RIP, Charlie Mars: You’ve earned it

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Norman Charles “Charlie” Mars lived 92 years and two days and did not miss a minute.

Mars, who died Feb. 10, was born in New Orleans, grew up in Philadelphia (the one in Neshoba County) and traveled the world. He was a businessman, tennis champion, airplane pilot, storyteller, amateur card shark and golf enthusiast who loved The Masters golf championship in particular.

The following story will tell you much about the way Charlie lived his life.

Charlie Mars was 92 when this photo was taken.

This was April 9, 1954, a Friday. Charlie, then 27, and his wife, Sue Anne, and another couple made the short drive from Philadelphia to Meridian for dinner at Weidmann’s, as they so often did.

The talk at dinner turned to the increasingly popular, little invitational golf tournament going on in Augusta, Ga., where Slammin’ Sammy Snead, Charlie’s favorite golfer, led the great Ben Hogan by three shots after two rounds.

This was before TV coverage so they knew of Augusta only what they read in the newspapers and heard on the radio. By all accounts it was one of the most beautiful places on earth.

“We should go,” Charlie said. On that, all agreed.

“No, we should go now,” Charlie said. “We should drive over there tonight and watch the last two rounds.”

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

And they did. They called home, arranged for babysitters and then headed east with just the clothes they had on. They drove all night, slept a couple hours in the car and on Saturday morning entered the gates at Augusta National for the first time. Charlie Mars was dumbstruck by the beauty of the place and the high drama of the tournament.

He would return for 59 consecutive years.

Slammin’ Sammy won by two shots on that first trip, but Charlie saw them all: gentlemanly Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen in knickers, the steely Hogan, Arnold Palmer’s charges, Jack Nicklaus as an amateur and then a pro, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson and, of course, Tiger Woods.

“Sammy’s still my favorite; he made it look so easy and he made it look like fun,” Mars told me in 2014, on the occasion of his 60th Masters.

• • •

It was The Masters that first brought Charlie and this writer together. In 2004, someone told me about a Mississippian who was about to attend his 50th consecutive Masters. I figured there had to be a story there, but I didn’t know the half of it.

We arranged to meet at the golf course, where he regaled me with stories about Augusta through the years. Frankly, I was more interested in hearing about him.

He was 79 at the time. He had this devilish, George Burns, Oh, God! grin and a look that always said, “I know something you don’t know.” He had flown his own plane over from Jackson, dodging thunderstorms along the way.

He told me about one of the early Masters tournaments when they handed out ticket orders for the next year’s tournament. “I ordered six,” Charlie said. “I wish I had ordered 26.”

He told me about the poker games his group often enjoyed on rainy days (and any kind of night) at Augusta. He told me about the time the famed gambler Amarillo Slim joined their all-night poker game.

“Slim cleaned everybody out but me,” Mars says. “I think the reason he let me win was because I was the one who had the Masters tickets and he wanted one of them.”

At the time, Charlie was a reigning state doubles senior tennis champion. Only a couple of years before, he had won a U.S. Senior Olympics tennis championship.

Charlie invited me to play in their poker game that night. I declined, assuming I wasn’t going to profit from playing poker against a 79-year-old who had won from Amarillo Slim and had flown his own plane around thunderstorms to attend his 50th consecutive Masters.

• • •

My story about Charlie could end there but it did not. In 2009, when Charlie attended his 55th straight Masters, he awakened in the wee hours of Saturday morning and needed to use the bathroom. “I got up to go to the bathroom and the next thing I knew I was flat out on the floor,” Charlie later told me. He didn’t know it then but he had suffered a massive stroke.

He couldn’t walk. He could scarcely talk. He was 83. The outlook was bleak.

Of course, the stroke did not stop him. He learned to walk again. He learned to talk again. From not being able to take a step, he built himself up to where he walked a mile or two a day. He began swimming. In 2010, he was back at The Masters, where he walked those lovely, rolling hills and took everyone’s money in the big poker game.

Trust me on this: Anyone who knew him wasn’t surprised at all.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at [email protected]

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