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reflections from Augusta National, the US Masters

by ausgolf writer Selwyn Berg

I’ve trodden on many prestigious Australian Golf Courses - Royal Melbourne, Metropolitan, The National – plus sacred turf in Britain and Ireland – St Andrews, Carnoustie, Ballybunion – but nothing comes close to the magic of Augusta National.

To view the gorgeous yet understated Georgian clubhouse through the 61 huge Magnolia trees that lend their name to the main drive of 300 yards from the entrance gates sends shivers through the spine. To look out from the return porches over the course that we know so well from television coverage of The Masters Tournament, one can sense the anticipation that the legendary Bobby Jones must have felt when he first stood on the site of the present practice green, surveyed the fruit orchards running down to a natural creek and proclaimed “Perfect! And to think that this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it. His thoughts on golf architecture conformed precisely with those of his chosen co-designer, Dr Alister Mackenzie of Scotland (designer of Royal Melbourne amongst others). And what courage those founding fathers had, to undertake the construction during the darkest days of the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

So what does Augusta really look like? Undeniably beautiful – more beautiful than television can ever show. The adornment of every hole by a distinctive botanical specie, over 80,000 plants of over 300 varieties, all fine-tuned with fertilizer and temperature control to bloom at the required moment takes your breath away. Unfortunately, the Magnolia Lane trees do not bloom until June. The layout is surprisingly compact, given that the original purchase was some 365 acres. There are many places on the course where adjacent holes are separated by just a few pine trees, unlike the dense forests that surround holes at Brookwater and Bonville – Australia’s two courses that to me have some similarities with respect to undulation and the heavily wooded environment.
Augusta though, has no heavy undergrowth beneath the trees, except for the natural forest on the OOB side of the course. My second surprise was unusual – I had expected steeper hills. Probably because everyone tells you that television does not reveal the slope that exists. That’s true, and there are certainly many subtle and not so subtle slopes around the greens, and into the water hazards and bunkers that are far more dramatic than they appear on TV. It’s the little bumps and swales that television doesn’t show.

augusta18

The steep 18th fairway at Augusta

The grooming, and the technology applied to growing grass is everything one expects and more. The 2003 Masters was played on a course that received 100mm of rain during the week. Despite the Thursday washout, fairways were immaculate and greens lightning fast albeit a little soft. Thousands of spectators tramping over limited areas of crossways and beside fairways brought up the mud, but failed to really damage the wiry tough grass. The brilliant white imported Feldspar sand sparkles in the bunkers. Subsurface ventilation shafts are used to draw air through and aid in drying fairways. And of course there’s that famous heating and cooling system installed in 1981 under the 12th green at the course’s lowest point over Rae’s Creek.

amen corner
  Augusta's intimidating and immaculate Amen Corner - the 11th and 12th.

The course today has been altered dramatically in order to present an ongoing challenge to the world’s best players, utilising space age technology, for one week in April. It’s not the creation of back tees, that merely add length, and in some opinions actually preserve the Mackenzie strategic situation for the drive, but the other changes that have transformed Augusta into a more penal layout. Originally there were but 22 bunkers. There were options on almost every shot. Mackenzie liked to offer lesser players a safe route. For example the second hole, a dogleg left downhill par 5 featured a left side carry bunker off the tee, offering big hitters a challenge to hit a powerful draw, then a long fade to run onto the open left side of the green, which was guarded only front right. Lesser players layed up safely short of this bunker and pitched on. Now the drive bunker has been shifted to the previously safe right side, making the strategic left easier, and punishing “safe” play. A new bunker front left of the green halts the running approach so favored by Mackenzie and Jones in keeping with the game’s Scottish heritage. There are many more such examples on the course, but perhaps none has been as dramatic as the introduction of a “second cut” of rough in 1999. It’s only 1and 3/8 inches, but this dense grass can swallow a ball or create a “flyer” that won’t hold on the green. Mackenzie despised long grass on a golf course, stating that it caused a “stilted and cramped style of play”.

The 2003 Masters was played on a course that demanded length and accuracy, with many commentators predicting that only Woods and a handful of other big hitters could win. Certainly Jack Nicklaus conceded that, in the heavy conditions, he could no longer handle the course, even with a ball that was giving him an extra 20 yards over 2002. Mike Weir’s performance however showed that brute force was certainly not a necessary ingredient for this course, and aided redesigner Tom Fazio’s cause in claiming that he had narrowed the course off the tee in order to reward accuracy and counter the argument that to win at Augusta you needed to hit it long and high. We always knew that on these greens you needed to find the right part of the putting surface and putt superbly. Weir did just that averaging a 'mere' 271 yards from the tee (compared with the 295 yard average drive of Phil Mickelson) and requiring just 102 putts over the four rounds. Aside from hitting a high percentage of fairways (74%) Weir also found just three bunkers all week and managed to regularly get the ball up and down by missing greens to the safe side.

augusta13Despite Jack’s demise, and Norman’s absence, despite Martha Burk’s paltry protest (drawing a crowd of around 200 on Saturday afternoon), this is a magical event. There are no spectators, only “patrons”. “Running is considered to be unacceptable behaviour”, warns the guide. The waiting list for admission tickets was closed in 1978. There are no giant screens, no grandstand at 18. The players are treated with utmost respect, ushers do not carry nameboards indicating the grouping’s scores, nor do they hold up signs imploring “silence”- that is automatic. However, with all due respect to Robert Tyre Jones, Jr, who wrote in 1967 that Masters patrons were “the most knowledgeable and considerate in the game”, I’d put in a little plug for Australian galleries. Perhaps times have changed, but, mingling with the patrons, I frequently heard questions such as “what hole is this?

2003 may have been played without sponsors, but The Masters is still a huge media event. Never before had I seen such purpose-built infrastructure to accommodate the world’s press. Opened in 1990 this new building is five times the size of the hut which it replaced, and contains tiered seating, a TV screen dedicated to each hole of the back nine, an electronic leaderboard and much more.