A Golf Course Unlike Any Other: How The Masters Became The Masters

Arnold Palmer celebrates a birdie on the 18th green during a 1964 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: Augusta Nationa l/ Getty Images

When Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam — all four major tournaments in a calendar year — it included the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, The U.S. Amateur, and the British Amateur. Today the first major of the year is Jones’ own tournament, The Masters. Hosted on the course he built, Augusta National, it has become an annual American sporting tradition that transcends golf. But The Masters wasn’t always iconic, it wasn’t even always called The Masters, and it almost failed a number of times. We caught up with golf historian and Bobby Jones biographer Sidney Matthew to find out how Augusta National and The Masters went from a bankrupt passion project to a seminal part of our sporting identity.

Why did Bobby Jones build Augusta National?

Because he was tired of playing in front of crowds. He wanted a sanctuary, and he always, from early in his career, had the ambition of building the world’s greatest inland golf course.

What would make the ideal golf course in his mind?

Well, it evolved over time. As he played around the world, he collected knowledge about all of the famous golf courses. He borrowed from these golf courses, the very best features. And of course he studied golf course architecture. He wrote about it. He discoursed on it. He talked to his pals who were golf course architects, and he believed that you never really mastered golf until you try to figure out what the architect had in mind when he built the golf course. That way you would be able to play the golf course correctly, the way it was intended by the architect.

What were the world class courses Jones borrowed from?

Late in his life, Jones said, If I were to be sentenced to play on one golf course for the rest of my life, it would be the Old Course at Saint Andrews. And the reason for that is the essence of golf is adventure, and the key to adventure is variety. A golf course that provides the most adventure and the most variety provides the most enjoyment because it presents a different challenge every time you play it. The ultimate golf course would never play the same way twice two days in a row because of weather, because of conditions, because of the playing partners. Because of the way that the course may be set up with flag positions, and just the seasons, and the way the grass grows. But with Saint Andrews, it provides the most variety of any golf course that Jones had ever seen.

Jones didn’t design Augusta National alone. Why did he take on a design partner?

He chose Alister MacKenzie because MacKenzie was a kindred spirit in this notion that the Old Course is the best golf course in the world. And MacKenzie understood it, the Royal and Ancient hired him in 1921 to do a line drawing and the first competent survey of the golf course that had been done. MacKenzie was in the Boer War early on and studied the art of camouflage. He could see that the Boers were digging trenches and building embankments to hide their guns. So you’d move your troops in thinking that you were out of range and they’d blow you to bits. So he copied some of those features of camouflage in some of his golf courses. He would put a bunker 30 yards from the green but trick you into believing it was the green side.

Sort of an optical illusion to play with the mind?

Yeah. You see that today, and of course you know. MacKenzie said when you play a golf course, you should envision yourself on the forecastle of a ship than on the heavy sea. And when you’re looking at the front of the ship, you see the waves crashing at you. You see the breakers, white caps. Those are bunkers. But when you look back behind the ship, you see the rolling sea and you see no white cap. It’s all green. And when you’re on a MacKenzie course, you can see that today.

What was MacKenzie's more general design philosophy?

MacKenzie believed that many of the broad roads will lead to destruction, narrow is the way that leads to salvation. You should build a golf course with as much variety and as many options as possible. The USGA sets up an Open golf course that you’ve got to be a marching soldier right down the middle. You’ve got to hit your drive right straight down the middle, you’ve got to hit your shot straight on the green, and you’ve got one putt or two putt. If you stray to the right or stray to the left, it’s going to cost you a shot because you’re in rough up to your ankle and will break your wrist. What that does is make a very mechanical, unimaginative golfer, because straight, straight, straight, that’s all you do. MacKenzie spawned the strategic school of golf course architecture. The penal school of architecture was old-testament thinking — if you sin, you should be punished, and there is no forgiveness, there is no redemption. That’s the way it is. The strategic school of golf course architecture said wait a second. Let’s flatten some of these bunkers out, so with a heroic shot, you should be able to redeem yourself. But it’s got to be a heroic shot. So they at least give you a chance for forgiveness and it followed the reformation. It had a religious overtone to it. So a golf course provides the most enjoyment for the highest-skill player or the lowest duffer. And that’s the variety of the adventure. That’s beautiful.

You described Jones’ reason for building Augusta National, as he wanted a sanctuary away from the crowds. Then why create this tournament?

Everyone said that Bob Jones was insane for building a golf course during the Depression. Golf courses were folding, and Augusta folded twice. The fact is that he seized on the opportunity because of the piece of ground. Jones saw the piece of property and said, That’s it. We’re going to build my dream course on this piece of property. He said it looked like this land was lying there for years waiting for a golf course to be laid on it.

But (after building it) they folded a couple of times. So (the partners) decided, Let’s see if we can hold an invitation tournament and then invite all of Bob’s pals. Surely they’ll come. And Grantland Rice said, Well, I’ll help you out. All of the sports writers go down to the [Florida] Grapefruit League [for] baseball in the winter in Florida, and I’ll tell them to come back to Augusta and report on the tournament and maybe we can bring the gate up. They also told the British press, if you guys can make it to New York, we’ll put you on a train, put you up at the Bon Air Vanderbilt, and that’s how they got the British Press to come. Of course anybody who was anybody wanted to come play at Bob Jones’ first invitational tournament. Because Bob was a national and international hero. And so everybody showed up and the gate didn’t come in. So Alfred Severin Bourne had to reach into his pocket and come up with the $5,000 purse. Then in the second year, Gene Sarazen hits the shot heard round the world on 15 and makes, and all the sports writers go crazy, and so everyone wanted to go to the next tournament in ’36 to find out what in the world’s going on in Augusta. And that’s really what kicked it off. Jones initially thought it was somewhat immodest to call it the Masters, but in 1938, Jones said, I think that it has earned the right to be called the Masters, because it continues to assemble those who are entitled to call themselves the masters of the game.

Jones won the grand slam. It included two amateur tournaments. How did the Masters come to supplant one of those?

In 1894 when the USGA was formed by the top half dozen golf clubs, amateur golf was on page one of the sports page. In Plato’s Republic the amateur athlete was the hero who was emulated by the populous. And that was true at the turn of the century. They did not have professional golf at that time. They had exhibitions. Walter Hagen was the first guy to make a living as a professional golfer in the late ‘20s.

And this is because it was viewed as being sort of undignified?

Well it was. Golfers were associated with caddies. They were not educated. They didn’t dress well. They were shagging the member’s wives. They were not allowed in the club houses. It was not looked upon as an honorable profession, and mainly because it was associated with gambling and drinking. One of the reasons Bob Jones retired in 1930 was he had more ambition than to be a professional golfer and he hated to travel. It was the horse-and-buggy era. They traveled by ship, they didn’t have private citation jets yet. It was horrible. And the biggest purses were a few thousand dollars, so, you might make a few hundred dollars. Jones had a profession. In 1928 he’s working as a lawyer for Coca-Cola, and all of the big companies wanted him as their lawyer so they could play golf with him.

So when the Masters first started, it was more of a social outing with Bob Jones to rub shoulders with Jones and all of his pals rather than a money-making thing. And it wasn’t until the later years that it became a major because of the publicity that it got, and because of the uniqueness of the golf course — a golf course unlike any other. And it continued to assemble those who were entitled to be called “the masters of the game." Anybody who was anybody wanted to win Bob Jones’ tournament, the same way that [later] they wanted to win Arnold Palmer’s tournament. You always want to win the King’s tournament.

So I suppose we could say that the Depression sort of leveled the playing field in terms of the perspective people had on professional golfers. 

It did. Everybody had to be scrappy. Hagan was the paradigm. But Neilson, Snead, and Hogan, that triumvirate really kind of launched it. I mean, Snead goes over to Saint Andrews and he wins it in ’37, first time he ever saw it! Hogan goes over to Carnoustie in ’53, and he’s on his way, he’s won three, he’s on his way to win the grand slam, right? That he couldn’t make it back to play in the PGA was his problem. But he won Carnoustie the first time he ever saw it. So these guys became international superstars as professionals.

Later on The Masters becomes iconic — it transcends golf. It becomes an iconic sporting event. How did it become so popular?

Well, yes, the popularity became universal. People who did not play golf found that they enjoyed watching it on TV. Remember, golf was a rich man’s sport. In Great Britain, it’s a poor man’s sport. You know, it’s a common town, and everybody in town belongs to the golf course. And you don’t have to be rich to play it, the courses were public. Here they’re private, so only the rich guys could play it. But you didn’t have to play it, you could watch it, and it became extremely popular because it had this swash-buckling Errol Flynn–type character, Arnold Palmer, making these heroic displays of athleticism and looking fabulous.

But The Masters also became a singular tournament because Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts made it gentile. They made it fun for the spectators, and they raised the level of sportsmanship. In the ’60s when Jack Nicholas was overhauling Arnold, some spectators shouted out, “Miss it! Fat Jack.” Jones heard that, and he was terribly distressed. So he sat down, put pen to paper and he wrote out some suggestions for the spectators. They still hand it out today. It says, that, in the game of golf, etiquette and decorum are almost as important as the rules governing play. Most distressing are those rare occasions upon which a spectator will applaud or cheer misplays or misfortunes of a player. Although these occurrences are extremely rare, we must completely eliminate them if our patrons are going to deserve their reputation of being the most knowledgeable and considerate in the world. Now, that is a pretty high standard. But guess what? You don’t see anybody acting out. The patrons of the Masters are the most considerate and knowledgeable in the world.