McCabe: Remembering Furman Bisher
Up front, the challenge appeared to be a very simple one. Regale one another with stories of a giant.
Only thing is, it took just a few moments to realize it was a thankless task, virtually impossible, actually, given the life lived by Furman Bisher. “I mean, where do you begin?” Glenn Sheeley said over the phone.
His comment needed no explanation. After all, when you’ve lived 93 very rich years and worked 59 in a business in which you have successfully done your job of storytelling – and in a style that was uniquely your own, no less – well, there is a supply plentiful enough for a series of books, let alone column-size fodder.
Bisher, the longtime sports columnist with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died of a heart attack Sunday evening, just a few weeks after making a decision that defined his passion for that part of his work that might have meant the most to him, the Masters.
“We talked a few weeks ago, and he told me he was going to have back surgery and was sorry he’d miss the Masters,” said Stan Awtrey, a former sportswriter at the AJC. Then Awtrey said he heard that Bisher had postponed the surgery, deciding he couldn’t pass up the chance to go to Augusta National for a 63rd straight April.”
Turns out, Bisher won’t make it into that cathedral of a sporting theater one more time, after all. But rather than shed a tear for that, let’s raise a toast to a man who was equal parts feisty, ornery, crusty, funny, passionate and loyal, but most of all, 100 percent genuine.
Oh, and this: “His energy is what I was always impressed by,” said Sheeley, another former AJC colleague who covered 20 Masters alongside Bisher. “He had as much energy in his 70s and 80s for what he was writing as those 20-year-olds who were writing their first feature story.”
Now covering this traveling circus called the PGA Tour became a little less fun a few years ago when Sheeley and his five-star wit left the sportswriting business. But he showed that he still has the golden touch when he recalled a conversation with Furman about this phenomenon called Facebook.
One can imagine how Bisher, well into his 80s then, was befuddled by it, so Sheeley had some fun. He made up a fake Facebook page for Bisher and for friends. “I listed Moses and Java Man.”
It ignited a flood of stories and each one seemed funnier than the previous one, though some don’t translate effectively into print. Best to save those for a party in Bisher’s honor, we agreed with great laughter.
There was the time Bisher got up in the middle of a Jack Nicklaus press conference at Augusta National, an act that even caught the Golden Bear by surprise. Nicklaus wanted to know why Bisher didn’t want to hear what he had to say, to which Bisher responded, “When you’re my age and your kidneys talk, you have to listen to them.”
Another iconic Masters winner, Arnold Palmer, during one of his last appearances as an entrant, saw Bisher and came over to the ropes to say hello. “Nice to see a guy out here as old as me,” Palmer said.
This connection to the Masters, which is simply the best sports event in America, is something Bisher was proud of, and it just won’t feel the same without the annual ritual of stopping by Row C, Seat 11 inside the media center to shake his hand and simply say hello. Like pimento cheese sandwiches and the oak tree at the rear of the sprawling, white clubhouse, Fisher was part of the fabric of the Masters, and never was there a moment when he took his presence there for granted. Always, Bisher felt it a privilege to cover the tournament, and his passing was noted by Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne:
"Furman Bisher was, first, a family friend who I've known through my father since the 1950s. He was the first journalist who understood my passion in the pursuit of the 1996 Olympic Games. He knew the collective power and strength of a shared dream and treated the Olympic effort with great objectivity and fairness.
“He was a true statesman in the world of sports journalism who seemed to shine the brightest at the Masters. No one loved the Masters more than Furman, and no one described it more beautifully than he did through his eloquent words. It was our pleasure hosting such a talented man for an astonishing 62 tournaments.”
Digest the sheer magnitude of the number, 62, and then consider some of the sides to it. It means Bisher’s first Masters was Jimmy Demaret’s third and final victory, in 1950. That was eight years before Palmer won the first of his four green jackets, and when Palmer went on to play in 46 more Masters, Bisher was there for every one of them. Then for good measure, after Palmer retired as a player, Furman covered seven more Masters.
An impressive commitment to his craft, and what made it all the more special was this: Bisher loved newspapers, believed in their importance, and never stopped fighting to make them the best they could be.
“He’d yell at editors if he thought a story was being misplayed, and you knew if he was angry when he’d say on the phone, ‘Let me talk to the editor,' ” Sheeley said. “But guys 50 years younger were impressed to hear Furman fighting to honor the commitment of their work.”
True, Bisher was a sportswriter for all seasons, but with the Masters on our doorstep, it’s hard not to pay tribute to his love of this tournament specifically and golf in general. He was from an era when it was important to get out and walk, and even as a future generation of his brethren realized it was easier to hang inside the media center and follow on television, Bisher maintained his commitment to walking. He was so convinced it was part of his job that he had knee-replacement surgery in 2003 – when he was 84.
In fact, counted among the most pleasant Masters memories are those times when I would cross paths with Furman out on the course. He would usually have a story that included his favorite expression, “Judas Priest,” and recall a Masters tale of Hogan or Nicklaus that he knew I’d enjoy. He’d say he wasn’t sure what he was going to write that day, but figured he’d keep watching and something would come to him.
Then off he’d go, binoculars around his neck, and one of those walking-cane chairs in his hand. It was a beautiful sight, and how he painted a picture with words from his walk was even more lovely.
He was a treasure to be around, a true storyteller, especially pleasing if the landscape were golf, and in recent Aprils when we’d gather at Augusta and bemoan the direction in which the newspaper industry was headed, it was even more enjoyable to be in Bisher’s company. After all, he still represented the glory of the written word at a time when it is becoming less and less relevant.
“It was a honor to be with him for some amazing parts of golf history,” Sheeley said. “To sit next to an icon was something special.”