2006: When Augusta was a cow pasture

By John Steinbreder

Imagine the scene: Cattle roaming the fairways on which champions once tread, and turkeys – not spectators or golfers – making the noises that echoed among the stands of cathedral pines.

That was Augusta National during World War II, when the club and the tournament closed down for a spell, and club officials searched for ways to support the war effort while keeping their cherished retreat afloat financially.

They suspended operations in 1942, not long after Byron Nelson beat Ben Hogan by one shot in an 18-hole playoff in that year’s Masters, and didn’t start back up until 1946, making this year’s tournament something of an unusual anniversary.

In many ways, it seems hard to believe such things could occur, especially given the current status of the Masters and Augusta National, and the fact that the golf world hardly skipped a beat for 9/11, Afghanistan or Iraq. But things were quite different in the early 1940s, and Augusta National had no choice.

Many club members and employees joined various branches of military service or took war-related jobs in Washington after the attack on Pearl Harbor. That meant there weren’t enough people to properly care for – or patronize – the club. Also, civilian transportation restrictions made it increasingly difficult for people to travel to Augusta, and the club, which was not even a decade old, had yet to find its financial footing. In fact, the finances at Augusta National were so precarious at the time of the closing that founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts asked each member to make an annual gift of $100 so the club could be sure to retain ownership of the land.

Jones also hit on the idea of bringing in the cattle. He had gone to London to serve as an Air Corps intelligence officer, and his hope was that the herd would help keep the idle land in some semblance of condition as they fattened up on Augusta National’s grass.

The club purchased 200 steers, and intended to buy 200 more when the first batch was sent to the stockyards. The cattle found many things other than the Augusta grass that they liked to eat, such as the famous azaleas and the bark on many young trees. In addition, workers had stopped the annual fall planting of winter grass, and as the Bermuda became dormant, it no longer served as much food for the steers. So the club had to purchase expensive feed during the winter. Needless to say, the enterprise demonstrated a distinct lack of profitability, and the club never bought a second herd.

It did, however, enjoy a bit more success with its turkeys, and course superintendent Simk Hammack took to raising more than 1,000 on the grounds, which Roberts once described as “an undertaking that we were told was quite hazardous.” Augusta made enough money with its foray into fowl to more than offset the $5,000 it lost on the livestock. Around the same time, it began harvesting pecans from its own trees, donating half the crop to an army canteen and selling the rest to its members in 10-pound bags.

But as Roberts so wryly puts it in his book, “The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club,” those ventures did little to convince him or Jones that Augusta had a future in agriculture.

Tight as money was at that time, the club tried to do other things for the war effort. For example, it allocated a little more than $2,500 to build a driving range and putting green for soldiers training at nearby Camp Gordon (later renamed Fort Gordon). The club and members also donated golf equipment and balls to troops and eventually helped them build a nine-hole layout.

By fall 1944, the war was going so well for the U.S. that club officials decided they could soon reopen. They sold the cattle and began the job of restoring the course. Among the primary laborers in the project was a team of 42 German prisoners of war who had been sent to Camp Gordon. Some of them had been part of an engineering crew in Rommel’s Afrika Corps, and they toiled diligently to get Augusta’s layout back in shape.

Work progressed quickly enough for Augusta National to welcome back its members and their guests in spring 1945. And the Masters started up again 60 years ago this spring, with Herman Keiser beating Hogan before an enthusiastic gallery.

The fans were back, and so were the golfers. And there wasn’t a cow or turkey in sight.

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