The Masters begins today, thunderstorms permitting. It’s the only major championship held on the same golf course every year, and longtime followers develop a deep familiarity with its peculiarities and lore.
Still, there are many things about golf’s rite of spring that may come as a surprise to all but the most fanatical Masters maven. Here are a few.
1. Despite rapturous press coverage before and after its tournament was established, Augusta National was not a runaway success from the start. Tens of thousands of postcards, offering membership for a payment of $350 (with $60 annual dues), were sent to potential prospects. The plan was to have 1,800 members by the time of the first tournament in 1934. They fell 1,724 short.
2. Some amateurs have always been invited to the Masters, out of respect for the career of club founder Bobby Jones. But Jones himself was no longer considered an amateur by the USGA by the time Augusta National opened. He never competed for prize money, but his equipment deals and Hollywood instructional short films made him a professional in the eyes of all but the Masters hierarchy (of which he was a part).
3. The first five were officially called The Augusta National Invitation Tournament, though the press and public picked up the “Masters” name from the start. Jones was opposed to using it because he thought it was immodest, but he eventually gave in, and the 1939 event was the first officially called The Masters.
4. According to the Masters record book, three men have won the tournament on their first try. This is true but silly, because it includes Horton Smith, who won the very first (as well as the third); whoever won it would be a first-time invitee. Gene Sarazen, who had skipped the first Masters to go on an exhibition tour of South America with Australian pro and trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood, won the second over an only slightly more experienced field. The one genuine first-time winner over a full field, including lots of long-term Masters veterans was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
5. One of the most beautiful and recognizable bunkers in all of golf is the amoeba-like hazard in the middle of the 10th fairway. Noticeable, yes; in play, no, not for pro-level players nor for members who hit anything other than a pure ground ball. It guards nothing today, but the original green was just beyond and to the right of it; the hole was lengthened and the green moved to its present location in 1937.
6. You should never hear the word “championship” on the telecast. The U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA are championships held by the major ruling and organizing bodies of the sport (or a vestige thereof in the case of the PGA). The Masters is an invitational tournament held at a very pretty golf course, given prestige by the involvement of Bobby Jones. The winner is not the champion of anything. (Other words you shouldn’t hear: “fans,” “bleachers,” “sand traps,” “front/back nine.” The officially preferred words are “patrons,” “observation stands,” “bunkers,” and “first/second nine.” That last distinction is aimed at avoiding use of the phrase “front side” for the first nine holes, leading inevitably to the so, so vulgar “back side” for the next nine.)
7. Augusta National is wholly the product of the architectural genius of Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones. Except for the nines being reversed to the present configuration in 1935. And the 10th green, as noted above, moved to its present location by Perry Maxwell. Or the seventh green, moved and redesigned by Maxwell in 1938. And the 16th, completely changed from the original by Robert Trent Jones. And other significant changes made by Tom Fazio on a nearly annual basis since the mid-1990s. Mackenzie never saw the course in its finished state; the last time he visited it in 1932, it hadn’t been grassed yet. He died in January 1934, still seeking payment for his services from the underfunded club.
8. Over the history of the Masters, the three hardest holes relative to par have been the first three of the back nine: 10, par 4, 4.32 average; 12, par 3, 3.30 average; 11, par 4, 4.29 average. The two easiest have been the two par 5s that follow: 13, 4.80; and 15, 4.79. No wonder, as Dan Jenkins wrote long ago, the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.
9. The toughest shot for the average golfer that the pros make look easy is probably the short approach shot to 15. If you lay up short of the pond, you face a wedge over the water to a shallow green from a sharply downhill lie. Even for a professional, it’s a shot that takes a lot of touch and nerve late on Sunday afternoon. One more reason to go for it in two if at all possible.
10. There are many, many rounds played by women at Augusta National. Unlike other all-male clubs like Pine Valley, Lochinvar, and Burning Tree, there are no restrictions on when women may play as guests of a member. (At two of those three, the permitted time is “never.”) I am certain that there will be women members at Augusta National in my lifetime. The older members who rarely had women as their peers in business will be replaced by a generation accustomed to their presence, and change will come. It will come quietly, discreetly, and completely without fanfare. But it will come.
11. I don’t know about you, but I don’t compare traditions to other traditions; I only compare them to themselves, to how things used to be. So “a tradition unlike any other” might be the most meaningless phrase in the history of advertising. Which, I guess, makes it a tradition just like all the others.