Masters Plan for Augusta National

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Editor's Note: The following is a special feature courtesy LINKS Magazine
 
Great golf courses may be considered works of art, but their owners hardly treat them as such. While adding even a single brush stroke to the Mona Lisa or building another wing to the Taj Mahal would be considered unthinkable, their counterparts in golf are constantly undergoing revisions, redesigns and restorations.
 
No great course more reflects this trend than Augusta National Golf Club, which, especially in recent years, has evolved to the point where the original designers, Bobby Jones and Dr. Alister MacKenzie, may be hard pressed to recognize it. In addition to adding 520 yards since 1998, the club has narrowed landing areas by adding a second cut of grass as well as numerous trees.
 
The club has made these changes in response to the increasing distances that todays best players hit the ball. And while Augusta National has stood pat in the past year, it has proved most willing of any club to alter its layout'both recently and over the years, during which numerous architects have left their marks on the course.
 
Theres no reason to think this trend wont continue, and in that spirit, LINKS has asked several architects to provide master plans of how they would redesign or restore Augusta National Golf Club. In addition to their thoughts, several young architects'the future Doaks and Fazios'even have offered drawings of their visions. These plans, featured on the gatefold starting on page 71, are similar to what the architects would present to clubs green committees. They provide fascinating insight into architects thinking processes and help better understand the holes strategies.
 
The plan:
The idea of creating a long range or master plan has been a recent trend in golf course design inspired by years of committee tampering at some of the worlds great courses. The process is usually instigated by older golf courses looking to reverse decades of change to a master architects work. The selection process begins with presentations by the architects to a committee of the clubs leadership. Once hired, the architects analyze the design and receive golfers feedback.
 
Every architect handles the committee-driven process of long-range planning differently. Some rely on communication skills while others are not shy to break out PowerPoints and lavish drawings. We generally dont do drawings in our consulting work, longtime restorer Tom Doak says. Because we are trying to emphasize that our primary mission is to restore old features and so it is more appropriate to work from old photographs rather than new drawings.
 
Now on his own, Mike Benkusky, a longtime associate of Chicago-area renovation specialist Bob Lohman, has a consistent approach to older layouts. My philosophy is to throw out ideas on different plans and hope that the committee likes certain ideas on different plans. We then gather all of those ideas and put them onto one plan as our final master plan. I do not try to sway the committee one way or another on the ideas, but lead them through the process by pointing out the pros and cons of each idea and how it relates to the overall design of the golf course.
 
Augusta National presents a unique challenge because of what happens in early April every year. The difficulty in formulating a successful plan lies in the need to accommodate both tournament and member play, says Bobby Weed, architect of several TPC courses. We all know that technologys greatest impact is felt by the best players, and that the gap between good and bad golfers is wider than ever. No other course in the world must address that issue as directly as Augusta.
 
Its curious to note that most of the architects polled recommended that instead of changing the course, the Masters should develop a tournament ball to prevent future obsolescence. In the meantime they offer a surprisingly consistent set of suggestions for the club.
 
Tee to green: restore options
Augusta Nationals recent installation of the second cut along with liberal pine-tree planting led all of the architects we questioned to unanimously recommend that the club restore the design to the wider, less cluttered look that could be found during Tiger Woods 1997 victory.
 
Our first step in any renovation work is to work on the non-invasive stuff'removing trees and getting the mowing lines right'and as you know, the club has been moving in exactly the opposite direction for the past several years, Doak says.
 
Australian architect Mike Clayton, who co-designed Barnbougle Dunes with Doak, is a well-known MacKenzie aficionado doing extensive master plan and renovation work Down Under. Worse than the introduction of rough has been the use of trees to redefine the strategy at holes like the 11th and the 15th, says Clayton. Rather than determining the strategy, the pines have conspired to take away the most interesting options and the resulting penal nature of the driving areas has done nothing to add to the thrills of Masters Sunday'to say nothing of the fun for the members. The holes may be harder but are they better?
 
Architect Mike DeVries grew up at MacKenzies Crystal Downs in Michigan and recently oversaw a restoration of the Good Doctors Meadow Club, north of San Francisco. While hes not a fan of the recent tree planting, he feels there may be a more clever way to add challenge for Masters play without penalizing members.
 
Instead of planting large groves of trees to dictate play, return to planting a small cluster of three to five trees or even specimens that could turn into the next Eisenhower Tree and which would reward or punish play, he says. I would mow tight turf around these areas to encourage aggressive play that challenges a tree. By getting around it, the player will gain a significant advantage. The risk/reward shot will return, instead of just punishing a misplayed shot.
 
As for added length, few of the architects feel it is a top priority, except for possibly updating the members tees or proposing the addition of another set of tees to deal with the huge, undesirable gap between the back (7,445 yards) and member tees (6,230).
 
But that decision may have already been made. According to several published reports, the club has been actively scooping up real estate west of the course, with an eye toward more tee expansion on holes like the 455-yard 5th, which has become a drive and short iron in recent years.
 
MacKenzie bunkering:
The architects polled were unanimous in their desire to maintain the ingenious placement of key hazards, while hoping that the committee would open up the clubs photo archives to facilitate a restoration of MacKenzies bunkering.
 
To an Australian used to the wonderful MacKenzie bunkers of the Melbourne Sandbelt, it is an oddity to see bunkers on a MacKenzie course so pristine, white and rounded off, says Clayton. The originals had more of a rustic, rugged and natural feel and one wonders what the course would look like if they were restored to the look and feel of MacKenzie hazards. The world over, his bunkers are subtly different, the result of different soils and the skills of the varying construction crews he used. But those at Augusta look nothing like the work of a Scot who was one of the first to extol the virtues of natural-looking hazards that appeared to be as much the work of nature as man.
 
David Esler, whose rugged bunkering at the highly regarded Black Sheep Golf Club outside Chicago has earned rave reviews, concurs. When one examines early photos, the serpentine bunkers of accidental character define hole strategy at MacKenzies Augusta, he says. MacKenzies bunkers seemed to be ripped from the earth or constructed as if they had bled from a seam in the soil and eroded down hill, exposing sand as they washed away the topsoil. The original bunkers backing the 13th green are exemplary examples of the latter.
 
The greens: more quirks:
Both DeVries and Esler point to restoring key hole locations to provide interest and challenge for both member and tournament play. Like many Golden Age designs, Augusta National has lost much of its original green surface area, says Esler, who has consulted at classics like Glen View and Chicago Golf Club. Not so much by neglect as is typical, but via conscious reconstruction. Gone are MacKenzies eccentric wings and tabs and false fronts.
 
Esler notes that any meeting with club officials must include discussion of restoring the front-left hole location on the par-3 12th and a wily front-right spot on the par-5 15th to reclaim MacKenzies delightful creation.
 
DeVries agrees. Todays longer hitting pros have altered the strategy at Augusta to one where the players hit it as far as possible and then depend on their wedges instead of angles of play to get close to the pin. The greens are still dictating play with their severity, but the best golfers are emphasizing power over placement so they can use their shorter clubs for approaches.
 
By returning some of the more irregularly shaped greens of the original design, say the original bunkerless, L-shaped 7th or the boomerang 9th to their eccentric shapes, it would require more accuracy with a wedge by the pros and will be fun for the members by reintroducing angles of play for them on their longer approaches to tighter, more remote flagstick locations.
 
Past vs. future:
Ironically, it seems that for our architects, the future of Augusta National lies in the past. At the same time, they do realize that balancing the challenges of todays game with the intentions of MacKenzie and Jones may require extreme measures.
 
Preserving the most celebrated aspects of the courses design for Masters competitors, namely no rough and multiple angles of play, says Weed, would require the back tees to be at least 8,250 yards and the fairways stripped, drained, SubAired and sand capped to ensure the ball runs out in all conditions.
 
Be careful what you suggest. Thats just what may happen.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - Masters Tournament
  • LINKS Magazine