Alister MacKenzie didn’t live to see the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament.
That’s a shame, because his creation, Augusta National Golf Club, drew rave reviews from the first participants in 1934.
MacKenzie collaborated on the course with club and tournament co-founder Bobby Jones. MacKenzie was Scottish, but it was two courses in California that he had designed, Pasatiempo and Cypress Point, that caught Jones’ eye.
MacKenzie had written his book, Golf Architecture, in 1920, and he had contributed a number of articles to magazines, so Jones was familiar with his philosophies.
The main thing they agreed on was that a design need not be penal. They wanted Jones’ dream course to be strategic and full of options for players of all skill levels.
“There was a great debate going on during this time, just before Augusta opened, over what the ideal golf course was comprised of,” said Sid Matthew, a lawyer and golf historian. “The penal golf course school debated the strategic golf course school.”
The shot values that Jones and MacKenzie wanted certainly can be found at Augusta National. The strategy of the par-5 holes illustrates what they wanted. Each can be played as three-shot holes requiring a layup – as Zach Johnson did when he won in 2007 – or great risk-reward holes that players can go for in two. Think Tiger Woods in 1997, when he set the tournament record at 18-under-par 270 and tamed the par-5 holes.
It has often been suggested that Jones deserves equal credit for designing Augusta National with MacKenzie, but that is not the case. David Owen, in his club-authorized book The Making of the Masters, said MacKenzie came up with the course’s routing and positioned the bunkers and greens.
“Jones is sometimes given equal billing, or even first billing, but his role was more nearly that of a junior associate,” Owen wrote.
Clifford Roberts, who co-founded the club with Jones, wrote that MacKenzie died before the course was fully covered with grass. MacKenzie often called it the “World’s Wonder Inland Golf Course.”
“He was quite ready, however, to declare the course to be his best, and he did so a number of times,” Roberts wrote in The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club. “What a pity Mackenzie did not come to this country earlier or did not live for another ten years!”
Critics in recent years have railed against the changes to Augusta National, most noticeably the added length and the planting of trees, but Augusta National has always been a work in progress. The golf course nines were reversed after the first tournament in 1934 because the lowest part of the course, Amen Corner, was slow to thaw on cold mornings. Numerous changes have been made to almost every hole, including significant ones to Nos. 6, 7, 10, 11, 16 and 18.
“The majestic beauty of Augusta is so breathtaking, the elevations defy descriptions,” said Matthew, comparing it to natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. “Photographs don’t convey the majesty of detail.”