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The Magical Masters
Like the bright promise of a new dawn, the Masters Tournament awakens golf in the hearts of the whole sports world. Yes, ardent golfers watch the Mercedes-Benz Invitational in Hawaii to abate January's chill, and some fans may pay attention to the California swing. But only the magical Masters banishes winter from our minds, brings forth flowers from the frozen ground, and stirs our souls for golf to take root and bloom another year.
This annual rite of spring not only informally heralds the arrival of golf season across America, but showcases America's most iconic club: Augusta National, an emerald whose dazzling iridescence casts an entrancing spell over both casual fans and lifelong golfers. The legacy of Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur in the game's history, and Clifford Roberts, the tenacious self-made entrepreneur who willed the club through the Great Depression, Augusta National is not just a major championship host, but the most venerable course in American golf, the brightest jewel in the diadem.
It wasn't always this way. Jones, Roberts, and golf architect Alister MacKenzie were brimming with hopeful optimism on July 14, 1931, at the Bon Air Vanderbilt in Augusta when Jones announced he was building his idealized course in his beloved South - "A golf course embodying the finest holes of all the great courses on which I have played." But born in the teeth of the Great Depression, Augusta survived financial crises so dire that Roberts wrote to Jones in 1934, just before the inaugural "Augusta National Invitational Tournament," the club was "One jump ahead of the Sheriff."
"Oddly enough, being broke provided Augusta National with its best defense," wrote venerable golf scholar Marino Parascenzo. "The large creditors weren't demanding payment because they knew they'd get nothing from a bankrupt club . . . [and] the club did in fact get protection from creditors for the benefit of the Georgia Railroad Bank and Trust Co., holder of the first mortgage - a move that more than any other, kept Augusta National in being."
Looking back through the decades, it's astonishing to see how much we've become preconditioned to believe Augusta National's reputation is all wrong. Money, power and elitism didn't build Augusta; courage, faith, and perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds built the club. Men who, at times, couldn't rub two nickels together built Augusta.
"Dissipation of energy, fragmentation of vision, loss of momentum and lack of follow-through are the vices of the herd," wrote British author Ian Fleming in his masterpiece, "Dr. No." Yet in the chaos and carnage the Depression wrought on other clubs - even Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Pasatiempo suffered terribly - Jones, Roberts, and MacKenzie endured and showed what vision, a singular focus on the task at hand, and hard work can achieve.
At times in its early years the course was seemingly held together with duct tape and Popsicle sticks. But Augusta National had the two most important elements for success in place: gorgeous, rolling terrain on which to build fiendishly intricate greens and holes that tempt the player into hitting unwise shots, and Roberts' wisdom to run a large-scale, modern professional sporting event by focusing on the comfort and enjoyment of the patrons.
Regarding golf architecture, Jones and Roberts were faced with a dream decision, but a difficult choice: hire Donald Ross or Alister MacKenzie. As golf writer Tom MacWood explains: "Ross was without question the most famous and prolific golf architect in America, the problem was Jones didn't want an American course." That meant the logical choice was MacKenzie, an Englishman who marketed his Scottish-sounding name with such fanfare and decoration that Parascenzo once joked you might find MacKenzie wearing "a sandwich board reading 'I AM A GENUINE SCOT!' on one side, and 'Please see me now about designing your golf course' " on the other.
MacKenzie's showmanship and the nation's love affair with Jones were two excellent draws, and the land for the golf course, an old indigo plantation-turned-Fruitland Nursery contained thousands of exotic, stately and exquisitely beautiful trees, shrubs and flora. Moreover, the choice of MacKenzie ensured that Augusta, as originally built, rejected penal architecture and the "doctrine of framing." MacWood wrote: Jones "felt that American courses were generally penal in nature, for they did not allow for options. There was one safe choice and the ball must be played there. The result was an unthinking player who had the ability to play only one way."
Despite what some pundits have recently said to the contrary, that was not what Jones had in mind at all. David Owen makes that abundantly clear in his book "The Making of the Masters." Donald Ross, despite all his years in Scotland, still preferred hundreds of bunkers lining fairways, blurring what was ornamental with the strategic. In music, that results in harmony. In golf design, it leads to making every shot on the course a mindlessly dull center-line play.
MacKenzie, on the other hand, loved the Old Course at St. Andrews and, more importantly, knew that the holes there were among the most cunning ever designed, looking relatively easy but playing much harder. Moreover, the bunkers at St. Andrews were ingeniously placed - frequently in the center line. Jones wanted spacious fairways, but also severely undulating greens and cleverly placed hazards that punished improperly struck or planned approaches. He therefore chose MacKenzie over Ross.
The Good Doctor was more than able to the task. MacKenzie borrowed from at least five holes of the Old Course in designing Augusta National. St. Andrews' par-3 11th, called the "Eden Hole" as its lays serenely by the banks of the River Eden, became the source for Augusta's par-3 fourth. The fabled Road Hole became the inspiration for Augusta's par-4 fifth, the centerpiece of what has been called Augusta's other Amen Corner. MacKenzie loved how the bunker at the Road Hole was carved so deeply into the curve of the green - the bunker even affecting putts and making the player use the internal green contours to "cut" or "slice" a putt around the bunker edge. He repeated this theme on many courses, most notably at Michigan's Crystal Downs, until the design feature was unfairly shouted down as "too difficult."
At least three other holes at Augusta are derived from the Old Course: St. Andrews' sixth became Augusta's 14th (the only hole on the course without a bunker), and the 18th became Augusta's seventh (MacKenzie admitted it was a superficial resemblance only). This year 6 feet were added to the left side of the seventh green generating at least two additional pin locations. And the 14th became Augusta's 17th (which is more famous for Eisenhower's Tree, an otherwise unremarkable pine that invariably confounded the former president's slice).
Other fabled UK courses provided inspiration to MacKenzie and Jones at Augusta National as well. MacKenzie wrote in 1931, "At Augusta we are striving to produce eighteen ideal holes, not copies of classical holes, but embodying their best features, with other features suggested by the nature of the terrain." To that end, MacKenzie explained the following similarities:
"#15 [Author's Note: Now No. 6 as the nines were reversed after MacKenzie wrote this piece.] - "This will resemble the Redan Hole at North Berwick…."
#17 (now 8) - "It may be compared to the seventeenth green at Muirfield, Scotland…."
#18 (now 9) - "This will be a Cape Hole played slightly downhill…."
#1 (now 10) - "This hole will embody the most attractive features of the 13th hole at Cypress Point, California and the 4th Alwoody, one of the best British inland links…."
#7 (now 16) - "This hole, over a stream, is somewhat similar to the best hole (seventh) at Stoke Pages, England."
But MacKenzie didn't stop at merely recreating good holes he saw elsewhere; his greatest skill was strategic placement of hazards. Did any other architect accomplish so much with so few bunkers? For example, one design trick MacKenzie learned from both the Old Course and his experience as a World War I camouflage expert was to position hazards in such a way as to tempt players into hitting too dangerous a shot. Therefore, Jones's decision was a fateful one whose repercussions echo through the decades. By rejecting the Doctrine of Framing - which "dumbs-down" a golf course to require only certain shots, and embracing the Doctrine of Deception - luring the player into trying a shot outside his skill level, players skyrocket up and down the leaderboard like fireworks and the fans' excitement multiplies because lightning can strike anytime, anywhere, triggering the fabled "Roaring on the pines."
Unlike the U.S. Open, where players percolate downward slowly and the winner is often merely the last man standing after 72 holes, you have to go out and win the Masters with birdies . . . and that makes for exciting golf. By succeeding or failing at that borderline, tempting shot - the difference between making a 3 or a 6 - the Masters fosters an exciting synergy of romance, tragedy and triumph. If you want major championship excitement, the Masters has the freehold and owns the trademark.
Moreover, Augusta rewards recovery shots and creative short games. While players at the U.S. Open spend the week with 60-degree wedges in their hands, Augusta's shaved chipping areas and fiendishly rolling contours let players "cut their coat according to their cloth" and play a multitude of creative recovery shots: bump and run, pitch and check, lob, putt or anything else the situation requires.
Nevertheless, Augusta has also gone through more changes since its inception than any other of the world's 20-or-so greatest courses. Changes were made to the golf course in 41 different years. Interestingly, and to some, alarmingly, the most extensive occurred in 2002. Tom Fazio extended nine different holes, each an average of 25-30 yards, (and the 18th alone by 55-60 yards). In 2006, Fazio lengthened six more, each by an average of 20-25 yards. "Refinements to the golf course and grounds have been made almost every year since the tournament's inception," Tournament Chairman Billy Payne said in a release from Augusta National. But now with the addition of trees and rough to narrow landing areas off the tee, many believe the course design has forever changed to the opposite of what Jones wanted.
In this writer's opinion, narrowing the landing areas turns Augusta National into a center-line course more akin to a U.S. Open set-up than a Masters. Many pundits joked last year that Zach Johnson won the first U.S. Open ever held in April. "We think last year's exceptionally high scores were an anomaly due to the frigid, windy weather," explained Payne. He has a point. The winning score was what's known in the sports industry a "statistical outlier," a result so far away from normal that it should be discarded from consideration. However, the weather was a statistical outlier too. Perhaps Augusta never saw worse weather in spring since the ill-fated Official Opening in 1933 which, according to the next day's Augusta Chronicle article, featured "near freezing weather which came in with a cold rain," and where guests ate barbecued chicken and bootleg corn liquor in a tent.
Ignoring last year's anomaly, consider this fact: there are fewer one-time major championship winners who won at the Masters than at any other major. The PGA Championship has 31 winners who claimed it as their only major, the U.S. Open has 22, the British Open 21, but the Masters a mere 14. Many golf scholars believe that course set-up - rough, fairway width and speed of the greens - impact how many players in the field will contend. For example, wayward drivers rarely win the U.S. Open. (Last year was the statistical outlier with Cabrera shooting 69 on Sunday after hitting only five fairways. That's the stat of a man who shoots 79 at the U.S. Open, not 69).
At Augusta, the wider fairways, yet tiny second-shot targets, coupled with the ability to allow the players to recover from trouble, allow the best players to use their entire array of talents. They are not limited to hitting irons of the tee and wedges to the fairway after finding the rough. Additionally, the pressure at the Masters, the weight of history and the legacy of a career, may ultimately reward the more experienced player.
I proposed this theory to preeminent golf course architect Tom Fazio in a recent interview, and he rejected the notion that the architecture of the course contributed to fewer unknowns breaking through at Augusta. Instead, he cited the limited nature of this invitational tournament and the players' familiarity with the course. "It was an invitational for a long time," he explained, "a limited field. To qualify for Masters, you had to be tournament winner. I don't think it has to do with architecture, I think it's the importance of the event and that great champions are more familiar with the course since it's played every year. If they played the other majors on the same course all the time, the same effect might take place because the golfers are more familiar with the venue and there are more opportunities for the best players to win."
Many students of golf architecture disagree with Fazio. Further, they argue that because many of the original design concepts and strategic elements have been changed, much of MacKenzie and Jones's elements were lost and the course has become one-dimensional. The lengthening of holes may make sense to offset the advances in equipment, but fast and firm conditions plus narrower fairways through tree-planting turns the course into the dictatorial type of design Jones wanted to avoid. Moreover, lengthening and narrowing should not create a strategic disconnect - that is change completely the way the hole was originally designed and should not eliminate options available to the player. That is an open question yet to be determined.
If you want to win the Masters, you should have to put the pedal to the metal on the back nine. I have no problem with fast and firm conditions. But last year, fast and firm coupled with zany weather acted like a restrictor plate on the field and the winning score resembled a U.S. Open's. This year's event will be a closely-watched litmus test for the direction the course set-up has taken. If back-nine birdies are down again this year, the changes may have taken much of the inherent excitement from the Masters.
Still, while some argue that the constant tinkering has undermined the uniqueness and original intent of the designers, the tournament is still the flagship of American golf and a hugely influential standard to which all professional sporting events should still be held. The patrons come first; all their needs are anticipated and provided at a reasonable price. The Masters was the first golf event to park 10,000 cars, provide daily pairing sheets, supply diagrams of the golf course on the reverse side, rope off galleries, use the "over-under" method of scoring, and install erect on-course scoreboards, among other innovations. Roberts made the tournament a success by focusing on the exact things preyed upon by the Jim Dolans and Dan Snyders of the world. He focused on the needs of his customers.
The genteel, restrained and dignified way in which the Masters Tournament is run is an integral part of its allure with casual and fervent fans. Despite modern society's efforts to dumb down the rest of the sports world to the lowest common denominator, the Masters is still pure and inspiring. That will continue for decades, no matter what the winning score.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.