With the approach of this year’s Masters, it’s once again time for Jim Nantz to whisper in our ears that we’re about to savor “a tradition unlike any other.”
But it isn’t just Nantz’s repetition of his Masters catchphrase that makes us buy into the belief that Augusta National is every bit as unique a golfing experience as when astronaut Alan Shepard turned the moon into his personal driving range.
Visitors are bombarded by Masters traditions the second their vehicles roll onto Magnolia Lane, where Augusta National’s entry road is lined with trees planted before the Civil War.
The course is punctuated with golfing landmarks, like Rae’s Creek, the trickling brook in the heart of Amen Corner that gobbles up balls that fail to reach the 12th green. Look one way, and it’s spanned by a stone bridge named for legend Ben Hogan. Look the other and there’s another crossing dedicated to Byron Nelson.
And for the duration of the tournament, history lessons will emanate non-stop from Butler Cabin, CBS’ broadcast headquarters. There, the Masters’ green jacket passes annually from last year’s champ to this year’s newly crowned king of golf.
Yes, it’s almost enough to make one think that this must be where golf was born.
But guess what? Of golf’s four major tournaments, the Masters is easily the youngest, starting only in 1934.
The British Open was in full gear all the way back in 1860, when those Magnolia Lane trees were saplings. The U.S. Open teed off in 1895. And even the PGA Championship has a 1916 birth date.
So how did the Masters become the Masters? How did it overtake those other great events that had a head start and earn recognition as golf’s premier tournament?
There are many answers to that question. Let’s start at the beginning.
The first Masters in 1934 also marked a return to competitive golf by Bobby Jones, who in 1930 had swept what then were considered the four Grand Slam tourneys of golf: the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur.
Jones had walked away abruptly at the age of 28, at the absolute pinnacle of his career. Imagine if Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Tiger Woods had suddenly taken a four-year hiatus from golf right when they reached superstar status.
So yes, Jones’ return was a really big deal, and all of the sports writers who were heading home after the conclusion of spring training in Florida were only too happy to add a stop in Augusta to their itineraries.
Jones finished only 13th as Horton Smith won the inaugural Masters (which was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament until 1939), but in the end, that didn’t matter. The news media had discovered Augusta National and spread the word.
And it helped that Gene Sarazen won the next Masters by forcing a playoff with what perhaps ranks as the most famous double eagle in golfing history, on the par-five 15th hole.
Augusta National was billed as a duffer’s paradise from the second Jones and revered golf architect Alister MacKenzie began shaping an abandoned, 365-acre plant nursery that had been known as Fruitland.
Mackenzie had solidified his reputation with the creation of Cypress Point on the California coast and Jones, who wrote about golf and made instructional movies, was the sport’s leading authority in America.
It was as much of a can’t-miss team as when Phil Jackson introduced Michael Jordan to the triangle offense. But there was a third vital cog: Clifford Roberts.
Roberts co-founded Augusta National with Jones, and he ruled as the club’s chairman for 45 years until he committed suicide on the course in 1977.
Roberts had a Wall Street background, and between his business acumen and Jones’ celebrity, the two were able to raise the cash needed to jump-start Augusta National even though the Great Depression had hammered the economy into near submission.
A schedule like no other
If a debate were held to determine the world’s best-known golf course, the argument almost certainly would simmer down to Augusta National and the Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland.
St. Andrews is often referred to as “the home of golf” and dates back to the 1400s. But it receives exposure as host of a Grand Slam tournament only intermittently. Since 1990, the British Open has been held at St. Andrews once every five years, and it has hosted a total of 14 British Opens since the Masters started.
The U.S. Open and the PGA championship also rotate sites, even more so than the Brit.
But Augusta National is about to host its 78th Masters, and the last time it didn’t occupy a significant place on the golf calendar was during a three-year break amid World War II.
That yearly exposure gives Augusta National more global attention than any other course. It also places the Masters right alongside the NCAA basketball tournament and baseball’s opening day as a spring sports ritual.
And why was the April slot so wisely grabbed from the very beginning? Because Jones and Roberts decided they’d never get to host a U.S. Open later in the year, when temperatures at Augusta would be unbearably hot.
Arnie, Ike and CBS
Ever hear of the Western Open? It once was played anywhere from Tennessee to California before it temporarily settled in Chicago, where it morphed into the BMW Championship. And once upon a time, many people considered it a major.
The rise in professional golf and the decline in interest in the U.S. and British amateur championships left the sport without four universally accepted majors for a lengthy period, but Arnold Palmer helped change that in 1960.
Having won the Masters and U.S. Open that year, Palmer famously spoke with Bob Drum of The Pittsburgh Press during his flight to the British Open. Palmer told Drum he should write about the possibility of Arnie sweeping "the Grand Slam of golf.”
Palmer said the modern version of the Grand Slam should be the four tournaments that indeed are accepted today. Drum wrote his story and the thought caught on quickly. Palmer was the face of golf at the time, and he kept his Grand Slam hope alive for all four rounds of the 1960 British Open at St. Andrews before finishing second to Kel Nagle, just one stroke back.
But even if Palmer hadn’t crystallized the definition of the modern golf majors, the sport probably still would have eventually arrived at the same conclusion.
Augusta National became widely known even to non-golfers in the 1950s when President Dwight D. Eisenhower made it his favorite vacation destination. The club, following specifications provided by the Secret Service, even built an Eisenhower Cabin for him.
“Ike” also was regularly referenced during the tournament, because of the “Eisenhower Tree” that he hated and often hit, on the left side of the 17th hole. (Alas, storm damage forced removal of the tree this year.)
The other inescapable factor that swelled the Masters’ fame in the 1950s was the rectangular box that was making its way into every living room in America. In 1956, the Masters was nationally televised for the first time.
That was two years later than the U.S. Open’s national TV debut, but from the start, watching the Masters on CBS was a relatively painless experience for those of us who hate commercial breaks. Those ads have always been limited to just four minutes per hour. (Equally amazing is that CBS and Augusta National have maintained their relationship since 1956 while always operating on a one-year contract.)
More traditions and innovations
Imagine watching this week’s Masters, and trying to figure out who’s leading by looking at total strokes taken.
Hmmm, let’s see. Is a guy who takes 200 strokes through the 14th hole of the third round ahead of the player who has 159 as he walks off the third green?
It would be maddening. And in 1960, the Masters shifted to something better. Instead of aggregate scores, Clifford Roberts had the leaderboards simply show what hole the top 10 contenders were playing, and where they were in relation to par. Other tournaments quickly adopted what is now the standard live scoring system.
Similarly, the Masters was the first tournament to sprinkle leaderboards throughout the course, instead of having just one near the finishing clubhouse.
What are the other charming aspects of the Masters?
Every hole has a name that’s tied to its nearby flowering trees or shrubbery, like the No. 2 Pink Dogwood or the No. 9 Carolina Cherry. Without the Masters, how many of us would spell azalea correctly?
There’s the Champions’ Dinner, hosted by the previous year’s winner. It was started in 1952 by Ben Hogan, and no player, not even Greg Norman or Rory McIlroy, gets in until they’ve won a green jacket.
There are the “honorary starters,” the living legends who begin the tourney with ceremonial tee shots on Thursday morning.
The last two years, that duty has been performed by Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, who account for a combined 13 Masters championships.
Whether they hit the fairway or err into the woods, watching them gather on the first tee makes for an incredible snapshot of golfing history.
Yet when they do it again this year, it will be business as usual and surely just one of many great memories produced by the world’s greatest golf tournament.
Tom Weir covered two Masters as a columnist for USA Today.