Dwight D. Eisenhower's influence on Augusta National remembered
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a certain pine tree at Augusta National Golf Club will always be linked.
The former president, who died 50 years ago today, was a good friend of Augusta National and Masters Tournament chairman Clifford Roberts.
But before Eisenhower’s death on March 28, 1969, and the release of Roberts’ book on the club’s history in 1976, the tree was rarely mentioned.
Less than two weeks after Eisenhower’s death, Roberts talked about the president’s game at his annual meeting with the press on the eve of the Masters.
Roberts revealed Eisenhower’s problems with the tree, and The Augusta Herald wrote about it the next day.
“He introduced a motion to get rid of that tree at one governors’ meeting,” Roberts said. “We had to adjourn the meeting damn quick to save the club property.”
The former president was a “14 to 18” handicap player who broke 80 four times at Augusta National, Roberts told the assembled writers.
“He had a wide range of scores,” Roberts said. “But he was a good man to have in your foursome while playing a $5 or even a $1 Nassau. He had a strong preference for winning.”
The tree probably came into play mostly for club members such as Eisenhower or for a tournament competitor who hit a really bad shot. Eisenhower made 45 visits to Augusta National and played the course nearly 200 times. But with a White House press corps that had limited access to his on-course exploits, Eisenhower’s tree troubles were never reported.
“The tree thing never held any importance to us back then, but it became important as the years went by,” said late golf writer Dan Jenkins, who covered the Masters from 1951 to 2018.
Although Eisenhower was quite proficient in a variety of sports and games, an injury to his left knee made golf a challenge. He would often slice the ball, and the tree on the 17th hole would interfere with his left-to-right ball path.
“It was the one game he couldn’t play well,” Roberts said after Eisenhower’s death.
Forty-five years after his death, Eisenhower might have gotten his revenge on the loblolly pine. The tree was located about 210 yards from the tee on the left side of the 17th hole. It stood 65 feet high and was believed to be more than 100 years old.
But the club lost the tree in February 2014 when a rare ice storm wreaked havoc on Augusta.
Gen. Eisenhower, who had directed the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, joined Augusta National in 1948 before he won the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.
He made frequent trips to Augusta National before, during and after his presidency, but he never attended the Masters.
In November 1956, just a few weeks after his re-election, an uprising in Hungary and a conflict between Syria and Iraq had Eisenhower’s attention as he made his post-Thanksgiving sabbatical to Augusta.
As such, an expanded communications system was installed at Augusta National for the president, and a plane carrying correspondence was dispatched from Washington each day during his visit.
President Eisenhower arrived in Augusta on Nov. 26, 1956. He brought a large party along for his lengthy visit.
Eisenhower would spend the next several days following this routine: a morning meeting in his office above the pro shop, then a round of golf.
On Saturday Dec. 8, 1956, he made the short walk from his cabin on the grounds to his office, and conducted business from 8:20 to 9:45 a.m.
The big news of the day was the resignation of Undersecretary of State Herbert Hoover Jr.
At 10:37, according to presidential appointment books, Eisenhower left his office and went to the Trophy Room to attend Augusta National’s annual Board of Governors meeting.
The meeting was a short one - records show Eisenhower left at 11:05 - but it was historic.
Roberts, the club’s autocratic chairman and a close confidant of the president, asked Eisenhower to introduce a resolution eulogizing Col. Bob Jones, who had recently died.
Roberts tells the story in his book The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club:
“The President once again took over by announcing, in a most serious vein, that the chief torment and concern of his life was the big pine tree located in the left center of the seventeenth fairway,” Roberts wrote. “He stated that it acted as a magnet to his drive. No matter where he aimed, he always hit this tree. The President went on to demand that the offending tree be chopped down forthwith. At this point, I decided the only way to protect the club’s property would be to declare the meeting adjourned, which I did.”
If there were any hard feelings, the president didn’t show any. He had lunch in the Trophy Room, then played in a foursome that included Roberts that afternoon.
Eisenhower and his party departed Augusta on Dec. 13.
ASKING A FAVOR
There’s another, less-told story about Eisenhower and the pine tree.
The president would hit the loblolly pine almost every time he played. And with each thud of ball on bark, he would grow increasingly frustrated.
Something had to give.
So Eisenhower called on a 15-year-old caddie, Leon McClatty, to do him a favor, according to Augusta author Peter Cranford’s autobiography.
Dr. Cranford, who died in 2000, is believed to be the first practicing psychologist in Augusta but he also wrote books on golf and the Milledgeville, Ga., hospital where he worked.
“Leon, I’ll give you a hundred dollars to come back here tonight and cut this tree down,” the president said.
Despite the commander-in-chief’s pleas, the young caddie refused.
It was appropriate that Mother Nature, which produced the Eisenhower Tree in the first place, had the final word.
After living an estimated 100 to 125 years, the loblolly pine was unable to withstand a rare Augusta ice storm in February.
The accumulation of ice caused irreparable damage, which resulted in the loss of most of the tree’s major branches. Photos that surfaced before the tree was taken down the weekend of Feb. 15-16 showed heavy damage.
“The loss of the Eisenhower Tree is difficult news to accept,” Augusta National and Masters Chairman Billy Payne said in a statement. “We obtained opinions from the best arborists available and, unfortunately, were advised that no recovery was possible.”
Plenty of Eisenhower reminders exist
The Eisenhower Tree no longer exists, but don't fret if you are a fan of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and his love affair with Augusta. His memory lives on at Augusta National and around Augusta:
EISENHOWER CABIN: Built in 1953 by a group of 50 Augusta National members who bought building certificates, the cabin was built to specifications of presidential security. Secret Service agents occupied the bottom floor, while the Eisenhower family had the rest of the spacious cabin to themselves during visits. Numerous family mementos are still in place, and the cabin is available to club members for use.
IKE'S POND: Now an integral part of the Par-3 course, the spring-fed pond occupies three acres. During his second visit to AugustaNational, Eisenhower was walking on the eastern part of the property and discovered what he thought would be an ideal spot for a fish pond. Eisenhower told Clifford Roberts about his discovery - he even had a suggestion for where the dam should be located - and the pond was promptly built.
EISENHOWER CRACKER BARREL: Located in the pro shop, the barrel was presented by George M. Humphrey in 1957. Humphrey was a member of Eisenhower's Cabinet and was a fellow club member. The inscription reads: ``This wood was part of the White House roof erected about 1817 and removed in 1927.'' Plenty of other Eisenhower items are scattered throughout the clubhouse.
CHURCH TRIBUTE: At Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta, Eisenhower usually sat on the third pew on the left, facing the altar. Across the aisle, a stained glass window features a likeness of him in a scene depicting the three wise men offering gifts to the baby Jesus. After Eisenhower's death, Reid honored the former president with a plaque on the pew where he and his family sat. Also at the service Feb. 6, 1972, the Redemption Window, in the church's balcony, was dedicated to his memory.