Golf Course Architect Roundtable: Augusta National and the Masters

A discussion with the game's leading architects


Augusta National is one of the world’s most revered courses. Originally designed out by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, the annual venue of the Masters has seen its fair share of changes over the years. It looks far different than it did at the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934.  This evolution makes the history of the course fascinating and provides continual fodder for discussion.

So we asked golf course architects Michael Clayton, Keith Cutten, and Rob Collins to tell us what they love about Augusta National, what they would change, and what other courses might learn from the home of the Masters.

What is your favorite aspect of Augusta National’s design?

Michael Clayton: The combination of space from the tee and brilliantly fearsome greens demanding you drive the ball accurately—not just straight—to a particular place in the fairway from where you can effectively play to the greens.

Keith Cutten: The original design intent and execution. Though some would argue that Dr. Alister MacKenzie is most famous for his stylish and natural sand hazards, having pioneered the principles of camouflage as they related to golf, toward the end of his career he became a strong proponent of restrained bunkering. In an article published in The American Golfer in 1933, MacKenzie wrote: “On many courses there are far too many bunkers. The sides of the fairways are riddled with them, and many of these courses would be equally interesting if half of the bunkers were turfed over making them into grassy hollows.” MacKenzie brought this approach to the former Fruitlands Nursery property and his partnership with Bobby Jones.

In Jones’s book Golf Is My Game, he states: “I think MacKenzie and I managed to work as a completely sympathetic team. Of course, there was never any question that he was the architect and I his advisor and consultant. No man learns to design a golf course simply by playing golf, no matter how well. But it happened that both of us were extravagant admirers of the Old Course at St. Andrews and we both desired as much as possible to simulate seaside conditions insofar as the differences in turf and terrain would allow.”

Sharing a mutual affection for the Old Course, the pair relied on the natural attributes of the heaving property to dictate the routing. Further, the duo designed an outstanding collection of sloped and undulating greens to enhance the strategy of the layout. Their goal was to design a golf course to provide the greatest pleasure to the greatest number of golfers, regardless of their capabilities. MacKenzie and Jones accomplished this through the expert application of slope, angles, and alternative lines of play. The penal use of bunkers was calculatedly avoided.

An aerial of the original 18th (left) and 9th (right) greens at Augusta National. Research credit: Keith Cutten

While their original plan included just 36 bunkers, after careful study the pair decided to remove an additional 14, leaving just 22 sand hazards in all. When Augusta National opened for play in 1933, four of the holes were completely devoid of sand and 14 of Augusta’s expansive fairway corridors were without bunkers. The restrained hand used to create Augusta National epitomizes the true genius of the design.

Rob Collins: The great courses have a unique sense of place and an unmistakable aura that help set them apart from the rest. Augusta National has these qualities in spades. The energy and feel of the property is, without question, my favorite aspect of the design. However, to correctly answer this question in the way that you mean it, I should discuss a physical characteristic of the course. In that sense, I am most in awe of the grand scale of the property and the sheer size and boldness of the landscape.

What is your favorite hole at Augusta National?

Michael Clayton: 13 —arguably the best hole in America. Draw tee shot. Fade green. Perfect diagonal hazard across the front of the green. Hugely sloping fairway rewarding the great drive left with a level lie. And for those who are on the borderline of going for the green or not, one of the most vexing questions in the game—and right at the critical, make-or-break time in the round.

Rob Collins: Thirteen is the best hole at Augusta National and one of the best par fives in the world.

A look at the 13th green at Augusta National from the stands

Keith Cutten: While most minds will go straight to Amen Corner, with arguably the world’s best par-3 and par-5 holes, I prefer the bunkerless par-4 14th hole, also known as Chinese Fir.  At some 14,000 square feet in area, with about 10 feet of elevation change between the low front and high back sections, this green is truly amazing. For me, Augusta’s greatness stems from the quality of the routing and the green complexes, and this green is possibly the finest of them all.

What is your least favorite hole at Augusta National?

Michael Clayton: 16—because it replaced MacKenzie’s hole across the creek, and every time I see 16 I wonder what the original was like, and I assume it had to be better hole than the current Robert Trent Jones hole.

From left of the 16th hole at Augusta National

Keith Cutten: Picking a least favorite hole at such an iconic course is a very difficult matter. As the original design intent and execution is my favorite aspect, my least favorite must be changes that contradict this original vision. Two holes instantly come to mind, but for different reasons.

First, the seventh hole, also known as Pampas, represents the worst elements of Augusta’s modernization. The seventh has been transformed from a relatively short par 4 into a monster hole. The tees have been pushed back close to 100 yards since the course was originally designed, and the fairways have been significantly narrowed by the planting of trees. The result is the tightest tee shot on the course, and one that conflicts with the original vision of width and angles.

Second, the 10th hole, also known as Camelia and originally the first hole, showcases the last remaining bunker design by MacKenzie, aptly named the “MacKenzie bunker.” When architect Perry Maxwell moved the 10th green back 50 yards in 1937, he left the original green-side bunker in the middle of the fairway. This bunker, which is about 55 yards long, starts about 370 yards off the tournament tee. Featuring flashing bays of sand, the MacKenzie bunker is unlike any other on the course these days.  Its current form hints at the original style of bunkering at Augusta, a sad reminder of what has been lost. Today, Augusta’s bunkers are some of the most character-less-looking in championship golf. Uniformly shaped and perfectly edged, they represent the antithesis of Alister MacKenzie’s naturalistic style of golf architecture.

Looking back up the current 10th hole at Augusta National

Rob Collins: I cringe when I see the seventh. It is a reminder of how far the current iteration of the golf course is from the style of architecture envisioned by president-in-perpetuity Bobby Jones and the greatest golf architect to ever live, Alister MacKenzie.

What can the average golf course learn from Augusta National?

Michael Clayton: The average American course can learn that the game is better off without long, green rough lining fairways and surrounding greens. The average Australian course can learn that there is no point chasing “perfect” conditions because they are many times achieved only with an unlimited budget.

Keith Cutten: The fact that “Augustification” has long been a negative term in the golfing world, used to denote overly manicured, aestheticized, greened, flowered, and ponded courses, signifies that something has gone wrong here. The current Augusta National is the result of too much money, the thirst to spend it, and an overzealous membership that demands change for change’s sake. Altering older courses to conform to some new perceived standards is a fallacy that needs to end. The members of Augusta National would have been better served by heeding the words of Bobby Jones, as written in Golf Is My Game: “I believe it is true that with modern equipment and modern players, we cannot make a golf course more difficult or more testing by adding length. The players of today are about as accurate with medium or long irons as with their pitching clubs. The only way to stir them up is by the introduction of subtleties around the greens.”

Rob Collins: The average course can learn that vainly pursuing the style of conditioning at Augusta National across an entire golf course is a recipe for disaster. Focus instead on curating the best possible conditions in the greens and surrounds through a sensible and well-thought-out program by a talented and hands-on superintendent.

Original routing plan for Augusta National. Credit: Simon Haines

If you were hired as consulting architect at Augusta National, what would be the first thing you would propose to change?

Michael Clayton: Removing the trees right of the 11th fairway. If MacKenzie had wanted them there he would have planted them. The next would be filling in the “Sarazen bunker” at the second hole. Likewise, if MacKenzie had wanted a bunker there, he’d have made one.

Keith Cutten: I would restore the width of the corridors to allow for the intended angles of play.  I would also remove all unessential sand hazards, replacing them with grassy hollows, and would restore the original look and character of the remaining bunkers.

Rob Collins: In order to answer this question, I am assuming that a nearly unlimited budget and construction resources would be made available. Given that the club is allegedly in negotiations to purchase the ninth hole at Augusta Country Club for around $18 million along with the recent expansion of the club grounds, I think it is safe to assume that my proposed $45-million budget could be approved.  With that in mind, here is my proposal:

The original design of Augusta National was based almost entirely on the lessons of the Old Course and other links stalwarts of Great Britain and Ireland. The idea has always been to have a course that is playable for the amateur club player while being able to challenge the world’s best at the annual tournament.

With that in mind, MacKenzie and Jones laid out a scantily bunkered course that was extremely forgiving off the tee but required extreme precision on approach and play around the greens. Angles and the ground game were a key feature of the original design and the best players were punished if they did not find the ideal sliver of the endless fairways from which to play their approach shots. Playing from the wrong side of  the fairway would make birdie nearly impossible and would bring bogey or worse into the equation.

Furthermore, the tremendous match-play qualities of the second nine are what laid the foundation for the famous finishes on Sunday at the Masters. Unlike the U.S. Open, which traditionally grinds players into submission, the Masters allows players to get hot and make a run of birdies. As a result, dramatic swings on the leaderboard on the tournament’s final day are common.

But in an effort to combat advances in equipment, the club introduced a second cut (the course was originally wall-to-wall fairway) and trees became more plentiful. Slowly but surely, Augusta National and the Masters have come closer to resembling a U.S. Open style of venue than the classic, risk-reward architecture envisioned by Jones & MacKenzie. This was never more evident than the excruciatingly boring 2007 and 2008 Masters, won by Trevor Immelman and Zach Johnson, respectively. In my mind, these tournaments represented peak U.S. Open-style Masters.

I have a theory that after those events, the club made a conscious decision to set up the course in a way that was more conducive to scoring and would allow more players to be in the mix on Sunday, with the result being a return to the dramatic shifts of the leaderboard and the roars of the crowd that follow. The problem with this paradigm is that the roars have returned not because of a shift toward the fundamentals of strategic architecture embraced by Jones and MacKenzie but because the setup of the course has been softened.

My proposal, therefore, is to utilize the club’s massive resources to create a true inland links in the spirit of St. Andrews, as envisioned by Jones and MacKenzie. If there is any club on earth that could turn a rolling, clay-based landscape into one that, at all times, accurately replicates the ground conditions of the world’s greatest seaside links, it is certainly Augusta National. Along with a massive tree removal campaign and a reworking of the strategic fabric of a number of holes, the renovation would seek to replicate MacKenzie’s distinctive bunker style throughout the course, which has unfortunately been lost over time. As far as ensuring that firm and fast conditions throughout the course are in play at all times, a modified Sub Air system, similar to what is installed on the greens, would be installed throughout the fairways.  The Sub Air system is capable of rapidly drawing moisture away from the surface, which allows the turf to remain more firm than it would otherwise after large rain events.

Additionally, a massive sand-capping operation of the fairways would be undertaken to further ensure firm and fast conditions. Assuming an average of one inch of sand across expanded fairways, coupled with the Sub Air system, the Georgia native would take on the playing characteristics of a cross between Royal Melbourne and the Old Course.

Finally, I would like to see a shift away from the overly manicured landscape toward a more natural presentation, which would undoubtedly be in line with MacKenzie’s vision of the ideal course.

It is my firm belief that if the timeless principles of MacKenzie and Jones were applied to the landscape and backed by modern technology, the original vision of Augusta National could be fully realized.

Should there be a tournament ball?

Michael Clayton: Of course! And it’s inevitable because in 20 years the field will be full of guys who hit it as far as Dustin Johnson. It only takes one to show the next generation how to do it, and they always get there. See Tiger.

Keith Cutten: No, I do not believe that any one event should receive its own special rules. However, I would consider the idea if it were proposed to be implemented tour-wide. Likewise, I would suggest that in addition to limited flight, any new ball should be designed to be less accurate. This change would offset the new trend of power golf by reemphasizing ball striking.

Rob Collins: Augusta National is one of the leading bodies that protects and promotes the game of golf. I would absolutely love to see them mandate a limited-flight ball at the Masters. Given the inaction of the USGA and R&A on the matter, I believe that Augusta National is perfectly placed in the world of golf to take the bold and visionary steps necessary to protect the game from technology.

Join the conversation by following Michael ClaytonKeith Cutten, and Rob Collins on Twitter.

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The Art Behind Augusta’s Roars: Focal points in Alister MacKenzie’s routings

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