Iconic Augusta National ground shapes course design

The 12th hole at Augusta National

Augusta National Golf Club has considerable clout. And even Klout, if that tool for measuring social-networking influence and brand recognition were applied to golf courses.

More than any other U.S. layout and probably second in the world only to the Old Course at St. Andrews, the course has had widespread impact on the game. The layout designed by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie and home to the Masters since 1934 is endlessly fascinating to walk and to see on TV. And it has become a meme for subsequent design.

The original par-72 layout has been stretched considerably, to 7,435 yards. Much of it has been altered, whether through green relocation, modified hole corridors, additional trees and the repositioning of bunkers to accommodate modern landing areas. Veteran course architect Bob Cupp, who did some renovation work on Augusta National’s greens and surrounds in the late 1970s and early 1980s, marvels at how the course has been what he calls “an amazing proving ground for all kinds of technological innovations.”

Cupp is referring to conditioning and strategic challenge. Augusta National long has been the object of envy by green chairmen hoping to achieve similar conditions at their courses. Good luck. Augusta National also has been a 365-acre laboratory for such innovations as SubAir greens drainage, soil and moisture monitoring and particle testing. Take the par-3 12th green, for example. It is a tough microclimate: the green sits at a low point in the property by Rae’s Creek, with considerable shading, poor air circulation and remains cool in the winter and hot in the summer. However, the staff responds accordingly, with underground pipes for cooling and heating, as well as supplemental grow lights.

“It’s not for everyone,” Cupp said. “It’s a private club, and the production is exceptional due to sound management. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a model for the industry.”

As for the layout, it is a model of strategic efficiency, with only 44 bunkers, arguably the fewest of any major tournament venue. On Nos. 9 through 17, there’s a not a single fairway bunker in play on tee shots. Its fairways are the widest in U.S. tournament golf. Although they played even wider and allowed for more breadth of play off the tee and angle of approach into greens before the introduction of a light “second cut” of rough in 1999. The intent then wasn’t to punish golfers but, with the grass clipped to 13⁄8 inches, simply to take some spin off iron shots and force players to control approach shots better.

Augusta National effectively championed the idea of the short par 5 – what has come to be called a par 4½. The idea is to create risk/reward scenarios so that players gambling for an eagle-3 could run the risk of a double-bogey 7. With water a looming greenside presence on five of the six holes from Nos. 11 to 16, the course has come to embody drama like no other stage in golf.

With its voluptuously contoured greens and flawlessly groomed, firm, fast rollouts, the course requires extraordinary shotmaking precision. Miss a shot slightly and the ball tumbles away quickly, leaving players with puzzling little recoveries and lots of options to play the next shot. In this respect, Augusta National represents a parkland adaptation of classic linksland elements – with the short grass functioning as semi-hazard.

Ultimately with strategy, it’s a matter of angles. There are so many inflection points where course drama is revealed, not in yards across a hazard set perpendicular to the line of approach but in the manner of crossing and use of ground contour.

A player in the fairway at the 510-yard, par-5 13th has to hold a carefully calibrated flight path into the green across the front creek bed lest the ball drift right and wind up short and wet. Small wonder the favored miss is long. And on the 170-yard 16th where the tiered green wraps around a pond short left, the approach shot has to pick a landing spot on the high side (right) and work it down a slope. Hang it up just a tad right and the resulting bunker shot virtually is impossible to stop.

For all the length and power that Augusta National demands, the success of a round always comes back to figuring out what happens when the ball hits the ground. And that’s a matter of angle and ground deflection. The scariest shot on the course, after all, comes at the shortest hole, the 155-yard 12th. Why? Because when viewed from the tee, the hourglass-shaped green has no visible angle.

Here’s a hole based on a simple twist of space. The yardage to green center, the narrowest part of the green, is useless. Hit it that distance to the left and you’re bunkered long with a frightening downhill recovery. Hit it that distance to the right and you’re short and wet. It’s the magic of Augusta.

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