The year was 1957. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite Sputnik 1, and gas was 24 cents per gallon.
That’s also the year Charles Lee Hardin Sr. of Forest City, N.C., attended his first Masters Tournament, and he hasn’t missed one since.
Hardin, 79, is attending his 60th consecutive Masters this week.
He embodies the passion many fans have for the tournament, calling his arrival at Augusta National Golf Club each year “tearful almost.”
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His dedication outside the ropes has all the legends of the game who have performed inside the ropes beat.
Arnold Palmer has the most consecutive starts in Masters history with 50 from 1955-2004, and Gary Player has the most starts with 52.
“I wasn’t trying to set no record or do nothing like that. I just thought I was enjoying myself,” Hardin said. “I love golf and love the golf tournament. This is still the No. 1 tournament in the world, I think.”
Hardin’s love for Augusta National and the 80-year tournament will endure in his family in a multiple ways. His son, Charles II, now also receives two tickets to the event annually after 38 years on a waiting list, and his youngest granddaughter is named Augusta.
Much like his streak, Hardin appreciates the Masters for its commitment to tradition.
“It’s the greatest thing,” he said. “They treat the game of golf right first of all, and it’s run with such coordination. … They change things every year. But I love the changes because the changes don’t take anything away from the tournament, they add to it. [Change] doesn’t take away from the patrons or the public, it adds to them, and it adds to them in a great, traditional way.”
In 1957, Hardin purchased tickets for less than $10 through the mail shortly after graduating from high school, and after ordering them for several years through mailed applications he was eventually placed on the mailing list that determines ticket recipients today. “It was not a sellout until Palmer, Player and [Jack] Nicklaus started winning it in the ’60s,” said Hardin, who caddied as an adolescent and has played golf most of his life.
He initially received four tickets per year but the club asked him to cut his allotment to two in the 1980s when the demand continued to increase.
He put his son Charles II on the waiting list in its second year in 1972.
“The lady told me, ‘I’ll put him on the waiting list, but the list is so big from the first year he’ll probably never live to get tickets. But if he does, he will get tickets,’ ” Hardin said. “I put him on the waiting list at 2 years old, 38 years later he got tickets. I’ve never known no organization to be so true to form as this place is.”
The family never checked on the progress of the tickets for the nearly four decades, and Hardin II doubted his father’s account. “I didn’t believe him until they showed up, and I said, ‘You weren’t telling a story, were you?’ ” said Hardin II, who owned a spot in Ocean Lakes Campground for several years and has regularly vacationed in Myrtle Beach since childhood.
I put him on the waiting list at 2 years old, 38 years later he got tickets. I’ve never known no organization to be so true to form as this place is.
Charles Hardin Sr. on putting his son on the Masters ticket waiting list in 1972
Doug Ford won the first Masters that Hardin attended, followed by Arnold Palmer in 1958. “I didn’t have a favorite until Arnold Palmer won it in 1958,” Hardin said. “I was in the original Army I guess. That thing formed and after the golf tournament was over and I got home and listened to the news they were calling it Arnie’s Army.
“He was so charismatic. If he teed off he’d walk to the side of the rope and speak and smile to everybody as he went down the fairway. The other golfers, most of them, bless their heart, were trying to make a living and went straight down the middle. He was more charismatic and he was a crowd pleaser.”
Hardin said he has never considered missing a Masters and has never come close, though he was forced to miss a round in 2006 when he suffered a stroke while walking across the walkway on the first fairway during the first round. “I just lost the use of my legs completely,” said Hardin, who was transported to a hospital.
It might have cost the casual fan the remainder of the tournament, but not Hardin.
Though he wasn’t strong enough to walk, he returned to watch the final two rounds in a wheelchair.
“The next day I could move my feet and everything,” Hardin said. “I asked the lady doctor how long was I going to be there because I wanted to get back out here. She said, ‘I think I can get you out of here by Saturday morning to see Saturday and Sunday’s rounds if you’ll get in a wheelchair and don’t overdo it.’ ”
In the meantime, Hardin said his doctor wanted his unused tickets. She said, ‘I’ve been at this hospital 12 years and I’ve never seen that tournament, I want your tickets until I let you out.’ So she got the tickets that Friday and let me out that Saturday morning.”
Hardin’s favorite spot on the course for years was halfway down the second fairway on the right side. “It’s a par-5 hole so that’s where you saw all the birdies and eagles, and I used to sit there and watch every golfer go through so I could say I’d seen every one of them. Then I’d probably walk the course some.”
Now that he has attended the tournament in a motorized wheelchair for a few years, Hardin prefers a spot near a big pine tree behind the seventh green for a variety of strategic reasons.
“I can’t get around like I used to, but I’ve still got a little bit of a brain left,” Hardin said. “No. 7 is a good viewing area. You can see No. 8 tee box and some of 8 fairway, you can see 2 and 3 and 7, and you can walk a little ways and see 17. And you’ve got the big scoreboard, concessions are close, free telephones are close, the bathrooms are there.”
Hardin has collected Masters hats representing the different eras in golf. He has floppy hats and straw hats, visors and baseball caps. And he has kept most of the tickets from the 1970s on after throwing away most of the early tickets that were made of paper or cardboard.
“When they started printing these fancy badges my wife said she thought I should start keeping those,” Hardin said.
Charles Hardin II, 46, and his wife Stephanie have three daughters. If the couple had a son they were going to name him Charles after his father, but when their first two children were girls he lobbied for the name Augusta. “It’s a nice Southern belle name,” Hardin II said. Stephanie wasn’t enamored with the name, however, so they were given the names Hallie and Saylor.
“She got the first two,” Hardin II said. “The way I tricked her was I told her that if [the third child] came out a girl I was going to name her Charlie, and she said, ‘OK, Augusta sounds good.’ ”
Augusta, who has already attended the Masters about 10 years, appreciates her name. “I like it a lot because I’ve never heard anybody else that’s had my name,” she said. “It’s a unique name. I tell all my friends I’m named after Augusta, Georgia, and the capital of Maine is Augusta – just sayin’.”
“I’d just as soon they named all three Augusta,” Hardin said. “Augusta 1, 2 and 3. They didn’t go along with me on that.”
His three granddaughters have all enjoyed attending the Masters, and have been able to do so through Augusta National’s policy adopted in 2008 of allowing children ages 8-16 to accompany a ticketed adult for free. “That inspires me more to come down here now that I’ve got three granddaughters that come here,” Hardin said.
Hardin, who is retired from the trucking and equipment rental business he started with his son, still plans to return to the Masters every year for the foreseeable future, and with Hardin II now receiving tickets for the past seven years, the streak of Hardin family appearances at Augusta National could stretch beyond a century.
“I hope he’s going to carry on the tradition,” Hardin said. “It’s a big thing for the whole family now. We really enjoy the city, the course, everything that goes on. It’s just a great place.”