12 Apr 2019 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Making Augusta great

by Mike Clayton

Augusta 13th image
The springtime beauty of Augusta National's 13th hole.

There is barely anything the half-engaged golf observer doesn’t know about Augusta and the Masters. While not the most important tournament in the game – something reserved for the national opens of the United States and Britain – it’s increasingly the most famous event and unquestionably the best marketed. The world’s iconic brands, famous businesses such as Mercedes Benz, McDonalds, Nike, Chanel, Coca Cola or Wimbledon, haven’t done a better job of creating something so many people recognise, even if they never partake. Geoff Ogilvy describes it as Disneyland for adults – golf-addicted adults anyway – and both the beauty of the course and the genius of its architectural concept makes the golf compelling. The brilliance of the design concept of the club’s founder Bob Jones and the Scottish architect, Alister MacKenzie was their understanding of how to make golf relatively easy for higher markers, yet difficult for the world’s best players. Jones and MacKenzie understood this principle was the foundation of The Old Course at St Andrews and MacKenzie translated it to both Royal Melbourne and Augusta National despite the land, vegetation and soil being much different from the links land of the Scottish coast. Augusta generally celebrates width – although not as much as it used to – giving players space from the tee to swing away with some freedom. But with that freedom, the next shots from different parts of the expansive fairways and wildly different. It goes without saying the easier approach shots only come after you have executed the more daring tee shots. This, of course, is the brilliance of St Andrews. MacKenzie detested narrow golf and tight courses infested with long, green grass because he rightly identified those elements make for tight and restrictive golf and who would want to play like that? “The course makes you nervous,” says Ogilvy. “There is trouble everywhere and there are crazy places to miss it. There are difficult shots you can only play well when you’re not nervous, but the course makes you nervous.” Therein lies the dilemma of the course. Any reasonably competent 18-handicapper COULD drive it onto the 13th fairway and from a hook lie with the ball at least six inches above your feet, play a little draw with a mid-iron short of the creek, pitch across the water and two-putt for a par. The difficulty comes for the best players when they play for the green in two shots and find the hook lie but are then confronted with MacKenzie’s green orientated to massively favour a fade. It’s doable (and significantly easier for a left hander) but you had better be in total control of your swing and over the years we have all seen an equal share of heroic long shots and tournament-costing disasters. The irony is the famed back-nine par-fives, holes which have decided so many tournaments, were originally on the front nine. But the low point of the course is down on the 11th, 12th and 13th holes. Those fairways were the last to be free of the morning dew and so it was decided to switch the nines. In so many ways the course is golfing perfection, yet was golf ever meant to be so perfect? Augusta National can easily afford to create the perfect fairways, the flawless greens which can have both the speed and firmness dialed up or down in hours and the impeccably consistent, almost blindingly white bunkers. It all comes at enormous expense, but superintendents the world over are then expected by their members to recreate something approximating Augusta, but within a budget. Pesky things, budgets. And while there is nothing wrong with “perfection”, golf is at least as good on the original links when there was a randomness to the conditions and a part of the challenge of the game was dealing with the inbuilt unfairness of it all. Everyone seems to take a shot at who might be a likely winner this week and mostly they pick the obvious ones. Rory McIlroy is probably the most obvious of them all and winning The Players Championship last month only added to our expectation he would one day complete the career Grand Slam. To join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as winners of all four of professional golf’s most important events is a heavy burden if you care at all about history. We all watched and waited for Greg Norman’s inevitable Masters victory, but time eventually ran out for a man who, like McIlroy, played a lot of brilliant golf at Augusta. Ernie Els and Tom Weiskopf, too. All four had the ideal game for the course, but how is it possible not one has a seat at Tuesday night’s champions’ dinner? Augusta might be perfectly conditioned, but it’s an unpredictable course; one where fate has much to do with the outcome. Jones and MacKenzie may not have approved of every element of the much-altered course, but they’d surely enjoy how it still captures the elements of unpredictability, drama and fate which so define golf at St Andrews, the favourite course of two men whose influence was so profound it remains relevant to this day.

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