Glen Junkin remembers how he felt as a kid visiting Disney World – excited, delighted and beaming like the morning sun. Junkin, the director of golf maintenance at Turtle Point Yacht and Country Club in Florence, Alabama, feels the same way when he attends the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.
“It’s like going to Disney World as a child,” says Junkin of the annual April tournament, the year’s first of four majors.
Junkin, who attended his first Masters in 2005 and has been to Augusta several times, uses a litany of superlatives to describe the place, including “stunning,” “immaculate” and “jaw-dropping.”
“Every time I go there, there’s nothing out of place,” he says.
Junkin isn’t alone among golf course superintendents in their affinity for Augusta. Superintendent magazine recently surveyed about 400 superintendents and asked them, “What’s the greatest golf course in the country?” There were nine courses from which to choose, including Augusta, Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pine Valley Golf Club, Oakmont Country Club, Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Cypress Point Club, Sand Hills Golf Club, Muirfield Village Golf Club and Merion Golf Club’s East Course. Augusta received a whopping 49 percent of the votes as the “greatest.” Pine Valley was second at 11 percent.
Interestingly, Augusta overtook Pine Valley as the No. 1 course in Golf Digest’s most recent list of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses.
The fact that Augusta won the vote by a landslide is somewhat of a surprise, considering the ramifications of the controversial “Augusta Syndrome,” which superintendents often cite as a problem in golf. The Augusta Syndrome is a condition that occurs when golfers watch the Masters on television, witness Augusta National in all its glory, and then ask the superintendents of the courses they play why their conditions don’t resemble Augusta’s. Alas, superintendents blame Augusta National – specifically Augusta during the week of the Masters – for creating expectation problems at their courses.
Considering the results of our survey, though, the Augusta Syndrome hasn’t caused too many superintendents to resent and dislike the famed course, designed by Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones, the latter of whom founded Augusta with Clifford Roberts. Augusta, built on a former plantation amidst Georgia pines in central Georgia, opened in 1932.
The precision that defines Augusta – seemingly not a blade of grass out of place and nary a petal of Poa annua – doesn’t bother Matthew Seiffert, superintendent of Lake Forest Country Club, an 18-hole private club in Lake St. Louis, Missouri. That said, Seiffert is under the impression that Augusta’s budget doesn’t have much of a ceiling.
If his club’s members asked him why Lake Forest’s bunkers aren’t as finely manicured and as stately looking as Augusta’s, Seiffert says he would immediately steer the conversation toward the cost associated with that kind of upkeep. “I would explain to them that the cost of doing those kind of things isn’t cheap,” he explains.
Mike Leavitt, golf course superintendent of L.E. Kaufman Golf Course, an 18-hole municipal facility in Wyoming, Michigan, has never seen Augusta, but he’s enamored with its prestige, history and what he has heard about the course.
“I’ve never been on the grounds, but everybody I’ve talked to that has been there says it’s the most beautiful thing they have ever seen,” Leavitt says.
Matt Taylor, certified golf course superintendent at Royal Poinciana Golf Club, a private 36-hole facility in Naples, Florida, voted Augusta as the U.S.’s greatest course because it’s downright sanctified. Taylor, who has been to Augusta several times, loves the tradition that has shaped Augusta.
“It’s hallowed ground,” he says.
How hallowed? Even someone who doesn’t like golf would feel obliged to pick up a piece of trash if he saw it on the Augusta grounds, Taylor says.
If anything, some superintendents dismiss the Augusta Syndrome and view the course’s approach to conditioning as a model to improve. Rick Slattery, golf course superintendent at Locust Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, says Augusta is the measuring stick for golf courses and superintendents.
“Whether we like it or not, our golf courses have always been compared to Augusta,” Slattery adds.
What’s wrong with trying to measure up to they way Augusta appears during Masters week, Slattery asks.
“I’ve used Augusta as a measuring stick throughout my career,” he adds.
Slattery realizes his course, which has hosted several LPGA tournaments, doesn’t have the budget and resources that Augusta does. But that doesn’t stop him from studying Augusta’s nuances in an attempt to become a better superintendent at his own facility.
“The beauty of golf is that it’s not played on a regulated sized or shaped playing field,” Slattery says. “Every golf course has a different character and a unique individuality about it. That’s one reason the four major tournaments are so perfect – each venue has its own style and character in regards to how the golf course plays for a championship, from the seaside windblown golf courses for the British Open to the manicured parkland feel of Augusta.”
The Augusta Syndrome and the course’s impeccable conditions are partly based on the assumption that the course uses more inputs than other courses. It’s assumed that Augusta’s brilliant emerald ryegrass fairways grew from copious amounts of water and fertilizer.
Junkin knows better. Being from the South he understands that it doesn’t take much to get ryegrass to pop in early April when the average daily temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 55 degrees at night.
“You don’t have to do much to it to make it look great,” he says. “If you get your pre-emergent herbicide out before you overseed and keep all the Poa Annua out and fertilize, it’s not rocket science to get it to look beautiful and perfect at that time of the year.”
Seiffert, who has grown ryegrass, appreciates the role that Mother Nature plays in getting Augusta ready for the Masters.
“The reason the ryegrass looks so beautiful is because it’s at its peak,” he says.
More than conditioning
Augusta has been modified many times over the years, from its greens to its bunkers to its tee boxes to its water hazards. Some traditionalists remain ticked over the changes, including the fact that Augusta now plays longer than 7,400 yards. But the course hasn’t lost much of its magnetism or mystique.
Conditioning aside, Slattery says, Augusta is great for golf, and the Masters’ continued popularity only exposes more people to the game.
“The tournament reaches millions of people all over the world,” Slattery says. “It’s just great exposure for golf. The history of the Masters is second to none.”
Slattery remembers watching the Masters on TV when he was a kid, and the Big Three – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – were duking it out for a green jacket. The Big Three dominated the Masters from 1960 through 1978, winning the event 12 times among them during that span.
“The Masters was one of the most successful golf tournaments brought to TV and had some really exciting finishes that made people fall in love with the game,” Slattery says.
While Taylor appreciates Augusta’s blooming azaleas and tailored bunkers, he also admires Augusta for keeping prices affordable for those who attend the Masters. The tournament is known for its modest ticket and concession prices – no $10 Bud Lites sold there.
“They could really charge an exorbitant amount for tickets, food and merchandise,” Taylor adds.
Taylor also respects Augusta for running the Masters the way it wants to, from providing pristine course conditions to allowing a minimal amount of advertising by CBS during the broadcast.
“[Augusta officials say], ‘This is our tournament, and this is how it’s going to be,’ ” Taylor says.
As much as he’s a fan, Slattery says Augusta could help its image by openly embracing the environmental movement afoot in golf and even becoming an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, a certification program that helps golf courses preserve the environment, among other things.
“Augusta certainly has the resources and exposure to become an effective leader [in the environmental movement],” Slattery says. “Augusta would be a great role model.”
Editor’s note: Augusta National Golf Club prohibits its employees from speaking to the press. As a result, we couldn’t speak to Augusta’s Brad Owen, the club’s golf course superintendent, for this story. We assume that Owen also would vote Augusta National as the greatest course in the U.S.