Geoff Shackelford: Imitation at Augusta National is the Highest Form of Flattery

Augusta National, which has been the inspiration for many courses built since, was itself largely inspired by the game’s classic layouts. At least, that’s what they said at the time.

Augusta National started out as a concept course. A greatest hits package in spirit. Co-founder Clifford Roberts bought into Alister MacKenzie’s vision and then sold Bobby Jones’s dream course as the best of the Grand Slam champion’s favorite holes. Roberts needed every club in his bag to sell memberships. Times were tough. Even the Americans who could afford a membership needed an excuse to join what would be a more refined, subdued, playable, and sustainable design after the Jazz Age excess.

Artists MacKenzie and Jones came off in numerous articles explaining Augusta National as conflicted by the appearance of building what sounded akin to a theme course in the vein of C.B. Macdonald’s “template” driven designs. Even if all great art is in some way a form of imitation, MacKenzie and Jones were not the gimmicky types. After ground was broken, they would spend the next two years massaging the record. Roberts was not wrong in suggesting Jones initially intended to import the best design ideas enjoyed during transatlantic voyages to pick up golf’s original trophies. But…

“This was, at best, a bit naïve,” Jones would write many years later. “Because to do such a thing, we would have had literally to alter the face of the earth.”

augusta imitation
(photo by Getty Images)

When all was finally unveiled in 1934 during the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, MacKenzie suggested 11 holes were inspired by holes from all over, including a few of his own. Ever the modest artist.

MacKenzie also understood the fine line between employing the soul of classic design templates and outright copying. He expressed amazement at Jones’s “clear recollection of almost all of the particularly famous golf holes in England and Scotland, as well as in America.” But the Good Doctor also made his goals clear by the end of construction.

“We tried to produce eighteen ideal holes, not copies of classical holes but embodying their best features, with other features suggested by the nature of the terrain,” MacKenzie wrote. “We hope that our accomplishments at Augusta will be of such unique character that these holes will be looked upon as classics themselves.”

All beloved artists incorporate ideas they’ve seen somewhere else. How they reinvent and advance those ideas usually determines their success. But no great artists ascend to exalted status without having absorbed the work of predecessors. Nor could they push forward an art form like golf architecture without tapping into classic tenets. Golf architects have long tussled with a strange yin-and-yang in lifting from the best without blatantly copying. But plenty try so hard to build something original that they forget the job is to create holes we enjoy playing over and over again.

The father of the template hole, C.B. Macdonald, copy-and-pasted from the British Isles in a desperate bid to right the American ship away from the primitive geometric and penal designs created during America’s formative years. His engineer and co-architect, Seth Raynor, never made it to the British Isles courses they mimicked and expanded upon. That bit of ignorance explains how, when working on his own designs after Macdonald’s retirement, Raynor created glorious offshoots, twists and fresh takes on household brands called Redan, Road, Short, Eden, and Punchbowl.

Macdonald and Raynor often improved on the originals by making them more attractive or more playable for more people even while adapting the holes to more dramatic landscapes. More than a century after Macdonald saved America from coffin bunkers and chocolate-drop mounds, it’s easy to imagine him growling at the continued fascination with holes he reproduced to change the course of American golf. One skimming of his brilliant-but-cranky Scotland’s Gift suggests the benevolent dictator would wonder why more nuanced templates have not emerged in the 100 years since he practiced architecture.

The closest equivalent to this delicate creative conflict can be found in music. Most “covers” are cringeworthy. But every once in a while someone reinvents a song with good bones in such a beautiful way that the singer is assumed to have written the song. No “cover” is more famous than Ray Charles’s reimagining Georgia on My Mind 30 years after Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell supposedly wrote about Carmichael’s sister. Now the state song, it has been covered relentlessly since Charles’s 1960 version, with maybe only Willie Nelson coming close to wringing new beauty out of the classic tune.

“When asked his opinion about the design of Augusta National,” MacKenzie would later write, “[Jones] said that the course would differ so markedly from others, that many of the members at first would have unpleasant things to say about the architects.”

Down in Georgia around the time the original version was released, the men building Augusta National were struggling to convince Northerners that they should come hang with Jones at a nursery-turned-golf-course. So the architects played along with the theme concept. References to St. Andrews and North Berwick made for a nice marketing ploy, but the co-designers also seemed to go along with name-dropping famous holes to get their way artistically. Jones and MacKenzie were attempting to pull off a design of extreme subtlety and nuance. One with few bunkers but plenty of Old Course-like intricacies, which, to be blunt, did not photograph well.

“When asked his opinion about the design of Augusta National,” MacKenzie would later write, “[Jones] said that the course would differ so markedly from others, that many of the members at first would have unpleasant things to say about the architects.”

Even superstars like MacKenzie and Jones knew it was to their advantage to name-drop the 17th at Muirfield, home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, and blame that as the inspiration for Augusta National’s wildly shaped and weirdly mounded 8th green. And they invoked the 18th at St. Andrews to justify the bunkerless 7th (later changed by Perry Maxwell into a heavily bunkered green beyond the original whose remnants can still be seen today).

Jones and MacKenzie mentioned classics and some not-so-famous holes to justify design artistry that would not be obvious on the first or even the second time through. The approach helped sell skeptics on a course with radical green contouring, a mere 28 bunkers, and random earthworks meant to make the ground game more exciting. At a time when golfers were still in awe of Golden Age years that produced Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Merion, and Shinnecock Hills, the artists were wise to invoke their heroes. This was not theft: Just very acceptable borrowing in the same vein as found in any lasting piece of art.

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