Situated in Augusta (Georgia) in a valley near the border with South Carolina, the US Masters venue is a very special club. It opened in December 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, founded by millionaire Clifford Roberts and legendary golfer Bobby Jones.
After a career replete with titles, and still just 28, Jones retired from top competition one month after winning the then Grand Slam, at the peak of his career. The truth is that Jones wasn’t a player like any other of his category: he only played 80 rounds a year, and dedicated just three months a year to travelling and playing in competitions.
In 1948, at 46 years of age, he suffered his toughest setback: diagnosed with a rare disease of the nervous system, he was never able to play golf again. He suffered severe back and neck pain, and medical tests showed he had growing osseous in three cervical vertebras. At first he had to use a cane when walking, later crutches, and during the final years of his life he was confined to a wheelchair. After 23 years of suffering from pain of varying degrees, he died on 18 December 1971, at 69.
As for Roberts, he was an investment banker who was able to recover from the Wall Street crash of 1929. In 1931, he discovered a property in Augusta for a project his friend Jones wanted to develop: a plot of land on the outskirts of the city. Said Jones: “It seems as though this place has been waiting here for years to be turned into a golf course.” The financier bought the land and the Augusta National adventure began. Roberts died in 1977 at 83. Seriously ill, he spent his final days at Augusta, a place he considered home. He committed suicide next to the 10th hole.
Roberts was the first president of Augusta National, and Jones was named “life president” in 1966, at the age of 64. Roberts was very obsessive. He could not, for example, put up with dirty money, so even to this day the Augusta National shop gives change with new money. Another problem he had was with crooked picture frames on the walls; paintings in the clubhouse are still held up with two hooks so they don’t move.
Roberts also flirted with the world of politics. He gave valuable support to General Eisenhower in his two presidential election campaigns – and was a presidential adviser behind the scenes. Eisenhower visited Augusta National for the first time in 1948, and became a member soon after. The US President ordered a portrait of Roberts for the club’s library; and gave his name to a dam at Augusta National, which he had proposed, in the eastern part of the course.
The land chosen for construction of Augusta National was a 148-hectare plot known as Fruitlands Nursery, perfect for the project as the vegetation had remained intact for years, and a beautiful avenue of magnolias led to the colonial house which today forms the main part of the clubhouse complex. The property was a magnolia plantation until 1857 when it was bought by Belgian baron Louis Mathieu Edouard Berckmans – a hobby horticulturist. Together with his son, he created a company one year later to import trees and plants from various countries.
A mutual friend of Roberts and Jones, Thomas Barret Jr., recommended the property for their great dream. Seeing the land, Jones decided it was perfect for the construction of a golf course. They decided it would be a members’ course, named Augusta National. Construction began in 1931, it was opened in December 1932 for a limited number of members, and the official inauguration was held one month later. The initial objective was to have 1,800 members, each paying 5,000 dollars plus an annual subscription of 60 dollars. When the first Masters was held in 1934, the club had just 76 members. In that era, they were unable to pay the first winner his cheque for 1,500 dollars, so Horton Smith had to wait until 17 members contributed extra funds. The club only survived thanks to the efforts of its founders, Roberts and Jones.
The Masters was launched, under another name, when Jones and Roberts decided to create a major event to be held every year in Georgia. Jones’ idea was to invite all the world’s top players to compete at the course. In 1934, Roberts wanted to call the tournament “The Masters” but Jones felt it was too pretentious, so it was called “The first annual Augusta National Invitational Tournament”. Roberts was insistent, however, and used the press to change the name. In 1938, the name “Masters” was officially adopted.
The designer of Augusta National was Alister MacKenzie, a Scot who gave up medicine to dedicate his time to his passion: golf. He designed a golf course with great similarities to Scottish layouts, though he was unable to enjoy his work for very long, as he died shortly after, knowing he had designed his best course.
It’s an emblematic example of design and strategy, where players are required to plan each shot perfectly. Each hole can be played in a different way, so players choose their route according to their ability. As far as the landscape is concerned, the course features a great profusion and variety of pine trees, many of which are more than 150 years old. Colourful azaleas are another main feature throughout the course, with more than 30 varieties; and there are several palm trees. During the first few years of Augusta National, the fourth hole was known as the Palm Tree Hole (now it is called the Flowering Crab Apple).
The clubhouse is located on an elevated part of the land, and it is from here that Jones and Roberts visualised the course. Situated on the lower part of the hill, at the far end of the course, is the famous Amen Corner, comprising the 11th, 12th and 13th holes – where several Masters have been won or lost. The name “Amen Corner” was coined in 1958 by Sports Illustrated journalist Herbert Warren Wind, who wrote that it consisted of the second half of the 11th hole, the 12th and the first half of the 13th. He took the name from an old jazz song, “Shouting Amen Corner”.
The 11th is a 416-metre par-4, with a lake from the front to the left of the green. The 12th, a 142-metre par-3, is the most challenging of the three holes, as it requires great care not to stray off the fairway. The 13th is a 443-metre, par-5 dogleg, also extremely challenging and with the risk - for those going for the pin in two - of the ball landing in a creek that passes in front of the green.
The Augusta National layout has undergone small changes throughout its long history. The most recent have been aimed at lengthening a course which, with advances in club and ball technology, has – in the view of many, including the club president – become a little short for the world’s top professionals. The length of the course has increased a total of 450 metres since 2000, which signifies eight strokes more (two each round) for the Masters field.
History of the green jacket
The garment that distinguishes Masters champions dates to 1937, the year Augusta national members began wearing a green jacket. The club committee urged members to buy the jacket and wear it during the Masters, so they could be easily identified. At first, members weren’t particularly enthusiastic about using the jacket as it was too hot, but years later it was made with a lighter material.
The tradition of giving a green jacket to the winner was initiated in 1949, when Sam Snead was victorious. The jacket, whose colour is known as “Masters Green”, includes the Augusta National Golf Club logo on the top left pocket, also engraved on the buttons in bronze.
Traditionally, the winner takes his jacket home for a year, returning it the following year when he competes in the next tournament. It is kept in the club and is available for when the owner visits the course. When the Masters is drawing to an end, various sizes of jacket that could be suitable for the eventual winner are put aside for the trophy ceremony. The winner subsequently supplies his measurements so the right-sized jacket can be made up. Normally, a multiple winner will only have one jacket, unless his size changes significantly over the years.
The ceremony during which the champion from the previous year helps his successor into the green jacket had to be altered in 1966 when Jack Nicklaus became the first player to win the Masters two years in a row. Bobby Jones suggested he put it on himself, and that’s what he did to jubilant applause from the huge galleries watching the ceremony. No other player won consecutive titles until Nick Faldo in 1990, and on this occasion the president of the host club helped him into his jacket. In 2002, Tiger Woods secured his second consecutive win and was also helped into it by the Augusta National president.