A Tradition Unlike Any Other or Masters Memories

It’s the second day of spring as I write this column from North Redington Beach, Florida, where I’m lucky to get a respite from Ontario’s wintery weather. Mother Nature remains moody. For snowbirds returning home to find snow still on the ground in early April, the hope that warmer weather is on its way – and that golf season is just around the corner – is found in watching on TV the “tradition unlike any other.”

During the dog days of February, I hunkered down in my basement office to finish writing the first draft of my next book: “101 Fascinating Golf Facts.” In researching and curating these stories, I was amazed at the depth of fascinating tales that this game — invented by my Scottish ancestors more than 500 years ago — has produced. One of the stories which I included was a roundup of the history of that “tradition unlike any other” (cue Jim Nantz’ voice and images of Azaleas and dogwoods in bloom): The Masters. With Georgia on my mind, and with the year’s first golf major often a harbinger of spring, further rumination on this storied place that I was lucky to visit in 2013 feels warranted.

As the Masters celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2024, here are some fun facts about its origins. The brainchild of Bobby Jones – one the greatest amateur golfers of the early 20th century – and New York magnate Clifford Roberts, Augusta National was constructed on 365 acres (formerly Fruitlands Nursery) that this pair of entrepreneurs bought for $70,000. The original business plan called for 1,800 members with dues of $60. In the early 1930s, 59 captains of industry each paid $350 to become charter members. Somehow weathering the Great Depression, Augusta National opened for play in 1932. The first Masters Tournament was played two years later and was won by American Horton Smith. His payday? $1,500. By comparison, Spaniard Jon Rahm, who won the 2023 green jacket, pocketed $3.2 million.

A green jacket is presented to the champion annually. This tradition started in 1949, when Sam Snead donned the first of these coveted blazers. The green jacket that winners receive is for them to keep for 12 months; it must be then returned to the club for safekeeping, but they can wear it whenever they visit the course. Jack Nicklaus holds the record for most Masters victories with six green jackets. The Champions dinner, for which the previous year’s winner selects the menu, is another tradition. Held in the Augusta clubhouse on the Tuesday of tournament week, all previous surviving winners are invited to attend. Walter Hagen started this annual soiree in 1952. For 2024, defending champion Rahm chose a menu that harked to roots growing up in the Basque region of Spain.

The first golf major each year is a place of many firsts. Augusta National is the first course to provide complimentary parking for patrons; the first tournament to have bleachers for fans; and the first golf tournament that was broadcast live on radio from coast to coast. No other club, or tournament, has had as many books written about it as the Masters. And, no surprise, it’s one of the toughest tickets (or badges, as these prized ducats are called) to snag in all of professional sports. Since the mid-1990s, Augusta National has conducted an annual lottery for want-to-be patrons to secure the opportunity to buy tickets. Registration via Masters.com is free and runs from June 1 to June 20. The odds are still slim to get a patron’s badge this way, but hey, it costs nothing to try. Just like the real-world lottery, as they say, you can’t win if you don’t play.

I digress. Here are a few more fun facts about the tournament’s history before I share some of my personal memories. English-Scot, Dr. Alister MacKenzie, designed the course. Unfortunately, the acclaimed architect never saw his finished vision since he died of a heart attack in early 1934. Magnolia Lane – the iconic 330-yard driveway that most only see on TV (since this road is gated and guarded) – is lined with 61 magnolia trees leading to the Augusta National clubhouse.

Oh, and did you know that a Canadian made the first hole-in-one at the Masters? Sandy Somerville, from London, Ont., made the inaugural ace; he was also the first Canadian to win the U.S. Amateur in 1932. Somerville recorded this historic hole-in-one on the 145-yard par 3 16th hole using a hickory-shafted club with an iron clubface, known as a “mashie niblick” – equivalent to a modern 7-iron.

The popular Par 3 contest (that takes place on the Wednesday of Masters week), in which players often have their girlfriends, wives or kids as caddies, was first played in 1960. How about some of those enduring phrases specific to the Masters such as Amen Corner, referring to the treacherous stretch of holes 11, 12 and 13? Credit for that goes to famed American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind. The scribe, in a 1958 Sports Illustrated column, coined this phrase when he wrote: “…at the farthest reach of the Augusta National course – down in the Amen Corner where Rae’s Creek intersects the 13th fairway near the tee, then parallels the front edge of the green on the short 12th and finally swirls alongside the 11th green.”

My Masters Memories

One pimento cheese sandwich: $1.50. A no-name domestic draft in a plastic Masters cup: $3. A pair of kids’ T-shirts from the souvenir shop: $48. An all-day stroll as a patron along the rolling fairways of Augusta National Golf Club the day before the first round of the 2013 Masters: priceless.

The Masters bleeds tradition. As discussed, the customs and symbols associated with the year’s first golf major are endless. After years of watching this tournament on TV and imagining making a bucket list trip to these hallowed grounds, this dream came true on an April day more than 10 years ago. I arrived in Augusta, Ga. shortly before 3 p.m. on Tuesday and parked across from James Brown arena. Besides hosting the Masters, this town of nearly 200,000 claims the Godfather of Soul, Hulk Hogan, Ty Cobb, Lady Antebellum and Laurence Fishburne as its own.

Following a hearty breakfast sandwich at the New Moon Café in the city’s downtown, I arrived at Augusta National’s gates. With temperatures reaching 87 F, and spring having sprung just in time for me to witness the dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas in bloom, the day was nothing less than perfect.

The first thing that I noticed upon entering the grounds was the dramatic elevation changes on the course. In the morning, I wandered the back nine. I found the tree on No.10 that Bubba Watson made famous in the 2012 Masters due to his miraculous shot in the playoff. I caught some of the Par 3 tournament and also made sure to stop for a while at Amen Corner. Later, I sat and watched a few players skip balls off of the water and onto the green at the par 3 16th hole, another Masters tradition, which was started by Kitchener, Ontario native and two-time U.S. Amateur winner Gary Cowan in 1972, when he tried this trick shot during a practice round with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.

Just like the Masters, golf is filled with rich traditions that draw people to the game. These customs remain one of the enchanting elements of the sport that form part of its legacy and connect players to this grand old game. By the time you read this, the first major of the year will be over and hopefully, with it, warmer weather has arrived from coast to coast. Here’s to making new traditions – and reviving old ones – on the golf course this season.

By David McPherson