National Golf Club. He used clay putty to shape each model and he spent hours running his hands over their contours. Yancey was seeking to create the deepest understanding of Augusta’s main defense as possible. He labored intensely with his models seeking to know the secrets of Augusta’s greens.
Bert Yancey’s meticulous preparation would prove to be a powerful tool in his pursuit of the green jacket. In his first four Master’s tournament appearances he recorded three top 5 finishes. Yancey found something special at the Masters, both on the grounds and in himself. His adventures at Augusta National during his first four tournaments there resulted in near misses and a heartbreaking proximity to achieving his ultimate goal.
Bert Yancey’s career at Augusta National began with an impressive arrival. In his first competitive round at the Masters, Yancey shot a 67 to lead the tournament by three strokes. He would follow that low round with rounds of 73 and 71 to remain atop the leaderboard after each day. Tied for the lead on Sunday, Yancey shot 73. His disappointing Sunday score was good enough for third place, losing out to Gay Brewer’s stellar final round 67. Bert Yancey’s first Masters showed that his methodical preparation was working. Although his finish was disappointing, It was just the beginning of his journey for a jacket.
Bert Yancey’s return to Augusta began with a much more pedestrian start. Yancey shot 71–71–72 to find himself four shots off the lead heading into Sunday. The final day of the 1968 is one of the most famous in Master’s history. Bob Goalby fired a blistering 66 to win the tournament by a single shot over Roberto DiVecenzo. The DiVencenzo story is well known as he signed for an incorrect score keeping him out of a playoff and handing the title to Goalby. What is less known in Masters lore is that Bert Yancey nearly caught them with a tremendous round of his own that Sunday. Yancey shot 65, the low round of the day, moving him into a solo third place for the second consecutive year. His impressive score of 279(-9) would have been good enough to win all but four of the previously contested Masters tournaments.
Bert Yancey looked poised to record another top finish at the Masters in 1969. He opened the tournament with a strong 69, but faded over the weekend with scores of 75–71–73. He finished the week at level par an in a tie for 13th place.
Bert Yancey came to Augusta in 1970 as a six-time winner on the PGA Tour. Earlier that season he had bested Jack Nicklaus by a shot to win the Crosby Pro-am at Pebble Beach. Taking down the Golden Bear in his prime was a good sign that Yancey may be poised to finally win the green jacket he yearned for.
Yancey opened the tournament with a score of 69, one shot behind the lead. He would back that score up with a second round 70 to go to the weekend tied for the lead with Gene Littler. Saturday brought Bert Yancey an even par 72, leaving him three shots back going into the final round. He delivered a strong final round performance shooting a 70 on Sunday. His total score of 281 was two shots out of the playoff between Billy Casper and Gene Littler. Yancey finished in 4th place, with Gary Player between him and the playoff contenders.
1970 wasn’t Bert Yancey’s last Masters. He would play the tournament four more times, but never found the top 5 again. In 1972 Yancey was in position to threaten Jack Nicklaus going into the weekend, but again slipped during the third and fourth rounds to a tied for twelfth finish.
In his Master’s career, Bert Yancey led the Masters four times after a round was complete. In his magical four year stretch from 1967 to 1970, Bert Yancey was the leader of the Masters after a quarter of the rounds he played. During that run, Bert Yancey had the low round of the day on two occasions, His first round 67 in 1967, and his final round 65 in 1968. His scoring average during those years was 70.5.
Bert Yancey became a fixture at the top of the Masters leaderboards for those four years. For Masters viewers around the world, he was a name that had become synonymous with near misses at Augusta. Those near misses were plenty of reason to expect that Yancey may be in for a long and storied career at Augusta, but a long dormant deamon would soon rear its head again and disrupt his dreams.
A Burgeoning Career Cut Short
Bert Yancey’s major success was not just limited to the Masters. His classical golf game traveled well to the U.S.Open, Open Championship, and the PGA Championship. Yancey made the cut in 29 of 34 majors he contested in. He finished in the top twenty five in 21 major championships including 7 top tens and 6 top fives.
The best chance that Bert Yancey had at winning a major outside of the Masters came at the 1968 US Open at Oak Hill Country Club. Yancey shot 67–68–70 in the first three rounds to capture the 54 hole lead and set a new scoring record for the first three days of the US Open. After leading through each round, Yancey faltered to a final round 76 to finish in third place.
Bert Yancey’s career was on pace to be a extremely successful and a major victory seemed to be a likely conclusion for any observer to make. However, that all came crashing down in 1974 when he traveled to Tokyo for a golf exhibition.
One Night in Tokyo
Bert Yancey’s mental slips at West Point and in the time after his stay in a mental hospital were in the past and the golfer had gone years without any type of episode. His trip to Tokyo was broken up by a stop in Hawaii where he gave a rousing invocation for the annual meeting for the PGA of America. From there he traveled to Japan and the sleeping illness in his mind was once again awakened.
Upon arriving in Japan, Yancey slid into an altered mental state that left him hearing voices and believing that he was an anointed warrior for God. In the middle of the night he believes he was called to walk the streets of Tokyo to begin his journey of ending communism and spreading Christianity in Asia. In a wild twist of fate, while walking the streets of Tokyo, Yancey came upon the famous Motown recording group The Temptations who were there on a world tour. Yancey assumed a karate position and announced that he was sent from God to end their spreading of sinful music. The encounter did not end well as Yancey was hit and violently knocked down by a member of the group.
From there Yancey went on to terrorize the hotel lobby and he was promptly arrested. Upon hearing the news, Deane Beman, longtime Commissioner of the PGA Tour and friend of Yancey, immediately dispatched himself to Tokyo to save his friend. Beman secured Yancey’s return to the United States and saw that he was committed to the care of medical professionals at a hospital in Philadelphia.
The End of the Dream
Bert resumed his golfing dreams after his observation period in Philadelphia. Amazingly he almost won at Doral just three weeks after leaving the hospital for his mental slide in Tokyo. He continued to pursue his PGA Tour career and prepared for another trip to Augusta.
Bert Yancey would play the Masters only months after his breakdown in Tokyo. That trip to Augusta would be his last. He played in the 1975 Masters shooting scores of 74–73–74–73. He finished tied for 30th, sixteen shots behind the winner Jack Nicklaus. Never really in contention, Yancey took his last laps around Augusta National while believing he was marked for murder by the mob. That belief was a result of a vote he made on the PGA Tour policy committee and his fragile state of mind. It is amazing that he could pull off such a high finish under the circumstances of his escalating illness.
Bert Yancey’s slide into an increasingly troubling mental state continued through the 1975 PGA Tour season. That trend resulted in another public breakdown at the end of summer. Leaving the tour event in Westchester, New York he again had a breakdown at LaGuardia Airport. Yancey began shouting at passengers and attempting to make the travelers coming through the terminal divide into corners of the room based on race. He was restrained and again hospitalized.
Unlike during his stay in Valley Forge or after his episode in Tokyo, Yancey was finally the recipient of a proper diagnosis. Doctors declared Yancey to be a Manic Depressive. The chemical imbalance in his brain triggered bouts of severe depression in which the brain created an even more severe response of fits, mood swings, and delusions. Fortunately for Yancey, doctors had a way to treat the illness. Yancey was subscribed lithium as a way to manage his manic depression. Lithium supressed the illness for Bert Yancey, but it also had a career ending side effect. The lithium produced tremors in Yancey’s hands. A death sentence for a golf swing.
Bert Yancey never achieved his dream of slipping into a green jacket. He was one of the best players in the world for a few years, but like so many people who have battled mental illness he could not overcome it without sacrificing other aspects of his life.
Bert Yancey became a club professional again and later in life made an attempt to play on the PGA Tour Champions. In 1994 While at a Champions tour event in Utah, Yancey had a heart attack and did not survive. Bert Yancey was only 56 years old when he passed away.
Soon after his death, a junior golf tournament was named for Yancey in his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida. I was fortunate enough to win that tournament once and because I did I became fortunate enough to spend some time studying Bert Yancey and the golfing life that he lived.
Bert Yancey was a brilliant golfer with a smooth swing that nearly won multiple major championships. Instead of becoming a treasured name in the World Golf Hall of Fame he has mostly been forgotten except by those who knew him and students of Masters history.
Bert Yancey deserves to be celebrated and remembered for all of the aspects of who he was. What he was able to accomplish as a professional golfer while battling a life long severe mental illness is remarkable. Yancey literally spent time in jail cells and straightjackets because of his challenges, but for a brief window of time he nearly slipped into a green jacket as the Masters Champion. It hurt Bert Yancey to come so close to achieving his Augusta dreams, but it hurts golf much more to have lost such a great and resilient champion before his full potential could be realized.
There are many players who have had near misses at Augusta National and the Masters. There are certainly many whose names are remembered better than Bert Yancey. On occasion though, the story of Bert Yancey and his close calls will be whispered through the pines of Augusta when someone remembers his clay model greens and his green jacket dreams. Like the echoes of a Sunday charge at the Masters, I believe that his story is worth a listen.