There is probably no other golf course in the world in which the mere mention of its name elicits so much conflicting emotion as Augusta National Golf Club.
On one hand, there are those who revere it for its unflawed beauty – lush green expanses framed by dogwoods and azaleas seemingly always in bloom. It is the epitome, for many, of the perfect course.
Augusta’s design is also meant to challenge the greatest players on the planet. This group, peering through rose- colored glasses, sees Augusta forever married to the Masters, considered by many to be the greatest of all the four golf majors. For much of the country, when the images of Augusta appear on their television screens and the sappy, overly wrought words of CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz emanate from the speakers, it means that spring has arrived.
Standing on the opposite side of the aisle are those who see the Open Championship as the greatest of all golf tournaments and Augusta National as everything that is wrong with golf, golf course maintenance and much of modern golf architecture. They say Augusta is over-watered, too green and over-manicured, including its imported pine straw that makes some areas of the course look more like a residential landscape than a golf course. Critics contend that Augusta’s azaleas are always in bloom during the tournament, no matter the week or the weather. They say not a blade of grass shows anything but a hue of rich, deep emerald.
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For those who refuse to kneel at the alter of Augusta, there is another factor that keeps them upright, the fact that the club makes its own rules and rewrites or ignores history. Augusta has in part achieved the status it has because it keeps telling us it’s the greatest golf course ever and if quotes need to be fabricated to back the assertion, so be it.
For instance, according to the biography of Clifford Roberts, a founding member of Augusta who ascended to the role of dictator, Augusta was Alister MacKenzie’s favorite of the layouts he created. But that supposed judgment by MacKenzie can be found nowhere in his writing, not surprising since MacKenzie never saw the finished design.
Lines are drawn in the sand at Augusta that no one knows are there. Yet crossing them can mean banishment. It was the term “bikini wax” to describe the Augusta greens (among other faux pas) that led to golf announcer Gary McCord being evicted from the broadcast permanently at the request of the club. It was the adjective “mob” in reference to the Masters gallery that led to his compatriot Jack Whitaker receiving a five-year ban.
Augusta’s rules, no matter how ludicrous, are the rules. At Augusta, the rough is called the first cut (because Augusta had no rough when it opened and still doesn’t) and the throngs of people are “patrons,” because, well, Augusta says so.
Call it the first nine and the second nine. Bobby Jones abhorred the term front nine and back nine, fearing someone would refer to the second nine holes with the mildly scatological term, “backside.”
No matter your opinion of the place though, the fact is Augusta is no longer the golf course that MacKenzie and Jones sought to create.
It was originally a course designed to take on the best golfers in the world while at the same time remaining eminently fair and enjoyable to the average player, thanks to the fact there were multiple ways to play the holes. After multiple revisions, it is a layout where options have been eliminated and the longest and straightest golfers excel.
Augusta is the antithesis of the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, which is oh so ironic because it is precisely that course on which MacKenzie and Jones patterned much of their inland links, along with other great British Isle holes.
In writing about the layout, MacKenzie described holes four through seven this way: “4, hope it compares favorably to the 11th at the Old Course; 5, based on the Road Hole with the trees on the corner instead of station master’s house and garden; 6, similar to the Redan at North Berwick but much more attractive; no. 7, 18 at the Old Course with large hollow in front of the green.”
No matter how hard Augusta clings to the notion that it’s still the same layout MacKenzie and Jones envisioned, it’s not.
Reading MacKenzie’s description of what he and Jones set out to build, it is apparent Augusta has turned its back on most of the goals. Many of the alterations came in the 20 years after the course opened when MacKenzie was dead and Roberts had accumulated power.
Without a doubt, Augusta was MacKenzie’s design.
“I think MacKenzie and I managed to work as a completely sympathetic team,” Jones wrote in the book, “Golf is my Game,” published in 1959. “Of course, there were never questions that he was the architect and I was his advisor and consultant. No man learns to design a golf course simply by playing golf, no matter how well.”
The goal was to produce the “ideal golf course,” which MacKenzie said “must be pleasurable to the greatest possible number. It must require strategy as well as skill, otherwise it cannot be enduringly interesting. It must give the average player a fair chance at the same time require the utmost from the expert who tries for sub-par scores. All natural beauty should be preserved, natural hazards should be utilized and a minimum of artificiality introduced.”
The original goal was to create a layout that featured wide fairways and hardly any forced carries off the tee, but with preferred locations to play to, opening up optimal routes into the greens, some depending on that day’s flag location. MacKenzie touted the fact that a number of greens – it turned out to be eight when the course opened, now there are two – would not have a single bunker guarding them. The defense would be the undulations of the putting surfaces, the terrain around them and the wind.
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Jones and MacKenzie were also adamant that Augusta was not just about the Masters. Augusta was designed so that every par-5 would be reachable in two good shots, according to Jones, but birdies on the par-4s would be tougher because of the movement in the greens.
“We are quite willing to have low scores made during the tournament. It is not our intention to rig the golf course so as to make it tricky,” Jones wrote. “It is our feeling that there is something wrong with a golf course which will not yield a score in the 60s to a player who has played well enough to deserve it. On the other hand we do not believe that birdies should not be made too easily.”
For them that meant firm putting surfaces and each green having four pinnable areas with plenty of “carefully contrived undulations” to guard the hole locations. For them, birdies on par-4s (he never mentions the par-3s) had to be earned by a player. “We should like him to hit a truly fine second shot right up against the flag or to hole a putt of more than a little difficulty,” Jones wrote.
In the early years after the course opened, change was underway. The nines were flipped, a number of greenside bunkers were added, the wild boomerang green of the current ninth hole was eradicated and the 10th green was moved 50 yards farther from the tee.
These revisions may have been spurred on in part from the criticism the course received early on from tour players. In 1937 Gene Sarazen had unkind words about the layout after Augusta hosted the fourth Masters, calling it a “weak test” and saying par for the pros was really 68 and not 72, which it was according to MacKenzie and Jones, since the professionals could reach the four par-5s in two.
Something convinced Jones and Roberts that Augusta was no longer ideal.
As a result, the present course is a shadow of its original self, having few of the qualities that MacKenzie designed into the course, other than the large undulating greens. Even his artistic style of bunkers, often compared to puzzle pieces, have been usurped by bland pits of shimmering white sand. The Old Course influence left the property a long time ago.
The list of architects who altered Augusta is astounding considering the club has also done work on its own and some of these names were responsible for multiple changes. They include Perry Maxwell, Robert Trent Jones, George W. Cobb, John LaFoy, George Fazio, Joe Finger, Byron Nelson, Jay Morrish, Bob Cupp, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio.
“Though Augusta National is steeped in tradition, change on the golf course has always been part of the plan,” reads the Masters website, in what appears to be blatant misrepresentation of what MacKenzie and Jones envisioned.
In none of their writings – MacKenzie previewing Augusta in the March 1932 issue of American Golfer magazine, or Jones in his 1959 “Golf is my Game” – even hint, never mind state, that continuous modifications were in their minds.
For many, though, including many panelists who rate golf courses for golf magazines, the changes to Augusta are merely improvements on perfection and there is no need to look to the past to find the original intent of the designers. For them, the Augusta National of 2016 is exactly what MacKenzie and Jones sought – the ideal golf course.