Wednesday, March 25

The Man Who Made the Masters

This is the first in a series on Clifford Roberts, the co-founder of Augusta National Golf Club and the chairman of the Masters Tournament from 1934 to 1976.

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

FROM THE HILLSIDE AT AUGUSTA NATIONAL one looks into a natural amphitheater and across a landscape of interlacing fairways and greens, golden sand and blue-green stately pines. The old Berckman’s nursery fills smooth valleys and soft hills to the far edges of Amen Corner with a maze of color: azalea, dogwood, and redbud. In so many ways, this ancient acreage and southern plantation club house still has the look, code and culture of those antebellum times.

It is, also, a very modern golf course, as architect Robert Trent Jones defined it in The Complete Golfer. Jones wrote, "The Augusta National is the epitome of the type of course which appeals most keenly to the American taste, the meadowland course. From tee to green there is nothing but closely cropped green turf. These broad expanses of fairway, punctuated with pines and dotted with flashes of white sand, give Augusta a clean, sprightly appearance."

A Hacker and a Legend

Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts.
The happenstance of life that has brought into creation Augusta National and the Masters Tournament began at the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York City, through a mutual friendship with Walton H. Marshall, who operated the hotel, plus a chain of other hotels that included the Bon Air Vanderbilt Hotel in Augusta, Georgia. Marshall was a close friend of two unlikely golfers. A hacker named Clifford Roberts and America’s greatest amateur, Bobby Jones.

Successful Wall Street mogul Clifford Roberts lived in New York and wintered in Augusta which, at the time, was a favorite resort for northerners, being just 137 feet above sea level. Roberts, years earlier, as a lowly private in the U.S. Army, had gone through basic training at a base near Augusta, and served his country in World War I.

Roberts was also a fan of Bobby Jones and it was only a matter of time before their two worlds connected at the Vanderbilt. However, Roberts writes in his book, The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club, that he first met Bobby Jones in 1926 while watching the finals of the 1926 USGA Amateur Championship at Baltusrol Country Club in New Jersey.

Soon after the Vanderbilt introduction Jones and Roberts became fast friends and golf partners in Augusta, where Roberts was there as a snowbird and Jones drove from his home in Atlanta, both to play golf. When Jones expressed a desire to find a course where he could play without attracting a crowd of spectators, Roberts came up with a plan where they might build a course—one of Jones’s cherished ambitions now that he had retired from competitive golf and was working as a lawyer in Georgia.

It so happened that Fruitlands Nurseries on the south side of Augusta was for sale. The 365 acres of the former Berckmans farm was priced at $70,000 and Roberts pulled together a small group of wealthy New York businessmen (and players) to buy the property. Jones hired the famous golf architect, Dr. Alister Mackenzie to design the course. The deal was done in 1931.

First Visit

Years later, Bobby Jones would write, "I shall never forget my first visit to the property. The long lane of magnolias through which we approached was beautiful. The old manor house with its cupola and walls of masonry two feet thick was charming .... [When] I walked out on the grass terrace under the big trees behind the house and looked down over the property, the experience was unforgettable. It seemed that this land had been lying here for years waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it. Indeed, it even looked as though it already were a golf course ....”

The first years were difficult as the club came into being at the height of the Depression. The first Masters was played in 1934, two years after the course was finished. In those early years Roberts had to hit up the members to cover expenses and tournament prizes. 

Quickly, however, Augusta National and the Masters found its way into the consciousness of all golfers. Gene Sarazen’s double eagle in its second year, and sports writer and Augusta member Grantland Rice’s captivated summation of the double-eagle as "The Shot Heard Around the World" promoted this first major of the year. Played in April, the tournament filled the sports pages of every newspaper while the country waited for the opening of the baseball season.

Chairman Roberts

As chairman of Augusta National and the Masters Tournament, Roberts was keenly aware and considerate of his "patrons" as he referred to spectators. Augusta National led the way in providing physical facilities to help the public watch the tournament. Roberts was the first to install the over-under par system of scorekeeping, gallery ropes and grandstands, pairings of twosomes rather than threesomes and complimentary pairing sheets. He also used his power to reduce both the chatter and the commercial breaks on Masters broadcasts for later television viewers.

In fact, while Roberts, and in turn Augusta National, were receiving negative criticism for their closed society and were a symbol of what was wrong with private golf clubs, Roberts, especially, was being praised for having the ability to push corporations like CBS around, forcing the network to obey the club’s ideals of propriety and anti-commercialism. Golf fans of all stripes responded to Robert’s emphasis on the history, tradition and values Augusta National placed on the Masters Tournament and the game of golf.

It was Clifford Roberts, in fact, through his long tenure as chairman of the Masters Tournament who made Augusta National what it is today and changed so dramatically the stature of professional golf in America.

John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.

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