What is the Masters and how did it start? A brief history of golf’s most famous tournament
The Masters began, like so many other historic events, with a partnership.
In 1930, the legendary Bobby Jones retired from competitive golf after 13 major championship victories. Around the same time, he met with Clifford Roberts, an investment banker from New York who Jones met a handful of times. For years, Jones dreamt of building and opening a golf course in his post-playing career, and Roberts was prepared to help his newly-retired friend see his goal through to completion. The two decided Augusta, Ga. — a suburb of Atlanta — would be the ideal location for a golf club, and quickly purchased a parcel of land belonging to Fruitland Nurseries. The pair hired Alister Mackenzie, a renowned golf course architect, to design a layout, and within three years’ time, Augusta National was open for play.
Soon after opening, it was decided that Augusta National would host a golf tournament, both to give back to the game of golf and as a way of promoting the new club on the national stage. Roberts, who was named the club’s first chairman (a title he would hold for close to four decades), suggested the name Masters, but it was quickly shot down by Jones, who thought it presumptive. Eventually, membership agreed upon “Augusta National Invitation Tournament,” a name that stuck until Jones relented to Roberts some five years later.
The first-ever recognized Masters winner is Horton Smith, whose four-day total of 285 (or four under for the weekend) was good enough to best Craig Wood, Billy Burke and Paul Runyan. Smith also became the first two-time Masters winner ever in 1936, when he outlasted Gene Sarazen en route to his second-ever victory in the tournament. Jimmy Demaret was the first pro to win the Masters under its current name in 1940, capturing the $5,000 first prize as many of the game’s biggest names — Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, among others — began to flock toward the event.
Traditionally, the Masters is held in the first full week of April, a tradition adopted with the Masters name in 1940. With rare exception, the tournament has been held annually in the months of March and April for the entirety of its existence. The tournament was canceled for a number of years during World War II, and was postponed to the fall in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.
Ultimately, names like Hogan, Snead and Nelson (and later, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player) deserve credit for building the tournament’s international mystique. Those half-dozen names own 20 Masters titles and the lion’s share of many of the great moments in tournament history. In 1949, Snead became the first golfer to receive a green jacket for winning the tournament, which up to that point had been reserved only for Augusta National members (previous winners were retroactively awarded jackets soon thereafter).
The tournament scoring record belongs to Dustin Johnson, who claimed his first Masters in November 2020 with a 20-under total of 268. The win made him the only golfer to record a 72-hole score in the 260s, and the first winner of the tournament outside the months of March and April.