Finally. The week casual and die-hard golf fans alike have been yearning for. A tradition unlike any other. Hello, Friends. Azaleas (well, not this week). Pimento cheese sandwiches. Artificial bird noises. Caddie jumpsuits. The flowing robes, the grace, bold... striking. Yes, it’s finally Masters Week.
More words have probably been written about Augusta National Golf Club than probably any other single course save The Old Course at St. Andrews, so this week, on the 20th anniversary of Tiger’s historic 1997 victory it seems only right to walk down Memory Lane to write about “Tiger Proofing.” And the changes the club has made to the course on an ongoing/regular basis.
Augusta National Golf Club architecture and history
But first, some quick background: Upon his retirement from championship golf in 1930, Bobby Jones had hoped to realize his dream of building a golf course. Jones helped design the golf course, working alongside the esteemed course architect Dr. Alister Mackenzie.
Both men believed in strategic golf design that would require mental and physical skill. To do this at Augusta National meant creating exceptionally wide fairways with extremely demanding green complexes. Even though the fairway was accommodating to the lesser player, the more skilled golfer needed to hit precise spots in the fairways to have the best angle and scoring chance at the green.
Dr. Mackenzie’s green complexes were not only a thing of beauty but also widely creative with enormous slopes -- most of which have been toned down over the years for a few reasons. Namely, golfers have become more and more skilled while hitting the ball farther and farther. To combat technology, Augusta National switched from Bermuda to Bentgrass greens in an effort to make the greens harder and faster. Not to mention better machinery to cut the grass shorter and shorter. It’s a bit of a shame that green speeds have been ramped up so far that key features of old courses require flattening to ensure there’s enough friction for the ball to reasonably come to rest on the green. But, I digress.
"Augusta National was never the most revolutionary golf-course design in America, but it certainly was the most evolutionary." - Charles Price
How Augusta National Tiger-proofed their course
The inaugural Masters -- initially called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament -- was held in 1934. Changes were made to the golf course over the years -- the nature of constant tinkering -- but beyond flipping the nines, the course had become largely familiar to fans.
Most people are only familiar with the large-scale changes that happened between 1999 and 2006 when many holes on the property were lengthened. While the course was originally 6,680 yards in 1934, today the Masters tees rest at a heaving 7,435 yards. In fact, there are still only two sets of tees; one at 6,365 yards for members and the Tournament tees and 7,435. The lesser talked-about change is how much the course has narrowed.
Prior to Tiger turning the course into his personal executive-length course in 1997 (when the course played to 6,925 yards) there was already a history of tinkering. Whereas some historic courses host major championships every 5-10 years, Augusta National has the spotlight every year, and any “flaw” requires swift and decisive action. Some would say this is unfortunate as the character of the course has swung dramatically from being a fair test of all aspects of one’s game to being a bomber's paradise. This is where the narrowing has come into play.
Augusta National doesn’t like especially low scores, but they also don’t think the winning score should be even par like the USGA at the U.S. Open. They have lengthened the course pretty much as far as they can go, with the only remaining distance likely to come from buying land from neighboring Augusta Country Club to push back the 13th tee even more. So, what’s left? Punish the long hitters that can’t hit the ball straight by narrowing pinching in the fairways with trees and a whiff of rough.
This is where I personally think the tinkering has lost its way. We only need to look at modern courses that are growing wider. Last year’s U.S. Open venue, Oakmont Country Club, removed more than 7,500 trees to restore the original look and feel of the course. Augusta National has done the exact opposite. Which is a bit of a shame. Mackenzie’s original design was meant to invoke various holes at the Old Course. Or as Bobby Jones wrote in Golf Is My Game, “But it happened that both of us were extravagant admirers of the Old Course at St. Andrews and we both desired as much as possible to simulate seaside conditions insofar as the differences in turf and terrain would allow.”
This style of play emphasizes the ground game and using the natural contours of the land. Also, Jones and Mackenzie expertly applied the use of slope, angles and alternative lines of play. Bunkers as a penalty for an errant shot were avoided intentionally. Thus, making it friendly to members and tough on those without similar course knowledge and capable of hosting a championship-caliber test. While you don’t have to look far to see this style of play is making a comeback, it's not at ANGC.
Key holes and changes at Augusta National Golf Club
A few primary examples of the aforementioned changes are below:
Hole 7 - “Pampas”
Originally intended as an homage to the 18th at St. Andrews, this has gone from a relatively short par 4 into a beast of a hole. Tees have been planted and now encroach upon the fairway for what has become the tightest tee shot on the course, and one that stands in stark contrast with the original vision of width and angles.
Hole 10 - “Camellia”
Maybe the most dramatic tee shot on the course dropping 100 feet from the tee down into the fairway, all that remains of Mackenzie’s original design is a massive bunker. Now known as the “Mackenzie bunker” it was kept during a redesign in 1938 when the green was moved 50 yards further away. No one really knows why Perry Maxwell kept the bunker. But now it’s the only one on the course that features Mackenzie’s unique flowing, organic edges.
Hole 16 - “Redbud”
Now iconic for practice round fun of trying to skip shots across the pond, this par 3 started its life unlike anything resembling the current hole. The original hole was a much shorter par 3 (145 yards), patterned after England’s Stoke Poges Golf Club (now Stoke Park GC), that was fronted by the same creek that runs along the 13th. The tee was actually to the right of the 15th green instead of the left where it sits today. Shortly after World War II, Bobby Jones enlisted Robert Trent Jones to redesign the hole. He rotated the tee 90 degrees, dammed the creek into a pond, and built a new green with two bunkers at the back. Not much has changed design-wise since other than an additional bunker at the front-back left of the green that occasionally saves a ball from a watery grave.