The rise to prominence of the Masters golf tournament is one of the relative miracles in modern American sport. In just about a score of years, the Masters, which started out in 1934 as just a notable competition, has grown so inexorably in prestige and honest glamour that today it has come to eclipse the National Open in the stir it arouses, and this stir is sufficient to place the event in just about the same category as the World Series (inaugurated in 1903) and the Kentucky Derby (first run in 1875) as a full-fledged national sports classic. During the first full week in April when the tournament annually takes place over the great green meadowland slopes of the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., millions of Americans who ordinarily can go right on living even if they confuse Hogan with Hagen and Little with Littler suddenly become interested in golf, golfers and Augusta, very much in the way they perennially become aware of horses, horsemen and Churchill Downs as the Derby approaches.
As for died-in-the-cashmere golf fans, a consciousness of the Masters is in the air every day the year round. It is tacitly assumed by the men and women intimately connected with the game that all of their friends in golf, regardless of how many other major events they have to pass up due to private or business pressures, are jolly well going to see to it that they make the Masters. In any month of the year, when these far-flung inhabitants of golfdom bump into one another at banquets or tournaments or when they meet by chance on the street or in a parlor car, one phrase naturally and invariably accompanies the parting handshake: "Well, I'll see you at the Masters." They usually do.
The fact that we live in an age of publicity and wildfire communication explains to a large degree the "overnight" progress of the infant tournament into a vital tradition, but it could never have happened even in this age unless the Masters were—as it is—just about all you could ask of a golf tournament and then some. (Perhaps it should be stated right here before proceeding any farther that it is still a higher honor for a golfer to win the National Open than the Masters, but the Open by its very nature changes its venue every year and consequently never acquires quite the especial patina that seems to affix itself to those events which have the advantage of taking place year after year in the same, ever-more-familiar locale.)
It takes four elements, really, to make a great tournament: a superb course; a strong field; competent and imaginative (if invisible) administrative organization; and, most important of all, the true and unmistakable spirit of golf at its best. The Masters has all of these requisites because it was born right and brought up beautifully under the twin talents of two men who could not be less alike and who have, almost because of their disparate abilities, dovetailed into an unbeatable combination. The better known of the two is Robert T. Jones Jr., the one and only Bobby, the best-loved Southerner since Robert E. Lee and a man of such sensitive general intelligence that you wonder, when you look back, how he managed to harness it under the stress of competition when that kind of brains usually gets in an athlete's way. The other member of the team is Clifford Roberts, a 61-year-old, Chicago-born New York investment banker, a relentless perfectionist with one of the best minds for management and significant detail since Salmon P. Chase.
Jones's and Roberts' paths first crossed late in 1930 when Jones, a tired warrior of 28, had announced his retirement from tournament golf after completing his epochal Grand Slam. That autumn, at the invitation of Roberts and two other wintertime Augusta regulars, Jones came to that city from Atlanta to inspect a plot of land they were recommending as a possible site for the "dream course" he had frequently remarked he would like to build when circumstances were hospitable. The plot was part of an ancient indigo plantation which had been purchased in 1857 by a Belgian nobleman, Baron Berckmans, who converted Fruitlands, as the estate was named, into one of the South's leading nurseries. Jones was driven down Magnolia Lane, a double row of magnolias leading to the antebellum manor house, today the heart of the Augusta National's rambling clubhouse. "I stood at the top of the hill before that fine old house," Jones has since described that Balboa-like occasion, "and looked at that wide stretch of land rolling down the slope before me. It was cleared land, for the most part, and you could take in the vista all the way down to Rae's Creek. I knew instantly it was the kind of terrain I had always hoped to find. I had been told, of course, about the marvelous plants and trees, but I was still unprepared for the bonus of beauty Fruitlands offered. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the exciting possibilities of the golf course that could be built in such a setting."
Each year the view from the hill, the view that instantly sold Jones, is breathed in by the thousands who journey to the Masters. There are few first-timers who, upon experiencing that view, do not exclaim either aloud or to themselves, "Yes, it's all it's cracked up to be and more." There are few "repeaters" who, after hurrying to the brow of the hill, do not affirm to themselves, "It's just as lovely as I remember it. I hope it always stays the same because of what it personally means to me."
The vista that Jones took in and the vista of later beholders is somewhat different if topographically the same. Since 1931, the cleared meadowland and its interrupting stands of giant pines and its banking clumps of southern flora have been articulated into 18 golf holes. The course that Jones designed in collaboration with Alister Mackenzie, the Scottish architect whose best-known other American course is Cypress Point, is very probably the most visually appealing inland course ever built anywhere and, architecturally, perhaps the only truly important course constructed since 1911 when the National golf links at Southampton, Long Island, was completed. These two courses, so dissimilar in appearance, are actually blood brothers. The Southampton links, featuring adaptations of classic British holes, first enunciated for Americans the beauty of strategic design. The Augusta National, coming after a period of wholesale infatuation with penal design, reaffirmed the superiority of the strategic and did it so well that a reversion to the penal has never since occurred. Instead of instantly penalizing the player whenever he strays from the straight and narrow and appointed, a golf hole of strategic design offers a player several lines of attack, permitting him, as he judges his capacities and how the hole is playing that day, to choose conservative, mildly aggressive or audacious tactics. A successful strategic hole rewards each shot fairly—that is, in proper proportion to the type of shot attempted and how well it was played. For example, the hole is prepared to bestow a worthwhile advantage on the golfer who attempts the shot that requires more skill and nerve than the safe shot and pulls it off. It is also prepared to make him pay in the same definite terms if he overassesses his shot-making ability.
A MATTER OF JUDGMENT
At Augusta, the 13th and 15th holes probably offer the simplest illustrations of this strategic concept, although it is present in varying degrees of subtlety in all of the holes. Both the 13th and 15th are par fives, rather shortish ones, 470 and 505 yards respectively, in keeping with Jones's thesis that a par five should not be so lengthy that it cannot be reached with two absolutely first-class shots. At the same time, on each of these holes, a receptive water hazard lurks just before the green, a winding creek on the 13th, a small pond on the 15th. If a golfer has poled out a fine drive on either hole, then, if the wind is not against him, he has a decision to make: should he try to clear the water hazard and set himself up for a birdie or even an eagle, or should he play short of the hazard and accept the prudent probability of a par? Billy Joe Patton, who in last year's Masters was in no mood to accept the probability of a par when there was the remotest possibility of a birdie, elected on that pressureful last round to "go for" the green on both these holes. In both instances he was pressing the percentages; neither of his drives, the first pushed, the second pulled, afforded him a really good lie and a comfortable stance for that big second shot. On the 13th, though he lashed a terrific spoon shot from a side-hill lie, the ball drifted a shade and caught the upper creek, and before he was finished, Billy Joe had himself a seven. Quite similarly, trying to crack a spoon all the way from a close lie in the rough on the 15th, he was unable to get enough of the ball. The ducking shot eventually skidded into the pond before the green, and Billy Joe had a six that settled his fate once and for all. To be sure, the same all-out tactics were responsible for the slew of birdies Billy Joe picked up on his four adventurous rounds, but in most cases the odds were more in his favor than on the 13th and 15th in the final round, and this is the point of strategic architecture.