Of all the elements that make Augusta National a championship test, the most heralded are its greens, a confounding collection of befuddling breaks and slippery slopes. Think of the tiny shelf on the right of the sixth green, the mammoth mounds in the 14th green, the subtle trench at the fifth, and the nasty tongue on No. 9 that propels balls back down the fairway.
But these are not the original green contours. These are modified ones, considerably softened. The original greens were even more outrageous and outlandish. Eighty years ago, they were changed, for the better, at least in the mind of one golf course critic, who wrote:
“The artificial thrown-up sand dune formations. which were intended to give the foreign touch to a number of greens at the home of the Masters tournament, have been replaced by a more modern American conception of proper contours to test a player’s skill.”
The critic was Bob Harlow, who’d just lost his position as manager of the tournament bureau for the PGA of America (the forerunner of today’s PGA Tour), in part because of his outspoken opinions. (In 1947, Harlow founded Golf World magazine, which was purchased by Golf Digest in 1988 and continues today as a digital publication.)
Writing in the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle in January 1938, Harlow explained that the original designers, golf architect Alister MacKenzie and golf icon Bob Jones, shared a love of the Old Course at St. Andrews and of links golf in general, so their original design of Augusta National strove to impart that kind of rugged topography in their greens and surrounds, a style that emphasized the ground game and elements of luck.
“It was a notable experiment,” Harlow wrote, “but an effort to duplicate the natural terrain of one country in another location, by artificial means, does not work out successfully except in Hollywood.
“Because of the peculiar undulations in the approaches to a number of original Augusta greens, many a well-directed shot bounced off at a strange angle, thus discounting a player’s skill.”
Harlow reported that Oklahoman Perry Maxwell, whom he described as “a golf course architect and livestock farmer,” had, during the summer of 1937, rebuilt the fifth, seventh and 17th greens and relocated the 10th green to a hilltop (cleared of pines) some 60 yards beyond the original, lengthening that par 4 to 449 yards.
Harlow applauded Maxwell’s efforts to shed “the seaside effects” so that Augusta National “hereafter will look like most other American inland golf courses.”
Maxwell had been selected because he’d been the Midwest design associate of MacKenzie for some time before MacKenzie’s death in early 1934, just a year after Augusta National first opened.
Maxwell did his alterations under the close scrutiny of longtime Masters chairman Clifford Roberts. After the remodeling of the seventh green, Roberts wrote Maxwell, “I do not think you improved No. 7 at all, but this is unimportant, as I doubt anyone could do very much with this green in its present location.”
So shortly after the 1938 Masters had concluded, Maxwell returned to Augusta and relocated the seventh green to a new hilltop location, making it a postage stamp surrounded by bunkers accessible only by a lofted iron. He also removed a “buried elephant” in the sixth green, shrank the 12th green and replaced the boomerang ninth green.
After he had reshaped the ninth in June 1938, Roberts inspected it and sent another stern note to Maxwell: “Bob Jones and I are in agreement that it is wise to put back a portion of the tongue that was formerly on No. 9. Equally important is the matter of getting away from the present round pancake appearance of the putting surface. I want to make clear that we wish no further work done on 9 green unless you first obtain the permission of Bob Jones.”
Soon thereafter, Maxwell reshaped the ninth again, re-establishing the now notorious sloping front portion of the green, a feature that had existed from the very beginning.
In the summer of 1939, Maxwell modified most of the remaining greens, including the 18th, “tweaking things,” as he called it. As his personal style was for broad, sweeping green contours (known today as “Maxwell Rolls”), his remodeling was distinctive, but not so stark as to alarm club members.
His work certainly pleased Harlow, who wrote, “Oklahoma’s golf architect has given the Augusta National back to Georgia.”
Curiously, while Maxwell removed knobs and hillocks from within Augusta National’s greens, he left similar features that existed short of many greens, and they remain today in some locations: the low cluster of mounds shy of the fifth green, the ridge of three knobs diagonally in front of the 11th green, a bump short of the 14th green and, most notably, the hillocks surrounding the eighth green. (Those hillocks on eight had been removed in the 1950s, but were restored in the late 1970s.)
These are the last remaining reminders of the original design intent of MacKenzie and Jones. Those two wanted Augusta National to be the Old Course of Dixie.