Is Augusta National the Perfect Course?

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Every April, golf course superintendents brace themselves for the “Augusta Effect,” an annual outbreak of complaints about slow greens and weeds and probing questions about fairway heights and Stimpmeter readings. After four days admiring the stunning beauty of Augusta National, golfers suddenly see their home courses as downright homely.

The Masters, and other televised tournaments, often give the average golfer a false perception of what their home course should look and play like,” says Darren Davis, who worked at Augusta National from 1990-91 and is now the course superintendent at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples. “During and after the Masters, green speed often becomes a major issue.”

Like the tour pros who play it, Augusta National has spectacular natural gifts that have been subtly enhanced by technology and painstakingly groomed by a world-class staff. The Georgia climate and spring weather provide ideal growing conditions (the property was previously a plant nursery), and, thanks to an almost unlimited budget, the course is stunningly automated. For example, a SubAir system of underground pipes and blowers feeds fresh air to roots and sucks excess moisture out of greens. The greenskeeping staff is also large and highly skilled, and, during Masters week, an army of outside superintendents volunteer in exchange for the chance to soak up the atmosphere and learn from the best in the business. Add to all this a far-flung membership that spares the course significant wear and tear, and you have the perfect recipe for unattainable perfection.

Which is not to say that Augusta National is doing anything wrong. By all accounts, it’s doing a lot right. For example, the club has precise weather forecasting technology and irrigation systems to minimize water waste, and the SubAir system keeps turf healthy, which decreases the need for fertilizers and other chemicals.

But for most courses, chasing the ultra-fast greens and HD-worthy turf of Augusta National will lead not only to inflated budgets but also to the overuse of fossil fuels, water, and chemicals.

According to estimates from a series of reports by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, U.S. golf courses used a combined total of 77 million gallons of gasoline and 50.4 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2008, and 2.08 billion gallons of irrigation water per day from 2003-2005. The industry has not historically tracked resource consumption, according to the GCSAA, so it’s hard to assess trends. But any way you slice it, that’s a lot of water and fuel.

Fortunately, Augusta’s “tradition unlike any other” isn’t golf’s only tradition. The club was founded in 1933 by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, but it’s still a relative newbie when compared to St. Andrews, where the game has been played since the 15th century. Shades of brown are as integral to the Old Course’s aesthetic as the azaleas are to Augusta.

Both Augusta National and the Old Course fit their environments, and that seems to be the direction golf is headed. Chris Hartwiger, the director of the USGA’s Course Consulting Service, points to the rise of rustic courses like Cabot Links in Nova Scotia and Streamsong in Florida as evidence that manicured is not the only way to go.

“The consumer is saying, ‘Yes, in the right environment, I like rugged golf courses,'” Hartwiger said. “It doesn’t have to be one or the other, but it’s about being a good steward of the resources in that part of the country.”

This summer, golf fans will watch both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2, which underwent a back-to-the-future restoration in 2010 and 2011 that replaced acres of irrigated turf with natural sandy areas and native grasses. Scott Hollister, editor in chief of Golf Course Management magazine and interim director of communications for the GCSAA, thinks Pinehurst’s return “to its roots in the sandhills of North Carolina” will result in even more awareness of the variety of aesthetics in the game today.

But all this doesn’t mean the Augusta Effect is dead. The sustainable, fit-the-terrain gospel of course architecture has not spread to all corners of the world. Geoff Shackelford, an influential golf journalist, course designer, and all-around links purist, thinks the Augusta Effect has become an export.

“The aesthetic of Augusta is still loved here, but not like it used to be,” he says. “But around the world, those developing courses don’t want rustic links; they want something that looks like Augusta.”

Hopefully those international fans will check out this year’s U.S. Open as well as the Masters. If they do, they’ll see that Augusta’s beauty is not all the game has to offer.