Excerpt: The Masters

The following is from the introduction of The Masters: A Hole-by-Hole History of America’s Golf Classic, Third Edition by David Sowell (Nebraska, 2019).

Six days before Christmas in 1933, it was announced that a new golf tournament would take place in the spring. The tournament would be held on a new course in Georgia, the Augusta National Golf Club, and it would be hosted by the club’s founder, who happened to be the greatest golfer of all time, Bobby Jones. The game of golf has never been so enriched and has never been the same.

Bobby Jones was one of the most celebrated figures in what was called the golden age of sports. From 1923 through 1929 he won nine major golf titles. In 1930 he captured that era’s Grand Slam by winning the British Amateur, the British Open, the United States Open, and the United States Amateur. Up until this incredible feat, no golfer had ever won more than two of these prestigious tournaments in a single year.

In the fall of that year, after announcing his retirement from competition at the age of twenty-eight, Jones remained very much in the public eye. He signed on with Warner Bros. studios to make golf instructional films that were shown in movie theaters across the country. The films were a huge success, allowing a whole generation of golfers to see his beautiful swing at actual speed and in slow motion.

Jones had another endeavor he wanted to pursue, and that was to build what he called his “dream course.” In the spring of 1931 friends of Jones in Augusta, Georgia, suggested that he drive over from Atlanta, his hometown. The friends wanted him to look at a property, Fruitlands Nurseries, which was for sale. This 365-acre tract was once the site of an indigo plantation that had been purchased in 1857 by a Belgian baron named Louis Mathieu Edouard Berckmans. The baron, who was a horticulturist, and his son Prosper, a professional agronomist and horticulturist, had turned the old plantation into one of the South’s finest commercial nurseries.

When Jones came to the property to inspect it, he was driven down the impressive entranceway, Magnolia Lane, to the stately pre–Civil War manor house. He then walked around to the rear of the house and saw before him a beautiful canvas upon which to create his masterpiece: stands of tall pines with flowers and shrubs and vast stretches of open ground that ran down a long hillside toward a stream, Rae’s Creek. A deal for the property was struck, and soon afterward the Augusta National Golf Club was formed.

Jones was an exceptional achiever off the golf course as well. After he earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech in just three years, he received a BS degree from Harvard, where he had spent two years studying English literature. The son of a lawyer, Jones subsequently entered Emory University law school in Atlanta. During his second year at Emory, he passed the Georgia Bar Exam and became a lawyer.

What made Jones a truly exceptional man, in addition to his academic accomplishments, was that he had also been blessed with an attribute often in short supply in the population—the  gift of common sense. While he had an abundance of knowledge about what was required to make a golf hole truly outstanding, he knew that he would need first-rate support if he was to make his “dream course” the great layout he wanted it to be.

One of the first steps Jones took after the Augusta National Golf Club was organized and he had been named its president was to engage the services of renowned Scottish golf course architect Alister MacKenzie. Jones had played Cypress Point on the Monterey Peninsula, one of the courses in the United States that MacKenzie had designed, and he had been deeply impressed.

Another factor in Jones’s selection of MacKenzie was that he wanted Augusta National to have the playing characteristics of the Scottish courses he had come to admire so much. Jones wanted the natural contours of the land to dictate the strategy of the holes. The fairways would be wide and quick, the fairway and greenside bunkers would be kept to a minimum, and the greens would be large, undulating, and fast.

Another key player in the founding of Augusta National was Clifford Roberts, a Wall Street investment banker who handled the financing and operational details of the club. In a few short years Roberts would display an as yet untapped talent, which was showing the world how to put on a first-class golf tournament.

The course formally opened for play in January 1933. Later that year, the inner circle of the club decided that beginning in the spring of 1934, the club would play host to an annual invitational tournament in which the top players in golf would participate. Cliff Roberts wanted the event to be called the Masters, but Jones thought the name too presumptuous, so the event took the official name of the Augusta National Invitational. But a large number of sportswriters had picked up on Roberts’s preferred name, and they referred to the tournament as the Masters from the very beginning. In 1938 Jones finally agreed to change the tournament’s name to the Masters.

The rise of the Masters, the youngest by far of golf’s four major tournaments, is one of the great stories in American sports. The game’s other three major events—the British Open, the United States Open, and the Professional Golfers’ Association of America Championship—were first played in 1860, 1895, and 1916, respectively. During the first full week in April when the tournament annually takes place, millions of Americans who ordinarily can go right on living, even if they confuse a nine-iron with scrap iron, suddenly become consumed with golf, golfers, and Augusta National. As for the millions of golfers and golf fans, it has been said there is a consciousness of the Masters in the air every day of the year.

Because the Masters is the only one of professional golf’s four major tournaments with a permanent home, the game’s greatest players have played more holes of major championship golf at Augusta National than at any other course in the world. In the process they have executed some of the game’s greatest shots and have also on many occasions been humbled beyond belief.

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