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Augusta National: The Master’s Home

The iconic clubhouse at Augusta National has journeyed from its origins as a 19th-century plantation owner’s manor house through its dark days as an early 20th-century ruin to its 21st-century status as one of golf’s spiritual homes. We chart its resplendent history.
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Augusta National: The Master’s Home

The iconic clubhouse at Augusta National has journeyed from its origins as a 19th-century plantation owner’s manor house through its dark days as an early 20th-century ruin to its 21st-century status as one of golf’s spiritual homes. We chart its resplendent history.

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For many generations in Georgia, before the Civil War, the crops of cotton, rice and indigo were cornerstones of a strong local economy. Indigo dye was extracted from the indigo plant, and was traditionally what made denim blue. In the northern reaches of the town of Augusta in eastern Georgia, a 400-acre indigo plantation was established on fertile ground. Just a mile further east as the crow flies is the Savannah River, which serves as the border between Georgia and South Carolina. An impressive, 14-room manor house was built on the top of the hill overlooking the plantation by the owner of the time, Dennis Redmon, in 1854—ironically, the very same year that the R&A clubhouse was constructed.

The late Charles Price, an American golf writer whose book, A Golf Story, charts the evolution of Bobby Jones’ twin projects, Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, records that the manor house swiftly became a point of local interest: “The Manor… had a degree of fame in the area for the stately simplicity of its architecture and the historical significance of having been the first house in the South to be constructed of ‘artificial rock’… or what would become known as concrete.”

In 1857, four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, a Belgian baron called Louis Mathieu Berckmans bought the plantation and collaborated with his son, Prosper, to establish Fruitlands Nurseries on the property.  The success of the nurseries lived up to the name of the younger Berckmans, and as well as producing a broad variety of fruit, the Fruitlands became renowned in the South for its azaleas. The Berckmans also lined the 300-yard carriage path up to the front of the ‘Manor’—as it was known—with orderly rows of magnolia trees. Prosper Berckmans would no doubt be impressed with how his magnolias, which provide a shady canopy over what has become known as Magnolia Lane, have been nurtured in the century that has followed his life.

The Berckmans clan moved away from Augusta following the death of Prosper in 1910 and, after a failed attempt by a Florida developer to build a hotel there, the property was left unoccupied until 1931, almost two years after the Wall Street Crash. Then, according to Price, “On July 15 [1931], the [Augusta] Chronicle carried its largest headline since the Armistice of 1918: BOBBY JONES TO BUILD HIS IDEAL GOLF COURSE ON BERCKMANS’ PLACE.”

Jones described the ‘Manor’ as “charming” when he first visited the property, although it had by then fallen into such a state of disrepair that cracks had even appeared in the 18-inch concrete walls—the result of an earthquake in 1886. Ultimately, the ‘Manor’ was well positioned to fit in with the golf-course layout conceived by designer Alister MacKenzie, and to serve as the hub of the new golf club. And Jones, a man with a keen appreciation for history, would have been delighted that the original ‘Manor’ survives to this day as the clubhouse of Augusta National. It is now, arguably, the most hallowed clubhouse throughout the game of golf, and a silver model of it sits upon the Masters trophy—a fact that is often overshadowed by the iconic status of the Green Jacket into which every champion slips his arms, accompanied by smiles, and in some cases tears, of joy.

It was not until 1938, four years after the inaugural ‘Augusta National Invitation Tournament’, that the old ‘Manor’ was fully restored and renovated in order to serve in its new role as clubhouse. The cost to the club of such a renovation project far outweighed the expense of razing the ‘Manor’ to the ground and building a clubhouse from scratch, illustrating an enduring philosophy at Augusta National not to let budget considerations dictate policy. The original three-story house has been extended over the years, with a short walkway today linking the main building to the ‘Men’s Grill’ and locker room to the west, with the pro shop and bag room further down the slope, parallel to the start of the 1st fairway.

To the other side of the clubhouse, en route to the Par-3 course at Augusta National, can be found a cluster of 10 cabins, the most famous of which is the Butler Cabin where, traditionally, the initial presentation of the Green Jacket is staged in front of the CBS cameras before it takes place again beside the 18th green for the benefit of the patrons. It is tempting to think that the Butler Cabin is as old as the clubhouse but in fact it was only built in 1964, fully three decades after the first Masters, and named after Thomas Butler, a regular golfing partner of fellow Augusta National member, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after whom one of the other cabins is named. A third cabin is named after Clifford Roberts, President Eisenhower’s personal adviser and friend, the club’s first chairman and Jones’ business partner when the course was first built. For most of the year, Masters week being an obvious exception, the 10 cabins are available to members, and guests of members, as lodgings.

The Crow
The Crow’s Nest

There are three rooms in the Augusta National clubhouse that have entered golfing legend, specifically, the upstairs Library, the Champions’ Locker Room and the Crow’s Nest. The spacious Library is used as a members’ dining room, but on the Tuesday evening preceding every Masters it plays host to what is undoubtedly golf’s most famous annual meal, the Champions’ Dinner. The criteria for receiving an invitation are straightforward: either win the Masters or become chairman of Augusta National. No one else gets a seat, without exception.

The Library is decked with bookshelves, and is also home to display cabinets devoted to Jones, Roberts and Eisenhower. The Library door is adorned with the Augusta National crest at about waist height, and as Jim Hawkins recalls in his book, Tales from Augusta, Sam Snead, Masters champion three times (in 1949, 1952 and 1954), devoted particular attention to the crest. As a man never slow to remind people how limber he remained into his senior years, Snead would kick the crest as he entered the library for the Champions’ Dinner, and the ritual became a Champions’ Dinner tradition. Hawkins remembers: “Without warning one year, Snead walked through the door and announced: ‘The old man can’t do it anymore.’ Fitness fanatic Gary Player groaned, ‘Man, I never thought I’d see the day when the great Sambo couldn’t kick that door seal.’ Immediately, Arnold Palmer challenged Player. ‘I’ll bet $100 he can kick it if he tries again,’ Palmer said. Snead, who long ago had earned a reputation as quite a hustler, walked out of the room, came in again and kicked the seal, just as he had always done. Reportedly, Palmer and Snead then split Player’s $100.”

Also on the second floor of the clubhouse, behind a large oak door, is the Champions’ Locker Room, and like the Champions’ Dinner, only past champions are permitted entry. While the media at the Masters are allowed access to the main locker room downstairs, the Champions’ Locker Room remains strictly ‘out of bounds’ for non-winners. As part of what was the original Manor, the Champions’ Locker Room is not spacious—reportedly—and in reality the Masters winners share lockers, although the club tries to pair new winners with champions who are deceased or who no longer attend the tournament.

On arriving at Augusta each year, past winners enter the Champions Locker Room to find their Green Jackets hanging up, ready and waiting for the Tuesday night dinner (one of the club’s many rules is that Green Jackets may only be worn at Augusta National, apart from by the reigning champion who is entitled to wear the jacket away from the club until the following year’s Masters). “I love going back to Augusta National each year,” says Germany’s Bernhard Langer, Masters champion in 1985 and 1993. “I have a lot of memories from Augusta, and it is a unique place. Being able to go into the Champions’ Locker Room, and up to the Champions’ Dinner on the Tuesday evening, show some friends around, share some stories, it’s amazing.”

Along the way, through a door marked ‘Telephone,’ past the aforementioned telephone, through another, smaller side-door and up a narrow staircase is the Crow’s Nest, which is as hard to find as it is to win an invitation to stay there. The Augusta National clubhouse is not fitted with convenient directional signs like the Holiday Inn up the road.

The Crow’s Nest is reserved for use by amateur golfers competing in the Masters each year. As Jones, the club’s ‘president in perpetuity,’ remained amateur throughout his playing days, Augusta National has always invited an elite group of the world’s leading amateur players to the Masters, to stay in the Crow’s Nest for a nominal B&B rate, and to enjoy the club’s hospitality throughout their stay. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are among the golfers who have stayed in the Crows’ Nest, so staying there comes with compelling omens. “It’s the one room, the one spot at Augusta National that is off-limits to everybody but the amateurs,” American PGA Tour player Brandt Snedeker told Golf Digest magazine, having stayed in the Crow’s Nest in 2004. “It’s our escape.”

The Crow’s Nest is a modest suite of four ‘rooms’ behind partitions, all off a central living room
The Crow’s Nest is a modest suite of four ‘rooms’ behind partitions, all off a central living room

The Crow’s Nest is a modest suite of four ‘rooms’ behind partitions, all off a central living room, and there is a single bathroom for all occupants to share. It has the feel of a college dormitory, but without the inappropriate posters, beer stains on the carpet and loud music. Like the golf course, the floor of the Crow’s Nest is green (carpet) and the walls, ceilings and window frames are white.

Legend has it that a young and brazen Ben Crenshaw ventured out of the Crow’s Nest and onto the main roof of the clubhouse on the Thursday morning to watch the honorary starters, wearing just his underwear. A 20-year-old Phil Mickelson snuck out one night just to stand alone on the 18th green, letting his imagination run wild. “There in the pitch black,

[I was] dreaming about one day winning the Masters on that green.” Some dreams are crazier than others.

The walls of the Crow’s Nest are decorated with black and white photographs of Masters players: among them is Palmer in his prime, but bigger than the others is one of Jones from 1930—the finest amateur golfer in the history of the game. Not only will Jones’ amateur golfing achievements never be matched, but his legacy at Augusta National won’t be either.

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