Augusta National is the course on every golfer’s bucket list. But it’s evolution away from the original creation of Alister MacKenzie and Bob Jones has been to its detriment. Here’s how the home of the Masters could be an even better course.
The holes at Augusta National are the best-known in golf, the course is the choice of most as the one they’d like to play and millions of words have been written about it – to the point where you wonder if there is anything left to say.
For most it is likely the best experience they could have at a golf club and also their idea of a perfectly conditioned course. The hills make for dramatic golf and the 13th hole might be the best and most nuanced hole in the game. Either way, it sits alongside the Road Hole at St Andrews.
Ran Morrissett, the head of the World Top-100 golf course rating panel for a US golf publication, lived and worked in Sydney in the early 2000s and still visits our shores. On his occasional forays to Royal Melbourne, he comes across members anxious to play Augusta. “It’s a long way to go for worse golf” is his standard reply and he’s right.
If Alister MacKenzie was forced to pick his best course there isn’t much doubt he’d have Royal Melbourne a step above.
Augusta more than any other course constantly faces the dilemma of how to stay relevant for the world’s best players whilst remaining playable for the members and still championing the principles of MacKenzie and the club’s founder Bobby Jones.
The necessity for the course to remain relevant for the best players is increasingly a problem as manufacturers continually innovate in the never-ending chase for more speed and more distance. Approach shots are now played from places unimaginable to Jones and MacKenzie even though the Scotsman understood “there was no limit to science” and advised clubs to leave room behind tees so they could be moved back.
Augusta National faced a predicament after Tiger Woods’ extraordinary 1997 Masters win. It wasn’t the score so much (one shot better than Jack Nicklaus’ winning 271 in 1965 – the year Jones told Nicklaus he was “playing a game with which he was not familiar”) but rather Woods twice hit wedges onto the par 5, 15th hole, reached the 2nd (the longest hole) with a drive and a 9 iron on Saturday and pretty much every par-4 was reduced to the combination of driver and wedge.
Unsurprisingly the club’s reaction was to add length, more than 500 yards of it.
Dustin Johnson’s record-breaking 268 in November suggests both the course was softer than usual and the length hasn’t had much effect in the face of modern equipment and regulatory inaction.
RIGHT: MacKenzie’s vision was for a winding creek to defend the 15th green not a pond, which features prominently there today.
There are three ways to look at the question of how to make Augusta a better course whilst at the same time trying to make the test Jones and MacKenzie wished to set is, at the very least, somewhat respected.
Perhaps we’re not going back to 1958 when the strongest man in the game, Arnold Palmer, made a dramatic final day eagle on the 13th after reaching the green with a driver and a 3-wood. The choice Palmer made that afternoon was indeed “momentous’ just as Jones had wanted. Nick Faldo faced the same in 1996 when he went back and forth between a 2-iron and a 5-wood in his duel with Greg Norman. A handful of years later, golf ball technology changed dramatically when manufacturers built a playable two-piece ball and, in a flash, a third of the Tour were driving it as far as Woods was in 1997.
The recent joint USGA/R&A study threatens to wind back the ball at the top level and there can be no question a shorter ball would make for more interesting golf without the continuing need to push tees further and further back.
Lukas Michel, the youngest member of the World Top-100 ranking panel (headed by Morrissett) and one of only five Australians judging the world’s best courses, played The Masters in November, an exemption he earned by winning the US Mid-Amateur championship.
“The only way to have Augusta play closer to the ideal is to reduce the distance the ball flies” said Michel of his experience.
The second step might involve a study of the drawings MacKenzie made of the proposed greens complexes. They offer a hint of how he wanted the bunkers to be shaped and the clean, almost pristine, look and feel of the current bunkers is far removed from both his apparent wishes and the way the bunkers originally looked.
Clifford Roberts ruled the club with an iron fist and six chairmen removed is Fred Ridley, the 1974 US Amateur champion and long-time friend of Ben Crenshaw. With partner Bill Coore, Crenshaw is one half of the best design team in the world and they have built a remarkable collection of great courses known for beautiful, natural construction melding perfectly with nature. If the natural sand isn’t white, the sand isn’t white. The edges of their bunkers are anything but ‘clean’ or sharp, and they change with the effects of wind, rain and time.
Crenshaw avoids controversy, studiously keeping his own counsel when it comes to Augusta but it’s not hard to imagine both he and Coore advocating for a return to the more natural look and shaping of the original bunkers.
The 9th green is the one most dramatically altered (aside from the relocated 7th, 10th and 16th greens) and the original ‘horseshoe’ green MacKenzie made looks to have been significantly more interesting than the steeply pitched current version rewarding play from the outside of the dogleg. The original had parts of the green where the optimal line would have been from further left, thus creating more strategic variety as well as restoring the green MacKenzie built.
Of the relocated greens, the 10th (the original was just right of the bunker in the middle of the fairway) makes for a more difficult and, likely, much better hole.
The 7th was a drivable par-4 with a green built around the principles of the final green at St Andrews, the course Jones and MacKenzie admired more than any other. The green went back in 1938, the new version surrounded by bunkers made for a demanding pitch shot but the hole has since been lengthened from 270 to 400 metres. The fairway is now so narrow
it’s clearly a distortion of the original vision and it’s the pick of many as the ‘least good’ hole on the course.
RIGHT: The original horseshoe green at the 9th hole designed by MacKenzie.
One really fascinating hole to contemplate is the original 16th, a short par-3 across the creek with a swale cutting through the middle of the green leaving higher wings on both the left and right no doubt demanding of precise short iron play.
Robert Trent-Jones built the current hole and it’s probably more difficult and no doubt many famed moments of Masters history have been on the 16th green.
Maybe, though, the original was more fun?
As Crenshaw once said, “I do not mean to imply that short par-3s do not exist anymore, though its type is not frequently attempted by many architects today. But quite selfishly, I would enjoy seeing more of them, for it’s one of the many ways to check unbridled power, and occasionally, make those long hitters’ knees tremble.”
Rae’s Creek running diagonally across the front of the 13th green is one of the game’s great hazards. Two holes later the 15th, the second back nine par-5, is fronted by a perfectly positioned pond but it’s, well, a pond.
RIGHT: The original par-3 16th hole at Augusta National.
MacKenzie’s vision was a more natural-looking creek defending the green from both long range second shots and pitch shots. It’d be a much better hole if the look of the creek on the 13th was replicated at the 15th.
Finally, there is the vexing question of what to do with the trees. The course is much narrower than it was, the forest much more dense and the holes, one must assume, narrower than either Jones or MacKenzie envisaged.
Late in his life, Jones and his friend the English writer and broadcaster, Alistair Cooke, were sitting on the porch of his Augusta cottage. Cooke wrote of the scene, “Jones looked down at the towering pines, the great cathedral nave, of the plunging 10th fairway. ‘I don’t see,’ he said deadpan, ‘any need for a tree on a golf course’.”
MacKenzie too might take a dim view of the added trees, the most egregious of which are to the right of both the 11th and 17th holes. “Playing down fairways bordered by straight lines of trees” wrote MacKenzie “is not only unartistic but makes tedious and uninteresting golf. Many green committees ruin one’s handiwork by planting trees like rows of soldiers along the borders of the fairways.”
The 11th was formerly a hugely wide hole where shots from one side of the fairway were much different from shots played from the opposite side of the fairway but Michel said of the 11th hole, “It’s just really narrow now.”
“The truth is” writes American writer and some-time architect, Geoff Shackelford, “Mackenzie was a better architect than most people could ever imagine, but little of his original work remains to demonstrate his ability. Some of his lesser known courses disappeared during the Depression, others were closed and reopened after World War II (usually with several bunkers missing) and some have been drastically altered by club committees labouring under the assumption that MacKenzie actually loved trees.”
There is an understandable fear wider fairways only make it easier for the bombers which, makes it increasingly important something is finally done about the equipment.
“Something very drastic ought to have been done years and years ago. Golf courses are becoming far too long” wrote MacKenzie … some 90 years ago.
You can be sure Fred Ridley, with the USGA and the R&A, will be on the front line arguing it’s well past time for “drastic” action and the bolder the decision the better the golf course will play.