Ask most American professional golfers which major they’d most enjoy winning, and the answer will likely be the same: The Masters. Set during the first full week of April every year at the historic and exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, The Masters Tournament enjoys its perch at the very pinnacle of the sport.
A confluence of factors combine to give The Masters its status as “a tradition unlike any other.” The first is, of course, the golf course. Augusta National is the real star of the show, and its verdant presence on our TV screens signals the true start of spring for many golf fans. Year over year, as the players try to unlock Augusta’s ever-puzzling elevation changes and slippery greens, the fans grow to understand the course and empathize with the struggles they watch on TV. Every tournament adds another layer of memories, collapses, and triumphs to the ever-growing mystique around the grounds.
Apart from the course, the tournament itself is unique in that it manages to simultaneously offer a grueling test to the world’s great players and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of the sport’s lesser-known names. Invitations go out to the top 50 players in the OWGR, recent major winners (and last year’s top four finishers), and every player to win a PGA Tour event in the past year, among others, making for a strong field. But in a nod to the tournament’s roots and founder Bobby Jones, invites are also sent to the winners of some of the most prestigious amateur tournaments around the world.
The Masters is the youngest of the sport’s four majors. But in many ways, it boasts the most fascinating history. From the seed of an idea in the mind of one of America’s greatest golfers sprung the roots for one of the greatest tournaments in the world.
Bobby Jones seeks solitude
By age 28, Bobby Jones was regarded as the preeminent golfer of his day. He had won 34 professional and amateur tournaments, including 13 majors. Most prominently, he was the first (and still only) player to capture the calendar year Grand Slam--winning the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open, and U.S. Amateur titles in 1930. This feat was made more astounding by the fact that he placed a bet on himself before the season to win the Grand Slam (at 50-1 odds), and collected $60,000 (nearly $900,000 in today’s money). Phil, if you’re reading this, try not to bite your tongue off in jealousy.
But just as Jones reached the top of his game, he walked away. He had never turned professional, choosing to focus on his family and his day job practicing law, but the pressure of being constantly swarmed by adoring fans and counted on by thousands of spectators (and bettors) to win every tournament had become too much. Jones retired from competition and sought to build his dream course, where he could enjoy a casual round with some friends.
Enter two of the most influential non-golfers in the history of the sport: Clifford Roberts and Alister MacKenzie.
Building Augusta National
Even casual golf fans know the major bullet points of Augusta’s history. Formerly the site of Fruitland Nurseries, Augusta National was co-founded by Jones and New York investment banker Clifford Roberts. The course was designed by famed course designer Alister MacKenzie (who also designed Cypress Point, among other storied tracks). Jones consulted with MacKenzie, and both were heavily influenced by the wide-open design and multiple playing options available at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Though the course has received numerous nips and tucks over the years, the original intent of the track was to imitate, as nearly as possible, the linksy feel of the British Isles.
The Fruitland property offered a supreme canvas upon which to work, with extraordinary elevation changes and naturally rolling terrain. Many Masters fans are aware that the 9s were reversed when the course first opened, but the club soon flipped them to their current layout because Amen Corner refused to defrost in the early Georgia mornings. Fewer know that the course opened with only 22 bunkers (half as many as it has today), and featured nine bunkerless fairways and four holes (7, 11, 15, and 17) entirely devoid of sand. Find an old photo of an original Augusta green complex, and you’ll quickly realize that the good Doctor protected par by building huge, wildly undulating putting surfaces.
The course came together extremely quickly. On July 15, 1931, The Augusta Chronicle reported that Jones had chosen Augusta as his spot to build a dream course, and in December of 1932, the National opened for preview play. The grand opening took place in 1933, and Jones finally had his peaceful golf retreat. There was only one problem. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and members were hard to find.
The Augusta National Invitational Tournament
Bobby Jones, darling of the golf world and winner of nine USGA major championships, asked the sport’s American governing body to stage the U.S. Open at Augusta in order to shine a light on the new course. The USGA flatly refused, citing the oppressive heat common during Georgia summers.
So Jones did what any good sportsman would do, and took matters into his own hands. He used his colossal fame and sway within the golf world, along with Clifford Roberts’s high-rolling connections and impeccable sense of staging, to create the Augusta National Invitational Tournament. This highly selective event debuted on March 22, 1934, and for several years consisted only of players personally invited by either Jones or Roberts.
Gene, a Four Wood, and The Masters
Despite the Depression, this was the perfect storm for golf. The professional game was growing in popularity, with stars like Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen winning tournaments around the country. Bobby Jones’s retirement and subsequent creation of Augusta National had added a touch of mystery to the world’s most popular golfer. And in 1935, one shot vaulted the tournament into the public consciousness forever.
With Jones out of the competitive picture, it lay to the professionals of the day to pick up the slack and provide an exciting spectacle for the Augusta crowds. And on Sunday of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, Gene Sarazen delivered.
Standing 230 yards out in the 15th fairway, Sarazen was three shots behind leader Craig Wood, who had just birdied the 18th hole. Sarazen was playing with Walter Hagen, an 11-time major winner and one of the biggest draws in the sport. With an enormous crowd looking on (including Bobby Jones, who had come out of the clubhouse to see if Sarazen could mount a charge), the Squire piped a 4-wood over the pond and into the bank fronting the green. According to O.B. Keeler writing for The American Golfer, the ball “…bounded once - twice - and settled to a smooth roll, while the ripple of sound from the big gallery went sweeping into a crescendo – and then the tornado broke.” Sarazen had found the bottom of the cup for a miraculous double eagle.
Of course, he went on to win the tournament by five shots in the next day’s 36-hole playoff, and the tournament had its first of countless signature moments. As each subsequent playing drew more fans and column inches, Jones, who had at first balked at a name so pretentious, agreed to rename the tournament The Masters in 1939.
Growth and innovation
The Masters has grown from its original iteration as a glorified buddies trip into one of the most prestigious events in golf, and it has several people to thank for it.
First, obviously, is Bobby Jones. Without his star power, charisma, charm, and gentleman’s grace, the tournament would have been nothing more than a passing fad. Jones was named “President in Perpetuity” at Augusta National.
Sarazen had a huge hand in vaulting the event into the national consciousness, as did the list of big names who succeeded him; names like Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan. These stars kept the crowds coming back to Augusta, and laid the groundwork for the players of today.
Interestingly, sportswriters were an integral part of the early growth of the tournament as well. As MLB spring training wrapped up, sports scribes pulled out of dusty parking lots across Florida and began to rumble their way back to their hometown markets. The event’s timing in early April coincided with this diaspora, and many acclaimed writers (including Grantland Rice) made covering The Masters a part of their April routines.
But the man who had the biggest hand in transforming The Masters from a small invitational into a worldwide championship was Clifford Roberts. In addition to working tirelessly alongside Jones to promote the early iterations of the Augusta National Invitational, Roberts was responsible for a host of innovations that became commonplace across major golf tournaments. Some of his more well-known ideas include course-wide leaderboards (with over/under par color coding), pairing sheets so patrons knew the tournament groupings, altered mounds to improve gallery viewpoints, grandstands, roped-off fairways and greens, and tournament broadcasts on the radio.
Roberts held the dual posts of Chairman at both the course and the tournament from 1931 until his death in 1977, and is still named “Chairman in Memoriam.” Bobby Jones brought the sizzle to the early years of the event, but Clifford Roberts spent his entire life making sure that The Masters was the Georgia peach of golf tournaments.