Pooling Resources at Augusta

January 13, 2017

Illustration by Michael Waraska

In the late 1960s, Clifford Roberts—Augusta National's co-founder and its chairman until his death, in 1977—told Jackson Stephens, a member, that the crowds at the Masters Par-3 Contest had become so large that patrons were having a hard time getting past the fourth green. Stephens said that Roberts might be able to reduce the bottleneck if he moved the greenside bunker from behind the green to the right side, between the putting surface and the pond.

"Cliff didn't say a word," Stephens told me in 1997 (when he was the chairman). "He just grunted." That summer, though, Roberts moved the bunker—and sent Stephens the bill. "It was for something like $2,600," Stephens said. "Cliff had signed it, and there was a PS: 'By God, you were right.' "

Stories like this—and there are several—are usually offered as evidence that Roberts was a vindictive autocrat. But Stephens told me that he had been happy to pay, and that if he hadn't been in a position to do so, Roberts would never have billed him. He also said that Roberts almost always turned down members who suggested improvements and offered to pay for them: "I don't think he was interested unless he was the one who thought of charging them."

Certificates were essentially interest-free loans from the club's members.

A few weeks after the Masters in 1969, Roberts and Stephens took a walk around the cluster of cottages between the 10th fairway and the Par-3 Course. Roberts stopped in front of an open space next to the Eisenhower Cabin, which the club had built in 1953, after Eisenhower was elected president. (It has dormers that were designed to accommodate Secret Service marksmen, who sometimes carried golf bags concealing Thompson submachine guns.) "Cliff took my elbow and said, 'Jack, there's enough room right there to build a very nice cottage,' " Stephens recalled. Roberts said that if Stephens would underwrite the construction cost, Roberts would get the cottage built that summer, and then in the fall he would "syndicate" it among the other members.

Syndication was an innovation of Roberts' from the days when Augusta National was perennially short on cash. All the cottages on the grounds are owned by the club, even if they're named for a member. But members helped to pay for most of them, and for other improvements, by buying what Roberts called "building certificates." A certificate buyer gained a preferential right to stay in whatever accommodation his purchase had partially financed, and he could redeem his certificate to cover club charges. The certificates were essentially interest-free loans to Augusta National by its members.

"I told Cliff to go ahead with the cottage," Stephens continued. "I guess he wasn't convinced that I understood what underwriting meant, because he called me the next week and said, 'Jack, the house is going to cost this much money, and if you're going to underwrite it, you need to send me a check.' So I told him it was in the mail."

Before the cottage was built, Roberts and Stephens had several arguments about it. Roberts wanted every bedroom to have twin beds, so that members would be able to double up at times when the club was full—an important issue for him. "Well, I detest twin beds," Stephens said. "So we went back and forth on that, until, finally, he gave in."

Stephens told Roberts that he wanted something else as well. "I said, 'You know, Cliff, I love to swim, and I expect I'll be spending a lot of time in that house, and I'd like to have a swimming pool underneath it,' " Stephens told me. "Oh, God, he hated that idea."

Roberts disliked ostentation—his bedroom at the club was spartan—and he believed, furthermore, that swimming had no place at a golf club. He wanted the cottage badly, though, so in the end he acquiesced.

As soon as he did, Stephens confessed that he hadn't been serious. "I no more wanted a swimming pool than I wanted a billy goat," he told me. "I just wanted to win an argument with Cliff."