The annual rite of spring that is golf’s visit to Augusta National is upon us. The Masters is defined by timeless traditions that tie today’s best players with the legends that preceded them. While golf fans may feel intimately familiar with the only venue that hosts a major on an annual basis, here are some stories from its past that may enhance your enjoyment. This is Nine Things to Know about Augusta National Golf Club:
1. FLOWER POWER
The world’s best convene at Augusta National each year to play for one of golf’s most prestigious prizes, but a local legend says men may have been searching for treasure on the site centuries earlier. It’s been said Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto may have visited the land where Augusta National now lies in the 16th century while on a futile search for riches. He may not have found what he was looking for, but a small spring in the trees between the 13th and 14th fairways allegedly yields trace amounts of gold after heavy rains, according to David Owen’s “The Making of the Masters.”
The land became an indigo plantation – the owner’s home is now Augusta National’s clubhouse – before the Berckmans family of Belgium purchased it in the 1850s to form Fruitland Nurseries, importing trees and flowering plants from around the world. The first attempt to bring a golf course to the site was made in 1925 by a Miami businessman who wanted to build a course and $2 million hotel. He went bankrupt shortly after pouring the concrete footings, which were buried during the construction of Augusta National.
Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones, the greatest golfer of his time, was pointed to the site during his search for the land where he could build his dream course. He was seeking a rolling piece of property that could use natural terrain instead of excessive hazards to befuddle players.
“I shall never forget my first visit to the property which is now Augusta National,” Jones wrote in “Golf Is My Game.” “The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful. The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming. The rare trees and shrubs of the old nursery were enchanting. But when I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property, the experience was unforgettable. It seemed that this land had been lying here for years just waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it.”
Jones enlisted Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie to create the course, saying in a 1931 interview that “we are in perfect agreement that a good golf course can be designed and constructed which will be an exacting test for the best competition, and at the same time afford a pleasant and reasonably simple problem for the average player and the duffer.
“Dr. MacKenzie and I believe that no good golf hole exists that does not afford a proper and convenient solution to the average golfer and the short player, as well as to the more powerful and accurate expert.”
2. FORTUITOUS MEETING
Pebble Beach has been called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea in the world.” It also was the site of one of the most fortuitous meetings in golf history, after a shocking loss to a teenager allowed Bobby Jones to strengthen his relationship with the man whom he’d tab to design Augusta National.
Marion Hollins, a U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and the developer behind two MacKenzie designs on California’s central coast, Cypress Point and Pasatiempo, is credited with creating the circumstances that led to Jones and Alister MacKenzie connecting in 1929. She was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame this year for her play and role in so many prestigious clubs.
Jones, the 1929 U.S. Open champion, shared medalist honors in that year’s U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach before losing to a 19-year-old, Johnny Goodman, in the opening round (Goodman would win the U.S. Open four years later, becoming the last amateur to do so). Exiting the tournament early gave Jones more time to discuss course architecture with MacKenzie, whom he’d first met while competing in Great Britain, and play his nearby designs.
“If Jones had been impressed with Pebble Beach, he fell head over heels in love with the newer Cypress Point,” Charles Price wrote in “A Golf Story: Bobby Jones, Augusta National and the Masters Tournament.” “He found the design ‘almost perfect.’ … The more they talked, the more impressed Jones became with Dr. MacKenzie’s theories. While neither was aware of it, the Augusta National Golf Club – and, hence, the Masters Tournament – was being born.”
MacKenzie and Jones bonded over their reverence for St. Andrews. MacKenzie once wrote, “I do not know a single example of a successful golf architect who is not enamored of the Old Course and the strategic principals embodied in it.”
MacKenzie also wrote that an architect should “be able to put himself in the position of the best player that ever lived, and at the same time be extremely sympathetic towards the beginner and long handicap player” and that “there should be a complete absence of the annoyance and irritation caused by the necessity of searching for lost balls.”
The original design of Augusta National had fewer than 30 bunkers, and thick rough is not part of Augusta National’s course setup. The course’s rolling terrain and dramatic slopes are used to challenge the skilled player, while its wide fairways and large greens make it playable for the average golfer.
That is the genius of Augusta National, which opened in December 1932.
3. TOUGH START
Augusta National was created during the Great Depression and it was not exempt from the financial difficulties of the day.
The club struggled to pay course architect Alister MacKenzie for his design services. He reduced his fee from $10,000 to $5,000 just to keep the construction moving along, according to David Owen’s “The Making of the Masters.” After the course had been open several months, MacKenzie had received just $2,000. That didn’t even cover his estimated expenses. At one point he wired the club, asking “Can you possibly let me have … $500 to keep us out of the poor house?” MacKenzie died in January 1934, never seeing Augusta National in its finished form.
While becoming a member at Augusta National is now all but a dream except for only the well-connected, Bobby Jones sent thousands of invitations for the club’s opening membership drive. There were few takers, however. Despite an initiation fee of just $350 (plus tax) and annual dues of just $60, the club had only 76 members as the first Masters neared. That was well short of the 1,800 that the club’s business plan called for.
There were hopes that a tournament, with Jones as the headliner, would solve the club’s financial trouble.
Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts went to the City of Augusta asking for $10,000 to help stage the first Masters. The city council said yes, continuing its financial support through 1936, according to David Barrett’s “The Story of the Masters.”
Unfortunately, the club’s financial difficulties didn’t end with the inaugural Masters. The club ceased operations in 1943 and 1944 because of World War II and cattle grazed its fairways. Cows and turkeys were kept on the property – and sold at market – in hopes of earning the club much-needed income.
Owen wrote that Roberts once found $2 on the clubhouse floor and immediately added it to the club’s credit ledger.
“The only reason the clubhouse still exists – the most famous clubhouse in the world – is that they didn’t have the money to tear it down,” Owen told Golf Digest.
The club couldn’t afford to pay Horton Smith for winning the first Masters until 17 members chipped in for the purse. It was one of several times over its first 15 years that the club was on the precipice of financial ruin. Herman Kaiser, the 1946 Masters champ, said he would receive his winner’s plaque once the club could come up with the silver, according to Owen’s book.
4. HOME GAME
Living on Augusta National sounds like a dream come true. It almost was a reality. One of the club’s best hopes for raising money was to sell building lots for members to build winter homes. Roughly a third of the property was reserved for that purpose, according to David Owen’s “The Making of the Masters,” and the lots were numbered and delineated on several early maps. The lots were expected to occupy areas west of the second fairway and east of the 10th and 11th holes (another subdivision was planned for the land where the par-3 course now sits).
There was only one buyer, however. W. Montgomery Harrison bought three adjoining lots and built a large mansion that was visible behind the first green. The house stood until 1977, when another member bought the Harrison property and sold it back to the club. Owen writes that one of Roberts’ last acts before taking his life was walking to the first tee, with the help of a waiter, so that he could look up the fairway and assure himself that the home was gone.
The fact that the club could only sell one lot after two decades of trying “underscores the immensity of the challenge that (Clifford) Roberts, Jones and other early members faced in nearly every area of the club’s operation,” Owen wrote.
5. BY ANY OTHER NAME
Both Augusta National Golf Club and its tournament almost went by different names. American-International Golf Club, Georgia-National Golf Club, International Golf Club of Augusta and Southern National Golf Clubs were among the names considered for the club, according to “The Making of the Masters.”
Jones had his eyes on hosting a different tournament on his course, as well. He first thought about hosting a U.S. Open, but the tournament’s traditional June date wasn’t conducive to Augusta’s hot Southern summers. An April date was ideal. And as an added benefit, the date would attract sportswriters who were headed north from Spring Training.
Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts recommended the new tournament, an invitation-only affair, be called The Masters to reflect the quality of the field. Jones found that name presumptuous, so he called it the Augusta National Invitation Tournament. But over Jones’ objections, the tournament was called the Masters from the start. Famed sportswriter Grantland Rice, an Augusta National member, called it the Masters in his syndicated columns leading up to the inaugural event, and the Augusta Chronicle referred to it as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament just once, according to author David Barrett.
“The newspapers didn’t want the Augusta National Invitation Tournament because that wouldn’t fit in any headline in the world,” said golf writer Dudley Green, who covered the tournament for The Nashville Banner for 30 straight years starting in 1947. “So they just started calling it The Masters.”
6. FLIP THE NINES
Augusta National’s second nine includes some of the game’s most recognizable holes, including the trio known as Amen Corner (Nos. 11-13). Those holes were not the backdrop for the conclusion of the inaugural Masters, however. The first Masters was played with the first hole as No. 10 and vice versa. The routing was reversed before the second Masters and has been used ever since.
“The change was made because we learned through experience that play could begin earlier after a frost on what is now the first nine, due to its being on higher ground,” Roberts wrote in “The Story of Augusta National.” “The switch was made in time for the fall season club opening (in 1934).”
The holes down in Amen Corner are among the last to receive sunlight. The routing we have come to know also gave players “the opportunity to warm up before reaching the intricate problems of the difficult holes,” the Augusta Chronicle wrote in 1934. Nos. 11-13, 15 and 16 are the only ones on the course with water, and the two par-5s, Nos. 13 and 15, offer eagle opportunities to those willing to take a risk over water.
Flipping the nines paid immediate dividends. The 1935 Masters was won by Gene Sarazen and his famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” an albatross on the par-5 15th. That put him in a playoff with Craig Wood, who had been the presumed champion when he finished several holes ahead of Sarazen. Wood would go on to become the first man to lose playoffs at all four major championships before winning both the Masters and U.S. Open in 1941.
Sarazen, who had missed the inaugural Masters while on a worldwide exhibition tour, was on the 14th hole when he found out that Wood had finished the second Masters with a score of 6-under 282. “Well Gene, that looks like it’s all over,” said his playing partner, Walter Hagen.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Sarazen replied, according to a report from the journalist O.B. Keeler. “They might go in from anywhere.”
That premonition proved true on the next hole, when Sarazen holed out from 230 yards.
7. TRADITION UNLIKE ANY OTHER
Augusta National may be one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, but as the only venue to host a major on an annual basis, much of it feels familiar to golf fans. It starts with the entrance to the club, Magnolia Lane. Many of the trees that line the club’s famous entry were planted as seed by the Berckmans family in the 1850s. The 330-yard road wasn’t paved until 1947, more than a decade after the first Masters (imagine Tiger Woods driving down a dirt road to get to the Masters). The trademark Green Jackets began in 1937 as a way for patrons to recognize Augusta National members in case they needed assistance. Sam Snead was the first champion to receive the Green Jacket, after his 1949 win.
The first Masters Club, now known as the Champion’s Dinner, was held by Ben Hogan in 1952 after his victory the previous year. Hogan proposed membership in the Masters Club be limited to Masters champions, with Augusta National co-founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and club chairmen added as honorary members.
The traditional Par-3 Contest, held each year on the tournament’s eve, was first held in 1960, giving players and their families a chance for some fun before a stressful week begins. A fountain located adjacent to the par-3 course’s first tee lists every winner of the Par-3 Contest (no one has won the Par-3 and the Masters in the same year). The nine-hole course is 1,060 yards. Jimmy Walker holds the course record with an 8-under 19.
The tournament begins each Thursday with the ceremonial opening tee shots from the honorary starters. Only 11 men have served in that role: Jock Hutchison (1963-1973), Fred McLeod (1963-1976), Byron Nelson (1981-2001, non-consecutively), Gene Sarazen (1981-1999), Ken Venturi (1983), Sam Snead (1984-2002), Arnold Palmer (2007-2016), Jack Nicklaus (2010-present), Gary Player (2012-present), Lee Elder (2021) and Tom Watson, who joined Nicklaus and Player in the role in 2022.
In addition to the Green Jacket, the winner also receives a trophy that is a Sterling replica of the Augusta National clubhouse and a gold medal. The runner-up receives a silver medal and silver salver and the low amateur who completes 72 holes receives a silver cup. Awards are also given for various feats throughout the week. A crystal vase is awarded for shooting the day’s low score, a hole-in-one gets a large crystal bowl and an eagle earns a pair of crystal glasses. Players who make an albatross are awarded a large crystal bowl.
There are also three bridges on the second nine that commemorate incredible achievements in Masters history. The Hogan Bridge, which players cross en route to the 12th green, was dedicated in 1958, five years after Hogan set the 72-hole scoring record of 14-under 274. The Nelson Bridge is located off the 13th tee to mark when Nelson went birdie-eagle on Nos. 12 and 13 to pick up six shots on Ralph Guldahl en route to victory in the 1937 Masters. Two years later, Guldahl eagled the 13th hole during his Masters victory.
The Sarazen Bridge is located on the 15th hole to commemorate the most famous shot in Masters history, Sarazen’s albatross on No. 15 in 1935.
8. BERMUDA TO BENT
One of the biggest changes in Augusta National’s history took place four decades ago, when the course’s famous putting surfaces were converted from Bermuda to bentgrass, which isn’t common in the South because it is harder to maintain in warm temperatures. Augusta National is closed during the summer, however, and the course’s Bermudagrass greens had slowed in the years preceding the change. Bentgrass plays faster than Bermuda, allowing the tournament to achieve the green speeds that it is known for.
The experiment was first conducted on the club’s par-3 course. Those surfaces were switched to bentgrass in 1978, and after that experiment was a success, the greens on the big course were switched after the 1980 Masters.
“We could make them so slick we’d have to furnish ice skates on the first tee,” said former Augusta National chairman Hord Hardin. The bentgrass greens debuted in the 1981 Masters and immediately struck fear into players.
“The faster bentgrass surfaces have made the course play to an entirely different tune,” said Arnold Palmer. “Augusta National’s greens already are among the most undulating in the world – that’s part of the Masters tradition. Bentgrass greens are lightning fast; when the speed combines with the severe sloping of Augusta’s greens, they can get out of hand.”
Many of those extreme undulations are credited to another famed architect, Perry Maxwell, who was a partner of MacKenzie’s in the latter stages of his life and did further work on Augusta National in the late 1930s.
“Such undulations were his trademark and were known as ‘Maxwell rolls,’” Owen wrote. “MacKenzie was no longer alive at the time, but he undoubtedly would have approved. He loved dramatic contours.”
9. THE BIG THREE
Three of golf’s greatest stars convened for a practice round before the 1996 Masters, a collision of golf’s past and its future. And when the round was over, the two legends, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, declared that the progeny in their midst, Tiger Woods, could one day claim 10 Masters titles, as many as Palmer and Nicklaus combined. Woods is halfway there, sandwiched between Nicklaus (6) and Palmer (4) on the list of most victories in Masters history.
“He is absolutely the finest, fundamentally sound golfer I have ever seen, almost at any age,” Nicklaus said after playing with Woods for the first time. “(He) hits it 9 million miles without a swing that looks like he’s trying to kill it. … Whether he’s ready to win here this week, I don’t know, but he’s going to be your favorite here for the next 20 years.”
Nicklaus was right. Woods won the next year by 12 shots – breaking the 72-hole scoring record that Nicklaus shared with Raymond Floyd – for the first of his five Green Jackets.
Palmer ushered Augusta National into the television era, as troops from nearby Fort Gordon formed Arnie’s Army and cheered him to four straight wins in even-numbered years. The first, in 1958, came just two years after the Masters first appeared on television (and in the same year that famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind first used the phrase ‘Amen Corner’ in a story). Palmer followed with wins in 1960, ’62 and ’64. The final win was an emphatic six-shot victory that made him the first four-time winner in Masters history.
But he was soon to be supplanted as the greatest player in Masters history. Nicklaus won his first Masters in 1963 and was victorious again in 1965. A year after Palmer won by a half-dozen, Nicklaus beat Palmer and Gary Player by nine strokes to set tournament records for largest winning margin and low 72-hole score (271). Bobby Jones famously called it “the greatest tournament performance in all of golfing history” and said Nicklaus “plays a game with which I am not familiar.”
Nicklaus won again the next year to become the first player to go back-to-back at Augusta National. His fourth Masters win, in 1975, came in a duel against Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller that is considered one of the greatest duels in the tournament’s long history. And, Nicklaus’ sentimental win in 1986 at the age of 46 is among the game’s most famous triumphs.
Like Nicklaus, Woods authored a record-smashing win (1997), went back-to-back (2001-02, joining Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only men to do that) and then added one more emotional win (2019). Woods also won in 2005 with a chip-in at 16 that is among the most famous shots in tournament history.
Woods’ 12-shot winning margin in 1997 remains the largest in tournament history and his 18-under winning score, since matched by Jordan Spieth in 2015, remains the lowest score in an April Masters. Dustin Johnson won the Masters in November 2020 with a winning score of 20-under 268, the lowest score in relation to par in major championship history.