From Argentina to Augusta: The Genesis of the Augusta National Short Course

Four years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War a prodigious horticulturist from Belgium named Prosper Berckmans bought a 315 acre nursery in Augusta, Georgia -- today it is the site of the most well run sporting event in the world.  P. J. Berkmans can be thought of as the Johnny Appleseed of Peaches, responsible for the advent of the “Peach Culture” in Georgia.  Fruitland Nursery thrived for seven decades, importing and distributing fruit tress and ornamentals, but ultimately sold in 1931 amid the Great Depression to a prominent golfer from Atlanta with ambitions of building an exceptional golf course.

Fruitlands.jpg

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D. C.)

Though arguably the greatest golfer ever, Bobby Jones’ humility precluded him from designing the course on his own.  He understood the pitfalls that await men whose egos permit them to venture beyond their realm of expertise.  Bobby’s was The Law and playing Golf, not design and engineering.  Furthermore, his standards of excellence propelled a broadened pursuit for counsel in neglect of convenience, to that of a Scotsman from Yorkshire living in California -- the preeminent architect of Golf’s Golden Age...

MacKenzie (left) and Jones (right) surveying the Augusta property

MacKenzie (left) and Jones (right) surveying the Augusta property

And so, a history has been written of a partnership that in hindsight seems a tale of fate and inevitability.  But of course nothing is inevitable until it happens, a lesson known best to those involved with projects of such ambition, and even those of lesser in the 21st century. 

It was just two years earlier that Mr. Jones first met Dr. Alister MacKenzie during his visit to California for the 1929 National Amateur Championship held at Pebble Beach. MacKenzie, along with his partners Robert Hunter and Chandler Egan, was involved with preparing the golf course and attended the tournament.  After an early defeat, Jones traveled fifty miles up the Pacific Coast to play an exhibition match that marked the opening of the new Pasatiempo Golf Course in Santa Cruz designed by MacKenzie.  So impressed was Jones of his unparalleled ability to blend links with nature, when it came time to select an architect for his course MacKenzie was atop the list.

The 7th green at Pebble Beach as it looked in 1929 for the National Amateur (Courtesy of Pacific Golf Design)

Pasatiempo Golf Club (Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

Pasatiempo Golf Club (Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

Just as any architectural layman will know the name Frank Lloyd Wright, such is true of most golfers and the name Alister MacKenzie -- if for no other reason than The Masters and the Augusta National Golf Club.  But few know about the guest house at Fallingwater.  Even fewer know of the “little course” at Augusta National.  Moreover, in the same way Wright scrupulously labored over the design of the auxiliary structure, so too did MacKenzie with the Augusta National Approach & Putt Course.  The key difference: Fallingwater's guest house was actually built (in 1937) two years after the completion of the main house, but MacKenzie’s plan for a short course never came to fruition.  Nonetheless, supplemental features of works by significant architects are fraught with great interest, at least to the lionizing historians that work to document their careers.

Stored away within an archive of work from the landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted in Brookline, Massachusetts, sits the only known copy of MacKenzie's plan for the Augusta Approach & Putt Course -- a document that has remained unknown to the golf world for the past eighty years:

MacKenzie's 1932 plan of the Approach & Putt Course (Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

Initially Mr. Jones had planned to build two full-length golf courses, but after some preliminary surveying it became evident there would not be enough acreage for two courses as well as the lots set aside for future development.  Compromises were discussed but ultimately the decision was made to build just one unabated course.  Subsequently, it was decided a "little" course would be built to supplement the "big" course.  Described as the most idyllic part of the former nursery, a twenty-two acre plot (just South of the Berckmans’ residence and East of Magnolia Drive) with a spring, pond and creek was designated for the development of a short course.  The main flaw in the eyes of Jones was that two of the holes would have to cross over the service road.  Ultimately though, the biggest hindrance to the development of the short course was the dire financial state of the club in its infancy.  Augusta National wasn’t always the thriving club we think of Today, having barely survived the Depression and closing during the second World War.  It wasn’t until 1958, when the club was on more stable financial ground, that they revisited the idea at the whim of Clifford Roberts (Jones' development partner and longtime Chairman of Augusta National).  As lead financier Mr. Roberts was an integral character in the Augusta saga.  Correspondence (available in the Library of Congress) between Mr. Roberts and Dr. MacKenzie reveal a somewhat frictional but always professional relationship.  Their personality types conflicted.  MacKenzie was a physician and British military officer with the intuition of an artist, Roberts an investment banker and cunning businessman.  In the early planning stages Roberts became frustrated with the conceptual nature of MacKenzie’s drawings, insisting he provide “something of an official map, everything to be drawn to an exact scale and all features put down as accurately as it is possible.”  MacKenzie, having built many golf courses of great repute, understood that the malleability of nature lent itself best to craftsmen with an eye for artistry, reacting to the landscape in real-time: "many of the most important decisions, such as those governing the exact shapes and contours of the greens, can not be made until picks and shovels are in hand” MacKenzie wrote to Roberts.

MacKenzie's November 1931 Watercolor plan of Augusta National

MacKenzie's June 1932 plan of Augusta National (Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

The success of this design/build methodology is often heavily dependent on the ability of an architect's associates to implement their vision (as well as an entrusting client).  Most of the best courses in the world were built this way.  Critical to this formula is the proper disbursement of creative freedom amongst the men with picks and shovels, scrapers and plows, dozers and excavators.  MacKenzie was good at surrounding himself with talented people.  Brief discussion and simple sketches would often suffice as a means for conveying his ideas to associates.  Though his eccentric sketching style seems highly conceptual at first glance, careful study reveals remarkable scale and accuracy in most cases.  This is certainly true of his plans for Augusta National which were based on surveys provided by the Olmsted Brothers firm.  The key to understanding MacKenzie’s sketches is careful (but not always literal) discernment of slope indications.  He didn’t think in terms of delineating golf features by arbitrary [mow] lines, only by slopes.  In other words, mowing lines are far less important than the shape of the ground that connects the greens, fairways, etc., with their context.  These areas are often referred to as “tie-ins.”  To MacKenzie, contours were the most essential means of defining features as well as defending par.

Of particular interest to the author is that the inception of the routing for MacKenzie’s Approach and Putt Course can be traced back a couple years and to a different continent...In early 1930 MacKenzie spent three months in South America consulting and building courses, most notably the two for the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires.  While in Argentina he was commissioned by Señor Enrique Anchorena to design a full-length, eighteen-hole course on his private estate.  MacKenzie’s plan for the El Boqueron course reveals an unconventional concept of great intrigue -- Eighteen distinct holes utilizing nine large double-greens.  The Old Course has seven double-greens.  So why not nine (MacKenzie must’ve thought)?  Regrettably, the extraordinary course was never built, but it is evident MacKenzie revisited the same concept just two years later in a remarkably similar, but shorter iteration for Augusta.

MacKenzie's 1930 Plan for the El Boqueron estate course in Mar del Plata, Argentina (Courtesy of David Edel)

A topographic survey of the site for the Approach & Putt Course (Courtesy of National Park Service, Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site)

A rendition of MacKenzie's 1932 plan laid over a current aerial photo of the site (Courtesy of Pacific Golf Design)

The concept for the Approach & Putt course is simple: replicate approach shots similar to those one would encounter while playing a normal course, for the purposes of practice and leisure.  With its infinite flexibility, such a course could be played with just a few clubs and consume as much or as little time as desired.  In correspondence with Wendell Miller, lead engineer for the Augusta National project, MacKenzie expressed his affinity for short courses: “There is, as far as I know, no interesting approach and putt courses in America.  A really good one requires as much thought and planning as a full course.  All those I have seen are terrible.”

Certainly MacKenzie’s design was not lacking in interest.  The plan displays eighteen one-shot holes utilizing nine large putting surfaces, each approached from opposing angles, varying in size from 7,500 to almost 15,000 square feet, with an average size of 10,600 square feet.  To put that in context, the original greens on the long course at Augusta averaged 9,600 square feet (currently 6,435).  In contrast, the greens on the current par-three course (built by George Cobb in 1958) average just 2,400 square feet.  MacKenzie built big greens.  Noticeably absent are any bunkers or hazards other than the creek that bisects six of the holes.  This was due to the notion that this course would be intended for enjoyment rather than frustration, and that the most exhilerating moments for any golfer are those immediately following each shot while the ball is in motion.  The larger the greens and the more short-grass surrounding them, the more opportunity for riveting golf shots.  

2014 marks eighty years since both the passing of the Good Doctor and the first Masters.  MacKenzie died two months before the inaugural invitational, a starving artist at the top of his professional field amid the Great Depression.  In an attempt to classify MacKenzie’s architectural style one might label him a ‘minimalist’ or ‘naturalist’, but in those days such buzzwords weren’t yet afloat in the world of art and design.  It is true that paramount to his success was his ability to create courses of maximum interest while minimally interfering with nature, but his style varied greatly from site to site, and evolved throughout his design career.  Just as any artist, MacKenzie was in a perpetual state of Becoming.  At the end of his career (and life) MacKenzie’s design convictions were influenced by the economic times of the day, as he sought to realize Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more” aphorism.  The same idea was perhaps best expressed seventy years later by the late Steve Jobs: “Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”  I would just add: the pursuit of such is anything but.

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AuthorJoshua Pettit