Since 1934, once a year in the spring, eyes around the world focus on a 345-acre plot of grass, trees and greenery in Augusta, Georgia. Once a pre-Civil War plantation, the Fruitlands in Augusta Georgia were transformed into the most iconic – and arguably dressed-up – golf course in the world. Birthplace and yearly host of the Masters, this is the story of building the Augusta National Golf Course.
Image borrowed from GOLF.com.
The Fruitlands Plantation
In the early 1850s, an Irish-born horticulturist named Dennis Redmond was living on the land. He had purchased a 315-acre property from Augusta Judge Benjamin Warren. Dennis was an indigo farmer and it was he who named the land “Fruitland”. He planted many fruit bushes and shrubs including peaches, apples, grapes and strawberries. Peaches were the most iconic, of course, and the Fruitlands Georgia peaches were sought after by people all over the state. Dennis was the man behind the “Fruitland Manor” – a large house which now stands as the clubhouse at The Augusta National.
Two Belgian immigrants who were also involved in horticulture had come to Augusta in the late 1850s looking for land to build a nursery. The father and son duo – Louis and Prosper Berckmans, connected with Redmond and ended up acquiring first partial ownership of the land, and eventually full ownership of the Fruitlands. They began to purchase surrounding land, expanding the nursery and converting the Fruitland Manor into their family home.
The Berckmans grew their Georgia peach business, growing over 300 different varieties and shipping them to all surrounding states by the 1860s. The Berckmans continued to grow as noteworthy horticulturalists in America. When the father passed away in 1910, the Berckmans’ sons continued with the family business. One of the sons – Louis – went on to design the garden for Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
In the 8 years following Prosper Berckmans’ death, the brothers experienced a shift in the family business. Berckmans had left the nursery to his second wife and the sons he had had with her. The family business which once supplied peaches, fruits and trees to Georgia and surrounding states dissolved. The Fruitlands Plantation officially shut down in 1918.
The old-school Fruitlands Manor.
The Rise of Augusta as a Wealthy Wonderland
From the early 20th century on, Augusta was growing as a “sunny designation” for winter northerners. Although the Berckmans’ business was shut down, the family continued to own the property until 1925 when J. Perry Stoltz purchased the land to build a hotel resort. Stoltz was a Miami hotel financier and believed he could build a prosperous resort for the wealthy northerners looking for a winter getaway.
Construction started on the resort in February of 1925. That fall, however, a major hurricane struck Florida. Stoltz’s financial situation dissolved soon after and the project came to a halt. The Fruitlands sat empty and waiting for almost a decade.
Golf Champion Set Eyes on the Fruitlands
The story of the Fruitlands shifts in the 1930’s when golf champion Robbert – Bobby – Tyre Jones Jr was getting ready to retire from the sport. His retirement plans? To build and run his very own golf course.
The only idea he really had for his golf course was that it would be somewhere in the South so that people could travel from the North and golf in the winter season. When talking to his friend Clifford Roberts about his plan, it was Clifford who recommended Augusta as the location. A mutual friend named Tom Barrett was the one who first introduced Bobby to the Fruitlands.
The rolling hills, landscaped plants and massive, beautiful manor called out to him. He felt immediately that the Fruitlands were meant to be home to his ideal getaway and winter golf resort for men. Unlike other resorts, this one would only focus on golf.
For $70,000, the property was his.
The History of Golf
Golf is an incredibly old sport. It originates from 15th-century Scotland although the premise is sure to date back long before then. There’s no real consensus as to when the game was invented – some believing it comes from another type of Roman game, a Dutch game, a game written about in scrolls from the Ming Dynasty in China… There’s no real way to know.
Either way, the premise was always the same – a small ball is hit with a stick with the goal of getting it into a small hole.
In 1457 King James II of Scotland actually banned the game, believing that it distracted men from learning archery. The ban was lifted in 1502 when King James IV became an avid golfer himself.
It is worth noting that in Europe and in the UK, golf was considered an every-man sport. In the US, however, golf was always considered a rich-man sport. The grand manors, the golf clubs, and even the ability to take a day to stroll greens and play with other gentlemen was a concept that escaped many – especially in the great depression when Bobby was building his course.
Some believe that this is part of why the Masters tournament became so popular – it gave those who didn’t or couldn’t play a way to connect with the game as they never would have before.
The Golf Course
A traditional golf course is made up of 9 or 18 holes. Each hole has a teeing ground, a fairway, rough, lakes and other hazards as well as a putting green surrounded by a fringe. The cup is the final destination for any golf ball and is usually marked by a flag.
Construction of a Golf Course
The challenge in constructing a golf course is that any slopes, notches, uneven surfaces or dips can drastically impact a person’s game. Because of this, the construction of a golf course is often more like landscaping. Today, there are special golf course architects who take in slope, wind direction, trees, dips, hills and curves into consideration.
Another piece that makes the construction of a golf course so difficult is that the quality of grass or turf is so important. Proper soil and growing conditions for the perfect type of grass is vital. Unlike with a Superbowl stadium, it’s not possible to bring in new turf from a farm for every game.
For the Augusta National Golf Course, Dr. Alister MacKenzie was the course architect. Alister MacKenzie was a Scottish golf architect. MacKenzie is responsible for a number of noteworthy golf courses including Augusta National, Alwoodley, Barwon Heads, Bingley St Ives and Blairgowrie.
Bobby chose to work with MacKenzie because Bobby was a big fan of old traditional courses. MacKenzie and he have the same ideas about what went into a good golf course.
Construction of the Augusta National Golf Course
Construction of the Augusta National Golf Course began in 1931. The course was finished in December of 1932 but officially opened the following January.
The entire course has no ball washing stations. It’s said that Bobby believed that if you were the kind of person who would ever pull out a dirty ball to play golf or would ever be in need of a ball washing station, then you shouldn’t be playing on his course.
The course features 44 bunkers. The sand for the bunkers is supplied by a small town of Spruce Pine – a four-hour drive north from Augusta. The bleached-white sand has become a staple of the Masters tournament.
Throughout the history of the course, updates and advancements have been made to the course. In 1950, they shifted some tees around, straightening and lengthening a few of the holes. They expanded a few fairways in the 1990s to lengthen a few other holes, helping to make the course more difficult. In 2020 they finished an underground tunnel to connect the source to a new “Global Broadcast Village”. The tunnel was dug under Washington Road in Georgia to ease access to the course without disrupting the flow of traffic over the iconic state road.
Since the 1990s many of the new plans and updates have been overseen by Tom Fazio, the go-to architect for the Augusta National.
The Grass as The Augusta National Golf Course
The Turfgrass at Augusta is bermudagrass. The challenge with bermudagrass and the Masters, however, is that the Masters take place in the early spring. In order to achieve high-quality turf for the tournament, the bermudagrass is overseeded with perennial ryegrass and bentgrass. These grasses are cooler-season grasses so they keep the greens looking good through the winter. This overseeding usually takes place in the fall when the bermudagrass goes dormant.
Mowing Augusta and Cutting the Turf
The Augusta greens are cut with the precision you’d expect from such an elite course. All fairways are mowed from the green to the tee. The direction of the mow helps to encourage the turf to grow against the direction of the play. This can impact the roll of the ball and the impact of the golf swing.
The pattern used to mow the Augusta is referred to as the “double freakie”. It is a four-way double-cut pattern where the greens mower cuts in one direction, turners around, and goes over the same grass in the opposite direction while another mower uses the same pattern at a 90-degree angle.
Augusta fairways are also brushed before being cut to reduce the risk of fly-away blades or uneven mows.
Fringes and collars are cut with a different machine called the “Wacky head mower”. This particular mower is said to have been invented by the Augusta National to achieve the exact cut they need. The mower sits half on the dollar and half on the fringe.
Images borrowed from Michael Madrid of USA Today Sports.
What makes the Augusta National so popular and well known is the yearly golf tournament that takes place over 4 days the first week of April. Since the course was opened during the Great Depression, money was tight. Although Bobby wanted to create an elite golf course so that it would remain free of crows, the idea of hosting a tournament to bring in his golf buddies and raise some money and awareness about his new course was too enticing. Bobby and his partner Clifford Robers hosted the first Masters tournament in 1934.
That first year, however, it wasn’t called the Masters. Bobby thought it was too presumptuous of a name. They called it the Augusta National Invitation Tournament. This is the name they used until 1989. In the spring of 1940, the name “Masters” was adopted and the tournament has taken place every year since.
The Master’s Green Jackets
First introduced in 1937, the green jackets were actually first introduced to make any Augusta National members stand out to locals in case they were lost or in need of assistance while visiting for the tournament. Only Augusta National members were able to have a green jacket.
Prestige around the jackets grew and it became a gesture for the tournament. Every winner of the Masters would receive a green jacket as a token of their skill. However, not all golfers who have won the masters are members of the National.
Facts about the Augusta National Golf Course
Known as being perhaps the most prestigious courses in America – if not the world – there are a few things about the Augusta National Golf Course that may surprise you.
- The course admitted its first-ever female members in August 2012 – Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore.
- Bird sounds are played through hidden speakers to help create a “natural” atmosphere
- Any patchy or brown areas of the lawn will be painted green to maintain the pristine look associated with the Augusta greenery.
- Dye is added to the lakes, ponds, streams and water traps to make them look blue, clear and to give them an appealing shine.
- No one really knows how much it costs to become a member of The Augusta National. It is believed to be a joining fee between $20,000 – $40,000 as well as a monthly fee of around $300 or an annual cost of about $4,000 after that. However, it is speculation.
Well-Known Players and Names of Augusta
Some of the biggest players in the sport of golf have played at Augusta.
Some noteworthy members of the club include Warren buffet, Pete Coors of Coors Brewing Company, Bill Gates, Pat Haden and Lynn Swann. Past members included Dwight D. Eisenhower, Arnold Palmer, Robert W. Woodruff and Freeman Gosden.
Tiger Woods, one of the most noteworthy Masters champions, has played in 22 tournaments and has won 5. The very first tournament he played was in 1995 and he won his first Green Jacket 2 years later in 1997 when he finished 18 under and 12 shots ahead. He is not currently a member of the National club.
In 2020, Dustin Johnson won the tournament at 20 under – the lowest score in the history of the Masters.
Tiger Woods after winning his 5h masters in 2019. Image borrowed from The State.
The Augusta National Golf Course
From fruit orchard to golf course, the Augusta National Golf Course is more than just the masters. Although all eyes fall to the green in April, the club continues to offer a prestigious getaway and retreat for golfers around the world – for those who can afford it. In the meantime, however, we can enjoy a peek at the luscious lawns, gorgeous clubhouses and whiter-than-white sand traps the first week of April when the next Masters tournament airs.