Augusta National still ranks among the top 10 courses in the world, according to GOLF’s just-released ranking of the world’s Top 100 courses — but just barely. After climbing to 3rd in 2009-10, the iconic design dropped to 5th in 2017-18 and now to 9th on our 2020-21 list.
What’s going on here? Why have my fellow raters and I soured, relatively speaking, on Alister MacKenzie and Bob Jones’ legendary collaboration?
Augusta’s dip can be explained by the club’s unspoken dual mandate to preserve the historical integrity of the course while also running a tournament every April that must test the best players in the world. It’s a challenging, if not untenable, juggling act: simultaneously protecting the game while protecting par.
Since 1933, a host of skilled architects have nipped and tucked the rolling layout at Augusta National, including Robert Trent Jones Sr., George Cobb, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio. The unintended consequence has been a loss of MacKenzie and Jones’ original intent and shot values, which were meant to test professionals and amateurs alike — as much mentally as physically.
Take, for example, the par-4 7th, which was designed to be a drive-and-a-pitch, like the 18th at St. Andrews, but now is a tree-choked straightaway 450-yard grind. The 11th, another par-4, has been “Tiger-proofed,” whereby with the addition of trees, rough and a new back tee, it has been squeezed and stretched into a perfunctory affair. The famed par-5 15th, which Jones intended for strong players to always go for in two, is now pinched by budding trees, resulting in too many buzz-killing layups. Others might lament the loss of the boomerang green on the 9th or the scope of the original 16th green, which allowed for more hole locations.
Augusta has made positive strides in its presentation of the course for Masters week. The set-up czars now provide a firm-and-fast test that corrals balls into challenging spots and dares players with the potential for heroic recovery shots. The tournament also continues to thrill patrons, players and millions watching at home. Ratings are huge, but not without a cost. The immaculate conditions — the property could make Versailles blush — leaves the golf-watching masses awestruck, with many wondering Why can’t make my course look like that? There are many reasons why it can’t, of course, not the least of which is that it would be environmentally irresponsible for course superintendents to try to mimic Augusta’s agronomic model.
No one is suggesting there are easy solutions for the club’s stewards. Technological advancements and the rise of the so-called bomb-and-gouge movement are vexing dilemmas not only for Augusta National but also for tournament courses all over the world. But the feeling here is that Augusta has gone too far in its efforts to “modernize.”
The club could and should pay more homage to the design’s original intent by removing trees and rebuilding a firm course that presents players with more angles and therefore more options. The result would be both a more complete and more compelling test for players, and more interesting theater for viewers.
Forward-thinking is an essential skill set for course designers, but there’s also no shame in looking back.
Noel Freeman has been a member of GOLF’s course-rating panel since 2010. He has played 81 of the latest Top 100 Courses in the World.