The 3 courses that inspired Augusta
Exactly when the esteemed golf course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie first met the legendary amateur golfer Bobby Jones is not known for certain, but there’s a very good chance it was during the 1927 Open Championship at St Andrews. Six years earlier at the same venue, Jones had endured his famous meltdown, walking off the Old Course in frustration during the third round after taking four swings at a ball in a bunker on the 11th hole. But by 1927, Jones was embarking on a more mutually respectful relationship with the venerable course. This time, he would go on to win the Championship by six strokes.
MacKenzie, on the other hand, was most likely in town as a guest of the R&A, who four years earlier had commissioned him to conduct a survey of the Old Course and may very well have sought his advice on the pin placements for that year’s Championship.
However, it wasn’t until 1929 that a shared appreciation and affection for the Old Course enabled a deeper bond to develop between the now 27-year-old Jones and the 58-year-old MacKenzie. After losing in the first round of the US Amateur Championship at Pebble Beach, Jones started to look ahead to his post-playing-career goal of building a golf course near his home in Atlanta, and stayed in the Monterey area to play Cypress Point. Jones marvelled at the course MacKenzie had co-designed with Robert Hunter a year earlier and was particularly enamoured by the way in which the course, set amid dramatic coastal sand dunes, meandered inland through the Del Monte Forest on the front nine before
re-emerging on the rugged coastline for the finishing holes. “Cypress Point is a golf course that is the ultimate journey and MacKenzie went to great lengths to instil that design concept into Jones,” says Steve Smyers, a renowned US golf course designer and MacKenzie aficionado. “At Augusta, the course takes you to high and low points of the property, alongside creeks and through prominent vantage positions. A lot of people talk about the design features of a golf course, but very few talk about the journey – and to me that’s the most enjoyable part.”
In addition to playing Cypress Point, Jones also took the opportunity while he was in town to sample MacKenzie’s recently opened Pasatiempo golf course in Santa Cruz, and when he returned to the area to film an instructional video two years later, he spent a lot of time at the new Lakeside Golf Club, an inland links-style golf course built on an old orchard by former Golf Illustrated editor and 1908 US Amateur finalist Max Behr.
A celebrated designer best known for crafting a string of classic courses in southern California, including Rancho Santa Fe and Hacienda, Behr was also a passionate and outspoken Old Course devotee. What fascinated Behr most about St Andrews was how the natural topography of the land created a layout that encouraged strategic thinking rather than a fear of hazards. Heavily influenced by the Old Course, Behr’s key design philosophy was vigorously to defend greens from anything but the perfect line off the tee by using angles, subtle swales, humps and bunkers to prevent direct access to the hole.
In addition to being impressed at how Behr had transformed a flat, dull and lifeless piece of agricultural land into an inland links, MacKenzie and Jones were intrigued by the conspicuous lack of rough at Lakeside – a trait that has been evident, until recently, at Augusta.
What Lakeside also gave Jones and MacKenzie was a benchmark they could relate to. While the pair wanted to incorporate several of St Andrews’ key design characteristics into the tract of nursery land that Jones had uncovered in southern Georgia, they had no frame of reference of how to actually achieve this in the USA. Lakeside gave them some visual context.
Taking the landscape rooms and visual journey concept from Cypress Point, the bold mounding, large undulating greens and minimal bunkering of St Andrews, and the wide fairways and angled putting surfaces from Lakeside, Jones and MacKenzie met on site at the Berckman nursery in Augusta in July 1931 to develop the outline for what would become Augusta National. At the heart of the design was the concept that you didn’t need harsh bunkering and aggressive water hazards to penalise golfers. The initial design at Augusta featured only 22 bunkers – a fact that was as much to do with controlling costs in what was still an unpredictable economy following the Depression.
Jones and MacKenzie also wanted to create a course that would be playable for the average golfer while remaining a stern challenge to accomplished players. “They liked the idea of giving you room to play golf because the equipment was so much more unstable back then. Not only that, the fairways were longer, too, probably the same length as the first cut of rough on a well-maintained golf course today,” says Smyers. “Because the lie of the ball could be somewhat unpredictable, a clear angle into the green was extremely important since it was often extremely difficult to hit the ball high from the fairway. You weren’t going to lose a ball, but you’d have to figure out how to hit creative shots out of longer grass or uneven lies and that’s the brilliance of the design. That’s why the ground game was a very important element. Having to look at the lie and figure out how the slope would affect the shot was very much the spirit of St Andrews.”
To achieve this, they focused on a key design philosophy; reward a good shot by making the next shot easier. According to Jones, that ‘reward’ could be a better view of the green or clear sight of the pin, an easier approach angle past hazards or simply extra run off the tee. “Too often, the worth of a layout seemed to be measured by how successfully it had withstood the efforts of professionals to better its par or lower its record,” Jones wrote in his famous book, Golf is My Game. “It [Augusta] will never become hopeless for the duffer, nor fail to concern and interest the expert. And it will be found, like old St Andrews, to become more delightful the more it is studied and played.”
As a result, several holes of the original design were heavily influenced by the Old Course, most notably the 3rd, which closely resembles the short par-4 12th at St Andrews; the 4th, which is very similar to the notorious 11th; and the 17th which is spookily close to St Andrews’ 6th. However, Jones and MacKenzie insisted they were not building replica or tribute holes but merely looking to recreate the finest features of the courses they most admired within the available terrain.
So how much of Augusta’s original design strategy is relevant today given the evolution of the club, ball and green-keeping equipment, and the athleticism of the modern player? “Augusta National is still a fantastic decision-maker’s golf course,” says Smyers. “In that regard, nothing has changed. You can hit a lot of great shots at Augusta, but at the end of the day, are they the right ones?"