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A Golf Story
Bobby Jones, Augusta National, and The Masters Tournament
By Charles Price
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2001 estate of Charles Price
All rights reserved.
In less than two generations, the Augusta National Golf Club became the most storied in America, perhaps the world, with the only possible exception outside the United States being the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland, which was a golf club before America was a country.
Of the four courses in St. Andrews, R & A members mainly play over what is known as the Old Course, which was a golf course in some form or another before America was discovered. Golf, as such, is therefore an old, old game, much older than many golfers outside Scotland and England are aware, particularly American golfers. As a matter of historical fact that raises some eyebrows, people have been playing golf three hundred years longer than they have been playing the piano.
When Augusta National was no more than a matter of clicks on the clock of golf's history, then, the club had already come to be ranked everywhere in the game as something of an institution, although hundreds of courses in America were older, some of which had been holding national championships before Augusta National had been thought of. As celebrated golf clubs go, Augusta National has no age at all, really.
But its history is another, indelible matter.
Modern golf is said to have begun when the rubber-wound ball superseded the gutta-percha at the turn of the century and when the British championships were monopolized by the great professionals Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor, James Braid, and the two great amateurs, Harold Hilton and John Ball, Jr., all of them English except Braid, who was Scottish. If we look at golf that way, modern modern golf may be said to have begun when the steel shaft superseded the hickory in the early thirties. It is more than historically coincidental that that is precisely when Augusta National was created.
For, ever since, the history of the club and its matchless Masters Tournament has paralleled the history of steel-shaft golf.
For all its fame, Augusta National's course has little of the championship furniture you would expect to find within a course that has the status of a palace in the minds of those who fancy golf architecture. It has only forty-five bunkers, or about a third of what many other championship courses have. It has no rough to speak of, and what little there is you could hardly lose a contact lens in, let alone a golf ball. And when the course was remeasured, this time a lot more accurately, nearly half a century after it had been constructed and then embellished and lengthened in a dozen places or more, it was found to be not nearly the much more than seven thousand yards it was thought to have been.
Unlike St. Andrews, which looks today essentially as it did in 1764, when the number of holes was reduced from twenty-two to eighteen, thereby setting that standard throughout the world, Augusta National has gone through a nearly constant state of change since the course was officially opened for play in 1933. Not one hole remains as it was originally designed. The nines have been reversed not once, as some who think they know the course's history like to point out, but twice. And although nobody now alive can remember, the original design, unlikely enough, called for nineteen holes.
What has made Augusta National famous even beyond golf circles, of course, is its annual Masters Tournament, unique in many of its own rights, most of those just as hard to analyze as its minimalist golf course. The championship of the Professional Golfers Association of America is nineteen years older, the open championship of the United States Golf Association thirty-seven, the open championship of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club sixty-six. Yet The Masters carries as much international prestige as any of them and, in the eyes of many golfists, more — much more.
A few other golf events offer a first prize in excess of The Masters's. Several other events are played over courses a number of professionals, some golf-course architects, and a scattering of other experts think are far more spectacular if not superior. And the field at The Masters is often, in the eyes of most journeyman pros, nowhere near as strong as that found at almost any of the monotonous weekly events on the PGA Tour. Still, beyond the sense of any vote taking, The Masters Tournament remains the golf event that the great majority of pros throughout the world — not to mention amateurs — would most like to win.
What makes The Masters Tournament what it is — and what doesn't — is even more perplexing when you stop to think that, strictly speaking, the tournament is not the championship of anything. By winning it, you hold title to that of no golf organization, such as the PGA, the USGA, or the R & A. Winning it automatically makes you an honorary member of Augusta National, though. So you have become, in title, something on the order of its club champion but in fact something immeasurably grander. For the membership of that club includes every truly great golfer since the game was revolutionized by that switch from hickory to steel shafts: Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, and so on, the list limited only by your definition of what greatness in golf is.
With the exception of a year-round office staff consisting only of its tournament director and two assistants, plus eight part-time employees as the tournament draws near, nobody is paid a salary to help produce The Masters Tournament. Most of the production, as intricate as staging a grand opera, is done, outside the clubhouse staff, voluntarily by more than a hundred dues-paying members and more than two hundred various working officials from the USGA, the PGA, and the R & A, some of whom have played in the tournament in the past and all of whom now work for nothing simply because they just enjoy being in Augusta during The Masters, sharing in its sheer perfection, being a part of the vast panoply of it all. When the tournament is over, groups of them sit down in the clubhouse and perhaps have a drink together to discuss how the event worked out. There is seldom a sense of self-satisfaction among them. Instead, they stay around another day or two to play a friendly round or so among themselves, pack their bags, and then go home to spend hours in the months that follow trying to dream up one more tiny improvement for next year's event, one more little thing, however imperceptible, that might give The Masters Tournament that final dab of polish that will say, "There! Now you're perfect!" None of them cares that virtually everybody who follows tournaments in person or on television thinks The Masters already is about as perfect as a golf tournament can get.
Despite all the simon-purity behind the production of The Masters Tournament, or maybe because of it, the event nevertheless holds the reputation everywhere in golf as being the most professionally run tournament or championship the game has known. Even people who direct golf tournaments for a living go to The Masters and come away shaking their heads at how complex everything is behind the scenes, never to be seen by the public, and how casually the tournaments committees manipulate it all, solving problems in a matter of minutes that might involve hundreds of thousands of dollars, such as postponing play or even canceling it for the day because of rain, thereby throwing a whole television network off schedule and complicating the plans of tens of thousands of people: spectators, contestants, police, the press, and that large segment of Augusta whose very economy can skyrocket or plummet with the staging of each Masters.
As nearly perfect as the tournament strikes everyone who has either played in it or just watched it, The Masters actually does manage each year to improve upon its labyrinthine self in some way, somehow, in a mysterious manner hardly anybody can identify, in part because nobody involved in the production of it expects or wants credit for his role, so relatively minor does that role seem when woven throughout the vast tapestry of the tournament. The Masters is The Masters is The Masters. There just is no other event in golf quite like it.
The Masters Tournament buys no advertising, does no promotion — indeed, does not even print a program. Still, it remains harder to get a ticket to than the Kentucky Derby, the World Series, or the Super Bowl. Series Badges, good for the whole tournament, are limited to past patrons who have been going to the tournament steadily since 1963 and must be bought during the month of January, two months before the tournament takes place. A waiting list for them, containing between four thousand and five thousand names, was closed in 1978. Daily tickets are now limited to practice rounds on a first-come, first-served basis, and have not been available for the tournament itself since 1967. Weeks before The Masters is to take place, the tournament committee sends out a strange request to the press. The Masters people ask the press to tell the public not to come to the tournament. There just isn't room for more spectators, this on a golf course that is spread out over more than two hundred acres, or more than twice that of the Old Course at St. Andrews. No other tournament or championship so loyally looks after the comfort and convenience of the followers it already has.
Augusta National could not have been started under more unlikely circumstances in a more unlikely place at a more unlikely time. The land for the course, a moribund nursery, was bought in 1931; the course built largely in 1932; officially opened for play in 1933; and the inaugural Masters Tournament staged in 1934. Those years were at the heightening of an economic depression that saw golf clubs going bankrupt literally by the week.
The city of Augusta was particularly feeling the Great Depression that, by then, had become worldwide. A once-popular resort used largely in the winter by Atlantans because of its milder weather, sitting as it does so much closer to sea level, Augusta had been going steadily downhill as a spa since the turn of the century. The current generation of vacationers from Atlanta and elsewhere had been discovering Florida, instead. Planned as a club for men only, and that solely by invitation, just one man from Atlanta belonged to the club the day it opened and only eighty other members existed, a corporal's guard from Augusta and the rest mainly from New York City, which was overnight by train and the better part of three days by car. By plane — well, you would have to fly your own or hire one.
Those were not the most sanguine conditions under which to start a golf club. Even in the best of economic times, such a club would call for a minimum of three hundred members, all of them local residents, and each of them very active. Augusta National would have members who might play only once or twice a year, if at all.
To top off all the odds against it, Augusta National was laid out adjoining another golf course, this in an age when you seldom saw golf courses anywhere near one another, largely because the golf population of the country was but a tenth of what it would become in the next half century. This course was that of the Augusta Country Club, which was having financial problems of its own. Furthermore, its course had been imaginatively designed, although not in a championship sense, by Donald Ross, a former professional from Scotland who had settled in the village of Pinehurst, North Carolina, just after the turn of the century and had gone on to become generally recognized as America's classic architect as well as its most prolific. Anything Donald Ross designed would be a hard act to follow.
But Augusta National did. Pinehurst Country Club then had three courses, of which the most famous was Number Two. But it bore only a faint resemblance to what it would be after Ross took a look at his new neighbor in Augusta. Ross was then working on a fourth course for Pinehurst, but he abandoned the project after he had studied Augusta National. He then began to rebuild Number Two. Salvaging three holes from the fourth, he combined them with his revamped version of the second, incorporating in the process many of the philosophies behind Augusta National: broad-stream fairways, seascape greens, minimized bunkering. The result was his masterpiece, the Pinehurst Number Two that we know today, although a number of California architects transfigured it during the fifties and sixties as the resort changed ownership until, at last, it was restored to Ross's final design in 1978.
Hundreds of courses would fall under the ethological spell of Augusta National, as though it were an architectural "school," like the Bauhaus. Some of those courses had long been famous as they were, like Oakmont, whose members filled in sixty-five bunkers after some of them had played Mackenzie and Jones's version of what a golf course ought to be.
Augusta National was to become, almost from the day it opened, simply the course most golfers would most like to play, in large part because The Masters fast became the tournament most golfers would most like to win. And so Augusta National itself would become the golf club most golfers would dream of belonging to. The club, the course, the tournament would form a well-tempered triad. Together they would strike a chord in the music of golf that the game is not likely to hear the likes of again.CHAPTER 2
By a stretch of the imagination, Augusta National — and, hence, The Masters Tournament — could be said to have had its genesis not in Augusta, Georgia, at all but in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska. This is how that happened.
In 1929, the United States Golf Association, which had been largely an eastern establishment until then, decided to hold its Amateur Championship beyond the banks of the Mississippi for the first time since it had begun sponsoring championships in 1895. While at it, the USGA went as far west as it could go — clear to California.
For the site, the USGA chose the Pebble Beach Golf Links, a course barely ten years old, 150 miles south of San Francisco on the Monterey Peninsula, where the craggy, pine-strewn duneland is so stunning it could melt the lens in your Kodak. The course had been designed majestically by Jack Neville and Douglas Grant, two former state champions from California, along the jagged cliffs where some foothills of the Big Sur country are chewed away by the teeth of the Pacific. Indeed, eight of its holes are bounded on one side or the other by Carmel Bay, giving Pebble Beach more oceanfront holes, and possibly more water hazards, than any other front-rank course in the world.
Pebble Beach is not particularly long, does not have overly large greens, and is not superfluously bunkered. What distinguishes it is the wind, which seems never to stop blowing there in various degrees ranging clear up to the unplayable. Consequently, those seaside holes are often appallingly difficult, calling on reserves of both power and finesse that even some nationally ranked amateurs do not have. Pebble Beach can be awesome, a course certain to evoke the heroic. The 1929 Amateur Championship was therefore almost universally conceded before it began to Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., of Atlanta — the one and only Bobby.
The complete amateur, Bobby Jones in 1929 was nevertheless simply the most stupendous golfer the game had ever known. Nobody had made the impact on golf and golfers that Jones was then making, not even Harry Vardon, the Edwardian Englishman who had practically reinvented the golf swing at the turn of the century, winning a record six British Opens with it, or Walter Hagen, the grandstanding American who ever since the First World War had been handling other pros on both sides of the Atlantic as though they were yo-yos.
Excerpted from A Golf Story by Charles Price. Copyright © 2001 estate of Charles Price. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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