A Maiden Voyage To An American Classic
I never had plans to go to Augusta National this early in my life. Each year, murmurs of how difficult it is to score tickets to The Masters flood social media feeds and discussion boards discouraged me from ever entering the lottery, especially in my early 20s as money was tight and the prospect of simply travelling to Georgia for a golf tournament seemed daunting to my bank account. Naturally, playing the golf course is even harder, even if rumours of friends of a friend playing gave me a bit of hope. I figured I would begin entering the lottery in my 30s, 40s, and if necessary, 50s, 60s, or heaven forbid, my 70s. The Masters, and Augusta National, were an afterthought for me in my growing quest to travel to play and see golf courses.
That is, until I was given tickets for the Augusta National Woman’s Amateur in 2022 on short-notice. In fact, we got the tickets on a random day in late March, with four or so days to find a way to get from Toronto, Ontario. Augusta, Georgia is not exactly a big centre like Atlanta, Orlando, or Phoenix, meaning a connecting flight was in the cards. Likewise, rental cars in a small centre, let alone the two weeks the golf world flocks to the state of Georgia, were difficult to find at a reasonable price. Add in a COVID-19 rental car shortage, and it became difficult to draw up plans to fly to Augusta or even Atlanta. Alas, we decided to drive even if the 14+ hour price tag was, well, daunting.
We went east of the Appalachian’s through Detroit, down to Atlanta, and over to Augusta. The route through western Ohio is not exactly the most picturesque or enjoyable, but a pit stop in Cincinnati at Mazunte Centro’s for tacos soothed the soul, and Donald Ross’ Holston Hills in Knoxville ignited it. This was the first signs of a golf season in 2022, signifying we made it through the flurries and waves of sleet, slush, snow, and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even a golf trip in the winter for a Canadian or northern-state dweller did not give hope like a late winter/early spring trip; the dormant grasses with evidence of green popping through mixing with the cool temperatures layered with a warm breeze is enough to cure any post-fall hangover, let alone on the way to Augusta National in late March knowing when we returned there would likely be golf courses open in some capacity.
Our journey included Raising Cane’s and Old Toccoa Farm, a Dave Axland and Dan Proctor creation in the northeast corner of Georgia through the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains. It would be as if Tobacco Road draped on the side of a mountain with modern, Bill Coore/Tom Doak-esque greens; a ruckus, but one that I enjoyed enough that I would recommend. It helped keep our minds distracted from the thought of walking through the gates at the most famous golf course in the world, even if English, Scottish, or Irish golfers might choose The Old Course. That thought loomed over us unequivocally, though we did our best to drown it out with nonstop action as we slowly went south.
After what was essentially a quick nap at some crummy hotel by the time we arrived at night, we took Beckman’s Road to the massive parking lot that used to be a neighbourhood where people lived. I like to call situations like this ghetto luxury, where we are incredibly lucky and privileged to be able to have these experiences, layered by slumming it in some $50 motel that might look like it would appear on Breaking Bad. I coined the phrase after I played Memphrémagog in Quebec, where I managed to snag an invitation to the club where billionaires and socialites hangout, but couldn’t afford to eat at the club, choosing to stop at McDonald’s in the town of Magog before and after instead. This experience is slightly different considering we were not playing Augusta National, but nonetheless, the juxtaposition between the swankiest club in golf and what might as well be a crack house is a fair representation in how I travel. I’ve never stayed at a Four Seasons, Fairmont, or even a Hampton Inn on my own dollar, instead deciding to spend the money I save on hotels on a hat at Seminole or a caddie at Shinnecock. I once had a security guard at a Motel 6 in downtown Dallas tell me I couldn’t bring in my clubs to my room because they were “weapons. I had to keep them in my car, and the thought of them sitting in the back of my car, ready to have a window smashed in the ghetto as I laid my head down on what I was surely convinced had bed bugs, was not exactly the pre-round fuel I needed. It’s always good when you check in to the hotel outside the window, locked and with steel bars to block out anyone breaking in. This place in Augusta had that vibe, and brought back so many memories of weird situations of a similar nature.
Anyway, away we go: down Beckman’s Road to the expansive, rolling parking lot. In some way, it almost seems offensive to be parking cars on this land, which rolls in a way not unlike the actual golf course, although on the high plateau and never dropping down into the valley Amen Corner finds its home. As a golfer, the mind begins to wonder: what a Mackenzie or Ross course would look like? After all, Augusta National’s founding members had thoughts of a second “Women’s Course”, and the current members continue to ignite such discussion even to this day, minus the whole segregated genders thing (that is so early 2000s for ANGC). Even more-so than a second golf course, when your car parks in the lot for The Masters or the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, you are parking in someone’s old dining room, where children had breakfast prior to school, or couples sat down after a day at the office to watch The Office.
The days of those conversations or bowls of Cheerios are in the past, replaced by rows upon rows of parking sections marked by numbers and letters of some 90 acres. Parking enforcement directs Chevy’s and Kia’s around the lot, effortlessly working in unison to introduce the spectacle that is Augusta National’s operation; the first touchpoint of the day. Our sign next to our car said C5. That should be easy to remember: “C5, best rapper, alive” is a popular Lil Wayne lyric that stuck in my head.
That well-oiled parking operation is just the beginning of the day, and honestly, the reoccurring theme of the best operation in the world is the most impressive part of the entire facility. No one will argue differently that the golf course is impressive, but Augusta National, as an operation, makes Disney World look mishandled. There’s no Fast Pass or screaming children here. There are long lines, but opposite of Tower of Terror, they move quickly, especially going into the merchandise centre. The Masters or Augusta National Golf Club, whoever is responsible, have thought of everything: directly outside the main store, near the patron entryway, is “Shipping & Handling,” a place for those who purchase too much to ship it home without having to worry about lugging it around the grounds all day. It is not uncommon to see grown adults carrying 6, 7, 10, 12 bags jam packed full of Masters or ANWA gear. A bit tasteless for my own desires of attending a golf tournament, but to each their own, I guess.
The concessions, notoriously priced low ($5.00 for a beer, $1.50-$3.00 for a sandwich), do not sacrifice quality; the food is good, though smaller than anyone will tell you. The $3.00 sandwich won’t fill you up, but it is refreshing to not walk up to a sporting event and have to pay triple the market value. You would likely need two BBQ sandwiches—removed for some odd reason in 2023—to fill you up, but a $6.00 main course is still a steal, and the taste if first-rate (minus the overrated pimento cheese sandwich).
From my perspective, the operation was the star of the show and the unheralded champion of Augusta National’s operation. At the centre of it all, however, is the golf course. Not-so-unexpected, the golf course is pristine and impressive. Mackenzie’s greens, specifically that on the 1st, 5th, and 14th, are much more aggressive than TV will ever show. The routing, plunging and thrusting upon the hilly Georgian property, is an impressive feat for Dr. Mackenzie, who made numerous odd decisions, in my assessment. The choice to route the 8th directly uphill, for example, would be one, especially when you consider the mounding surrounding the green. Or even the 10th and 11th, seemingly getting down to the bottom of the property as quickly as possible, might scare off other architects from that decision. The 10th is a true ski slope, though if someone has played Pasatiempo or Capilano, they can imagine how wickedly downhill the opening two holes to the back nine are (Google Earth Pro is telling me Augusta National’s 10th and 11th drop 197 feet; Capilano’s 5th and 6th 205 feet; Pasatiempo’s 1st and 2nd 236 feet). I felt slightly underwhelmed by the whole “it’s hillier than you expect” trope, but that might be because I grew up in the Rocky Mountains. It is no hillier than either of those golf courses I mentioned above, and you can certainly fathom a golf course being built there. TV does flatten out the property, but the trope is tired.
These so-called odd decisions, no different from anything else at Augusta National’s calibre that has firmly cemented itself among the world’s very best, are the reason we celebrate the golf course so much. The quick dogleg’s on the 13th and 18th would likely be criticized today in the anti-tree movement, and while the chutes of trees are a bit much for my taste, they work in perfect harmony with holes like the 2nd, 3rd, 10th, and 11th that afford the golfer wider corridors (sometimes, not necessarily easier, such as the 11th). My takeaway from Shinnecock Hills was how unorthodox that golf course is within the basic principles of golf architecture, at least of what I had learned at that time. At Shinnecock, you were not always supposed to play to the inside corners of the doglegs for the better angle. More times than not, in fact, this would penalize you. Likewise, William Flynn’s greens at his Southampton masterpiece generally slope away from the line of play. Green sites like the 9th and 11th at Shinne would be too severe for most; it is a truly insane golf course. Augusta National reminded me of these rule breakers, sensing a pattern among the best in the world.
This is not without discussing that Mackenzie’s golf course is essentially gone in spirit. The routing remains, and the green contours, for the most part, remain (mostly) Mackenzie or Perry Maxwell, Mackenzie’s associate. However, the shapes of those greens have changed, and pin locations have been lost. Creativity has been traded in for a true test of a golf course, although likely the best tournament course in the world to its credit. Golfers will still aim away from flags on chip shots and the occasional approach, but the thought of The Masters Sunday pin location on the left side of the Mackenzie boomerang on 9, or the Stoke Poges homage on 16 with its pretty fascinating nipple in the green dividing the green at the centre, remind us that it likely should be the best golf course in the world by a considerable margin.
Even so, Mackenzie wasn’t perfect, and versions of the 10th, 14th, and 17th, in particular, are better now thanks to Perry Maxwell. Aesthetically, it is hard to argue with how gorgeous the golf course is, although I could do without the fake bird sounds in the spirit of Disney pumping smells into the air to trigger happiness. It becomes hard to fathom how good the golf course could be with a proper bunker style (not just the circular pits of death), a handful of bunkers restored that have been lost, the tongues or extra pins on the 4th, 6th, 7th, 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th, and 18th, and keeping or restoring some of Perry Maxwell’s important changes.
Even with the criticisms of trading in likely Mackenzie’s most impressive masterpiece for the world’s greatest tournament venue, being on property, you begin to understand the reasoning, and as a result, it becomes hard to criticize. Those white circular pits of death are the ideal tournament hazard: hitting in them presents a uniform, equal chance for everyone who goes in the same ones. There is no variety or
luck of the draw rub of the green in which part of the bunker, which finger or inlet or whatever you have to take on if you hit it in one. When you go in a bunker, they present a level playing field: to me, that is the perfect tournament experience for competitors. If you are trying to identify the best player that week, would you not try to make it equal for all? That, from where I’m sitting, is the goal of Augusta National now, and truthfully, they have done a brilliant job of accomplishing that.
With all that said, it is still obviously one of the best golf courses in the world, and I venture, among the ten best. As expected, the 3rd, and 10th-13th are excellent golf holes not just on TV, but in person. But somewhat unexpected, I was rather enthralled by the bruising start at the 1st, way more uphill than one expects, with many the best green on the front nine. For reasons similarly to the opener, the 5th is a standout in person. I would love to hit long irons into that green all day, seeing where I have to land the ball to skip it up. True, Masters competitors rarely see the ground as a viable option, but for members and their guests, Augusta National still encapsulates a very strong balance. On holes like the 3rd, 4th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, the aerial approach is preferred; inversely, the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th are better when the ball gets on the ground and rolls, especially on the 5th and 14th, two of the main standouts in-person. Augusta National’s ethos, in my mind, is balance: where there’s an uphill draw shot, there’s a downhill fade. Where there’s a massively sloped green, such as the 5th or 14th, there is a more subdued version to balance out the set (4, 12). It ebbs and flows about as good as anything I’ve seen, hence why Masters Sunday is such a spectacle year-in, year-out.
On TV, 14 always seemed like a letdown following Amen Corner and the 10th, but in person, it continues the impressive stretch of golf, one I might think ranks very high (top?) of the best stretches in the world. A reverse camber fairway to what Ben Crenshaw called the best green in the game of golf, it becomes easy to look past how uphill this tee shot is on TV, but it is very uphill. This was a surprising development being on the grounds: numerous holes—1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 14th, 17th 18th—the golfer lands directly into upslopes, further compounded by Augusta National’s mowing strategy of mowing its Rye grain into the line of play. It is not uncommon for the landing area to be blind, with a few tee shots rising over a ridge, or doglegging around a corner. A golfer could hit a tee shot and not see where it ends up, although it is fairly obvious and the tee shots are never truly blind. Even with the massive downhill elevation changes on the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 10th, 11th, and 15th, I got the sense that the golf course played longer than its 7,500 yard price tag.
Truth be told, sensory overload is the word to describe a maiden voyage to Augusta National. It is everything anyone tells you, and then some. The operation is unheralded compared to the golf course, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. The golf course, notwithstanding some low-hanging criticism or observations in comparison to the original vision, is a true triumph of agronomy and presentation. The golf course, from Mackenzie to Maxwell, Cobb to Jones to Fazio, is impressive in golf’s almost highest level, and the current goal of the course—to challenge the best and present an interesting test—is the gold standard in that department. The 10th-14th is a world-class display of golf architecture, and similarly for the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 8th.
A maiden trip to Augusta National is to somehow walk away impressed even with such high standards; it somehow lives up to everything anyone has told you, and then some.