No golf club is so private while having such a public persona as the Augusta National Golf Club. Its annual Masters golf tournament is the most meticulously run major sporting event on the planet while the golf course is probably the World’s most uniquely famous (with due respect to The Old Course at St. Andrews.) In the Western free world, there is no sporting membership as advantageous a networking tool as a membership there. It is open only a little more than six months a year for its approximately 300 members, but many are working tirelessly at keeping both the Club and The Masters as the standard to which all others are judged. Interestingly, there are a myriad of fun facts and stories about all this.
The Masters Golf Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia really evokes the beginning of the golf year no matter where you reside. I’ve been enjoying and studying it since 1961. Much has been written, but were you aware of the following? How much did you already know? (I believe that the following remains accurate going into the 2022 event and I APOLOGIZE IN ADVANCE FOR THE LACK OF PROPER SPACING BETWEEN PARAGRAPHS.)
It was a crisp December morning in 1930 when Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts, and Alfred Bourne (of Singer Sewing Machine Co.) first set foot on and viewed the property. Jones said, “Frankly I was overwhelmed by the exciting possibilities of a golf course set in such a nursery. I had been told, of course, of the marvelous trees and plants, but I was still unprepared for the great beauty Fruitlands offered.”
Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts exercised a $70,000 option on the 365-acre Fruitland Nursery for what is now the Augusta National Golf Club. Construction began in 1931 and limited play commenced the next year with the formal opening occurring in 1933.
The Club was hardly an instant success. Original plans were for a national membership of 1,800 and a high-end residential community. In four years and tens of thousands of solicitation albeit during the Depression, just 76 joined. The initiation fee was $350 and annual dues were $60. The tournament did not exactly start off robust either despite Bobby Jones coming out of retirement to lure invitees as the player-host. Sixty-five made the first event and then 52, 46, and 42 the succeeding three years. In fact, 1n 1933 an embarrassed Clifford Roberts wrote to creditors and told them they couldn’t pay for their toilet paper from the Augusta Grocery Company .
A $100,000 makeover of the clubhouse was planned at inception, but the Club made due with the existing structure. An anticipated Ladies Course was never built nor was a 19th “Bye Hole” between the 18th green and the clubhouse. The Club’s finances never really solidified until after World War II and for the longest time, women only played as guests.
Between 1943 and 1945, 200 cattle and more than 1,400 turkeys, as well as 42 German prisoners of war occupied the fairways of the closed down Augusta National fairways. The cattle ate a large number of valuable azalea and camellia plants as well as some of the bark of the trees and ended up costing the Club money. Fortunately the Club made up the loss through the sale of the turkeys. The POWs were hired from Camp Gordon and worked mostly on the golf course. In fact, forty-two German POWs, members of a bridge-building engineering crew in Rommel’s “Africka Corps,” the erected a bridge over Rae’s Creek near the 13th tee that lasted until the 1950s. Obviously the tournament was not held during that time.
For years it was mistakenly written that Bobby Jones chose Dr. Alister MacKenzie to design his dream course based on the strength of Jones’ visits to MacKenzie’s Cypress Point and Pasatiempo in 1929. Actually, the two men had met earlier at St. Andrews and bonded based upon their mutual affection for The Old Course.
The Club nearly went bankrupt and only paid course designer Alistair Mackenzie only $2,000 of the $10,000 it owed him. He died in January, 1934 just two months before the first tournament was held. He never saw or played the finished course.
Magnolia Lane was not paved until 1947.
Founders Circle is at the base of the flagpole in front of the clubhouse. Two plaques there honor the Masters’ founders: Bob Jones and Clifford Roberts.
Again during World War II, the Club struggled financially. Dues were suspended, but members were asked to donate $100 a year so that the Club could retain ownership to the property. Most did.
The first tournament was held March 22, 1934 and since 1940 it has been scheduled for the first full week in April, but was postponed in 2020 until November when no patrons were admitted and the par-three tournament was also canceled – all due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
Inaugural champion Horton Smith holed a three-and-a-half footer to win and called it “the longest putt” of his life. He used a “Bobby Jones” model driver.
The prize money for the tournament remained constant from the beginning until the tournament was suspended for the beginning of World War II. The total purse was $5,000 and it was paid to the twelve leading professionals. Clifford Roberts would annually pass the hat among the membership to raise this amount, but the Club continued to lose money each year on the tournament and also suffer operating deficits as a Club. The Club had but 76 members at tournament time.
The core of the original clubhouse was built in 1854 and is recognized as the first cement house to be constructed in the South.
The remains of an Indian burial ground were discovered in the area of the 12th green when the course was built in the early 1930s. A grist mill stood from the 1770s to 1830s where the current dam is located behind the 11th green. At one time, a portion of an old grist wheel was visible in Rae’s creek in front of the 12th green.
The original late 1920s prospectus for Augusta National called for the handsome 1854 manor clubhouse to be razed. A new clubhouse was to have been outfitted in whitewashed brick and would have housed a gigantic locker room, but in 1931, an early member named Harry Atkinson wrote to club co-founder Clifford Roberts, stating that Atkinson’s wife was quite fond of the building and asked that it be renovated instead. With money tight at the time, the clubhouse survived — and prospered.
Annual dues for membership started at $60 per year and the membership initiation fee was $350 would be in the neighborhood of a paltry $4,217 in 2015 dollars). Those who underwrote the club signed a firm commitment for a minimum of $5,000 and a goal of $50,000, but in a mission to solicit Alfred Bourne of the Singer Sewing Machine family, the committee chairperson mistakenly stammered out a request of $50,000 instead of $5,000 to which Bourne provided the very next morning. Mission accomplished! Walton Marshall provided $25,000 and several more $5-10,000. Bobby Jones was not asked as it was known that he had no money until he later received the monumental sum of about half a million dollars for his golf instructional movie work with Warner Brothers.
The property was once an indigo plantation, but was purchased by the Belgian Baron Berckman’s family in 1857. Their son, Prosper, who was an agronomist and horticulturist, began importing many trees and plants from around the world including the azalea that remained on the property. The Baron died in 1883 and his son Prosper passed in 1910 with the nursery ceasing operations in 1918.
In recent years during The Masters, all fairways are mowed in one direction back toward the tee. This makes the course play longer and approaches and short game shots just a bit more exacting as one is hitting against the grain of the grass. Previously the course was groomed back to the tee in one direction and toward the green in the other. It was felt that players able to achieve a down-grain hit and achieved much greater distance and preferable lie, while the newer way makes the entire fairway play the same for everyone.
Inspired by the building of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Bob Jones, and particularly Clifford Roberts especially looked to build a golf hall of fame at Augusta. It would feature a full miniature version of Augusta, a movie wing, replicas of the books in the library, and a driving range. The plan was scrapped because of the start of World War II.
No one actually won “The Masters” until 1939 because from 1934 through 1938 the event was known as the “Augusta National Invitation Tournament.”
The worst opening round by an eventual champions was a 75 by Craig Stadler in 1982 who was a first-time competitor.
Walter Hagen would play in only one “Masters” in 1934. He finished tied for 13th along with the tournament’s founder, Bobby Jones.
Bobby Jones came out of retirement to compete in the inaugural event and finished 10 strokes back, tied for 13th despite some balky putting. In the tournament, Jones took 36, 38, 30 and 32 putts for the four rounds, respectively. (He played the tournament another 11 times.)
Horton Smith was a magician around the greens and known as one of the best putters of the time when he won the first and third Augusta National Invitations. In 1934, he made a 20-foot birdie on the 17th and a downhill 4-footer on 18 to win. Two years later, Smith holed a 40-foot chip on 14, made an 8-footer on 15, and a 16-footer on 17 in closing out his victory. His Ryder Cup record was also impeccable as he played on five teams and never lost a match. Smith served as President of the PGA and owned 32 Tour titles while finishing second 37 times.
Horton Smith won the inaugural Masters playing a “Bobby Jones Model” Driver.
While the Masters did more to make Arnold Palmer famous and start Tiger Woods on his great span of play, it was Jack Nicklaus that has truly dominated. Nicklaus holds the record for most wins (6), most top five finishes (15), most top ten finishes (22), most career birdies (506) and most career eagles (24). Additionally, he is the oldest ever winner (46 and 2 months in 1986), has finished in second place four times (a record he shares with Ben Hogan and Tom Weiskopf) and recorded the second lowest score for 72 holes (271 – 1965).
The term “Amen Corner” was coined in 1958 by the late venerable golf journalist, Herbert Warren Wind because he felt that this was the section of the golf course where the crucial events took place. He borrowed the phrase from the old jazz recording entitled “Shouting at Amen Corner,” a mid-1930s jazz recording by Mezz Mezzrow made by the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra, with Mildred Bailey on vocals.
My friend Reid Nelson from Charleston, South Carolina further points out this about “Shouting at Amen Corner.” Says Reid, “Amen Corner referred to a particular area of New York City that, way back when, was known as a center of Bible publishing, printing, whatever you call it. Because so many Bibles were printed in that area, street preachers would go there daily and shout out there sermons on this particular street corner. Those who gathered to listen to the impromptu evangelists would repeatedly yell out “Amen,” as the preachers gave their sermons. So locals began to call that street corner Amen Corner.) So now you know the rest of the story. Thank you Reid!
A tournament of firsts: The Masters was the first tournament to host a 72-hole competition over four days; the first to have room to park thousands of cars; the first to offer free daily pairing sheets instead of a program; the first tournament to be covered nationwide on radio and later on High Definition TV; the first to use bleachers; the first to use rope galleries; and the first to use private detectives to handle ticket sales and security. It developed the first on-course scoreboard and was the first to use the over/under par system we generally use today.
On March 22, 1934, at 9:45 a.m., journeyman Ralph Stonehouse was the first player ever to tee off in a Masters Tournament (then called the Augusta National Invitational).
Ben Hogan began the Tuesday night “Champion’s Dinner” tradition in 1952, but never attended another after he finished 10th in 1967 except in 1978 as relayed by defending champion Tom Watson. The previous year’s winner chooses the menu and pays the bill.
Ben Hogan, who, on Jan. 12, 1954, sent a letter to Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts reflecting on the first two Champion Dinners. Hogan wanted to express its significance. “Surely this has to be the most exclusive club of all,” Hogan wrote. “Not only do a fortunate few of us have the tournament to look forward to, but the annual meeting of our club as well. Here, long after serious competition for some of us comes to an end, we can still get together and reminisce. I can only hope that I shall play host a few more times.”
The Champion’s Dinner begins at about 6 p.m. with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Masters Club Room, a second-floor locker room and lounge reserved for past champions. Many champions bring memorabilia to be passed around for autographs, then taken home to auction off at charity tournaments and dinners. At 7:30, the party adjourns to the adjacent library. A group photo is taken, and then everyone takes a place at the huge rectangular dinner table set up in front of the double doors that lead out onto the veranda. Green carpet, white tablecloth and champion golfers. In 2020, with people wearing masks and sitting socially distant, you can imagine that many conversations may have been left unheard among the older champions.
The Champion’s Dinner was held on Fridays for the first seven years before shifting to Tuesdays in 1959. It consisted of chicken, steak, or fish until the mid-1980s when the reigning champion selected their own menu. And no one is forced to partake in that menu and can select something else as several did when Sandy Lyle presented haggis composed of the heart, liver, and lungs of a sheep. Hogan emceed the initial four years before handing that honor over to Byron Nelson who continued until after the 2004 event upon which Ben Crenshaw took over. The past living champion who has missed the most meals has been Jackie Burke, Jr. (99 in 2022). For years, the ultimate story-teller, Sam Snead, would conclude usually with an array of off-color humor that reportedly Byron Nelson cared little for. It has been believed by Snead’s older son, Jack, that it was for his Dad’s annual cracks that he never received a namesake landmark at the Club.