A detailed look at Augusta National’s history from the son of its first superintendent

April 3, 2017

Shurley Hammack is the only person left on this great green Earth who can make this claim: He grew up on the grounds of Augusta National. He was raised in a house on the property, with the course as his backyard, and his own personal baseball diamond where the driving range is today, his ballfield separated from Washington Road by a tall hedge with long thorns and shiny lemons. During the Depression and in the war years after it, Shurley fished in Rae’s Creek and hunted in Amen Corner, though to him it was just “the holler,” as the phrase Amen Corner had yet to be coined. He played the course whenever he was in the mood.

Now Shurley is 87, sharp as a tack, and living in a tidy ranch house on the outskirts of Augusta with his wife of 68 years, the former Ann French, of the Augusta Frenches. Ann’s father, Elijah, worked in town at the Hair Factory, where filter mats were made from human hair shipped to Augusta from China and Japan. The Hair Factory is long gone. Six ways to Sunday, we’re talking about a lost world here. Shurley’s father, Simpson, was Augusta National’s first superintendent, and the family—Simpson, wife Elizabeth and the couple’s two boys and two girls—lived in a house on the property. That’s gone too.

Shurley was the youngest child and is the lone survivor. He’s a big man who wears grandpa jeans from Monday through Saturday, but on Sundays he puts on his best slacks and size 48 big-and-tall blazer and drives into town with Ann in their 2008 Lexus to attend church at St. Mark United Methodist, just down Washington Road from Augusta National. Our tour guide to yesteryear has a broad forehead, neatly combed white hair and a rubber nose. “See, I don’t got no bone in my nose,” he’ll says, moving the rubbery appendage as if shifting gears. “When your mama names you Shurley, you get used to throwing the first punch. They could come back with their best, but you can’t break a nose that’s got no bone.” Don’t judge Mama too harshly, Shurley being a family name and Southern tradition being what it is. His full name is Marion Shurley Hammack, so short of getting a good nickname he was stuck from Day One.

Of his boyhood 12-gauge Winchester, Shurley says, “Killed me some nice quail with that gun right down around 10 green.” It now resides in a locked cabinet in his living room, along with his other shotguns and rifles. He killed plenty of Augusta National squirrels with a Remington 22, and he shot at tin cans atop fence posts with German POWs who were bused to the course every day from Camp Gordon during World War II to dig ditches and raise fences. “Wasn’t but two or three of ’em who could speak any English, but they could all shoot,” Shurley says. He caught bass and brim on the property’s creeks and ponds, but not from the pond in front of the 16th green, which back then was just a “wet-weather spring” (Shurley’s phrase).

The letter that Bobby Jones sent Elizabeth on the occasion of Simpson’s death in 1945 is tucked away in a safe-deposit box. Jones wrote, “Not only did he always do a fine job on our golf course, but all of us who knew him had a very great affection for him as a man.” Shurley, dropping his usual good-time-Charlie tone, speaks the name with reverence: “Bobby Jones was the man you wanted to be.” Shurley would half-like to keep private his feelings for Clifford Roberts, who founded Augusta National with Jones, but tongue-biting does not come readily to him. Simpson was, in the parlance of plantation life, an “overseer” working for the Berckmans family, noted Georgia peach growers and owners (among other properties) of the Fruitland Nursery on Washington Road. In ’31 and ’32, when Jones and Roberts—and the architect Alistair MacKenzie—were in the process of turning Fruitland into a golf course, Simpson worked on the construction crew. When Augusta National opened in ’33, he was named its superintendent, working under Allie Berckmans, the club’s general manager.

Simpson died of a heart attack at 45, on Nov. 12, 1945, two months after the end of the war. As Shurley tells it, Roberts gave the family two weeks to move out, and after 14 years the bucolic lives of the Hammack family of Augusta National came to an abrupt end. (The Hammacks lived in one house on the property from Thanksgiving ’31 until a week after the ’39 Masters, then another until shortly after Simpson’s death.)

Simpson was the superintendent (the club’s term) for the first nine Masters. The course closed for the war, and the tournament wasn’t played in 1943, ’44 or ’45. During that time Augusta National was used for cattle grazing, but just briefly. The herd ate not only the grass but also the azaleas, and the experiment was quickly shut down. However, the war years were far easier for the Hammacks than for other families in Augusta who were subjected to government rationing, because they could live off the land. That is, the Augusta National Golf Club course. When the herd was sold, Simpson started building turkey pens, and the club’s turkey population grew to 5,000. The family ate all the turkey it liked and never wanted for food.

Still, “Daddy had no love for Clifford Roberts,” Shurley said over the course of a three-hour inter-view in which he displayed a keen memory and exemplary Southern-tradition storytelling skills. “For the longest time I thought his name was Sumbitch Roberts, ’cause Mr. Roberts would come down from New York and Daddy would say, ‘Sumbitch Roberts coming to the club today.’ ”

Shurley loved baseball even more than golf, and in the late 1930s one of his father’s assistants, a black man named Charlie Shivers, would make a Sunday drive through town, collect Shurley’s friends and bring them to the course to play games, home plate planted about 75 yards from where the tournament’s Taj Mahal caddie clubhouse is today. It was Shivers who taught Shurley how to drive and, before he was 10, how to roll a cigarette and smoke. Simpson was none too pleased about that, but all of the Hammacks thought of Shivers as family. In that vein, Shurley mentioned another man, Robert Reynolds, a club groundsman whose mother was born into slavery. (She lived to be 106.) The Hammacks’ house was always open to Reynolds, and the children saw him more as a relative than as an employee, though what they saw him do most was work. “He’d build us a fire first thing in the morning, milk the cows, then work right beside Daddy on the golf course all day long,” Shurley says.

This relationship doesn’t represent Atticus Finch progressivism in a white Southern family, but it is an example of life in segregated Georgia in the 1930s. The example widened when Shurley talked about a boyhood brawl he had with a half-dozen black caddies from neighboring Augusta Country Club. They were swimming on their side of the boundary when Shurley and a couple of his white pals decided to test the water next door. Summer skinny-dipping. Before long there was stone-throwing and rassling and fisticuffs, and then Shurley says he and his buddies “were run off by some club members.” Four score later, and almost as if in a time machine, Shurley was reliving the fight playfully, but in doing so he also used a historically heinous word. You can tell the use was not motivated by hate. The man seems incapable of it, except maybe on the subject of Clifford Roberts.

Shurley was good at golf and better at baseball, and when the scouts started showing up at Augusta’s baseball diamonds, schoolyard and otherwise, the good-bat, good-arm infielder caught their eye. On Nov. 7, 1945, with no idea that his final breath was near, Daddy Hammack summoned Shurley and extracted a promise from his fair-haired youngest. “It’s the only time he ever gave me a real talking-to,” Shurley says. The father told Shurley to finish high school. He saw the -Augusta National members, with their superior educations. Jones, for one, attended Tech High in Atlanta, followed by Georgia Tech for one degree, Harvard for another, then Emory Law School. Plus, the super-intendent’s first-born, Paul, was at Furman, on a path that would lead to a doctorate in education and a solid place in postwar middle-class America. (Lest we get carried away, here is Shurley’s take on Paul: “Smart as all get-out, but couldn’t start a lawn mower.”) The point is, Simpson saw the value in higher learning.

Shurley, playing the role of dutiful son, promised his father he would graduate from Richmond Academy, a public school, before signing with anyone. But his father died five days after Shurley made that oath, and the following spring George Weiss, a future baseball Hall of Famer who was then the scouting director for the Yankees, presented the kid with an offer: no more school, baseball every day. Shurley was assigned to the Class A Augusta Tigers. He was 16.

In the spring of 1947, at 17, he boarded his first train. He was headed to the Empire State to play for the Amsterdam Rugmakers, the Yankees’ Class C affiliate in the Canadian-American League. Shurley arrived at Penn Station—New York, New York—but then could not find the connecting train that would take him upstate. “You look like a ballplayer, and you look lost,” some kind soul said before showing him the way to the other main train depot in midtown Manhattan, Grand Central Terminal. Shurley had just two hits in 27 at bats before being demoted to the Class D team in La Grange, Ga. He played low-minor baseball from 1946 to ’49, all in the South, except for the 12 games with Amsterdam. He hung it up at 20, a career .227 hitter. Life called. Ann and Shurley were married in 1949. “You know how it is,” Shurley says, explaining the impulse that got him to his knee. “You get sweet on someone.” Time-lining the start of their union to their first encounters in a four-room schoolhouse in ’41, Ann says, “That’s 75 years together.” She is slender and lively, but she feigns exhaustion. As kids, when Augusta National was closed during the war, they played hide-and-seek in the clubhouse, sheets draped over the furniture.

Shurley never got the high school diploma he promised his father. He served in the army in 1952 and ’53 at Fort Bragg, N.C., and in Hawaii as a member of the 82nd Airborne, came home and worked in an Augusta machine shop through ’65, then started a 26-year career at Olin Mathie-son Chemical. He can tell you how many unused vacation days he had when he retired. Ann raised the couple’s two sons but also spent 36 years working a desk job at Fort Gordon, where there was once a nine-hole course built by Simpson Hammack, at the behest of Messrs. Roberts and Jones.

Augusta today is a sprawling city, but Shurley’s Augusta is a small town. The parents of Larry Mize, the 1987 Masters champ, lived down the street from him. When Shurley was a five handicapper he played with Charles Howell III, then a prodigy at Jones Creek Golf Club. He has a nephew and a niece who played with Tour pro Vaughn Taylor at another public course, Goshen Plantation. Shurley knows the history of E-Z-Go, once a mom-and-pop Augusta company that turned into the General Motors of the golf-cart business. He once heard Ed Dudley, the first pro at Augusta National, say, “Golf carts are going to be the coming thing.” Shurley claims (playfully) that he invented the golf cart when he started transporting himself across the course on one of his father’s mowers, with a bucket attached to hold his few clubs. Simpson put an end to that soon enough, just as he did when Shurley was taking too many coconut-caramel candies from the caddie master’s office. The names of long-ago local members roll easily off Shurley’s tongue: Fielding Wallace, Jerome Franklin, Phil Harison and his brother Gummy. The Harisons had the only other house on the course, behind the 1st green. That residence is long gone too.

After Simpson died, Elizabeth went back to school to learn shorthand. She worked downtown for years as a bookkeeper at Bentley Brothers Furniture, on Broad Street. The family lived first with relatives, and then Elizabeth bought a house of her own, near downtown.

Shurley has been to about 20 Masters over the years, but he hasn’t played Augusta -National since 1945. “The course was closed in summer, no tee markers, no flags, no little benches to sit on,” he says, “but Daddy kept the holes in the greens so we could play.”

He remembers a far more primitive course, with shaky wooden bridges and rough-hewn bunkers. “They didn’t have enough money then to keep it all up,” he says. “Now they can’t spend it all. Can’t hardly find a pine cone at the place.” He remembers “sitting on a bank, watching, when they rebuilt the 10th green.” He remembers his father planting azaleas. He remembers “the members passing the hat” so the players could get paid for the 1941 tournament. He has a good memory, and good memories. He knows how lucky he has been. 

“I wish Daddy could see it all today,” the son of the first superintendent says. “He’d be surprised. Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, I think they’d be too.”

Shurley doesn’t play anymore and hasn’t -attended the tournament in years, but he enjoys watching on TV. He likes this time of year and what it conjures. The snapshots from his boyhood are all in black-and-white. In his head, though, they’re in color. 

“I can see Daddy on the golf course,” Shurley says, “driving ’round in that pickup truck, stopping, inspecting a green that was getting mowed, looking at the mower, sharpening the blade, getting out a newspaper to see how it cuts, walking around some, taking it all in.”