Museum Moment: The First Masters Program

Apr 07, 2011

By David Shefter, USGA

Seventy-seven years ago this week a small gathering of 61 elite professional and amateur golfers gathered at a fledgling club in northeastern Georgia for what was then called the First Annual Invitation Tournament.

It would be another five years before the tournament would be called the Masters and 15 years before a green jacket was awarded to the champion.

In 1934, the club was only a year old, and founder Bob Jones had been retired from competitive golf since his remarkable Grand Slam achievement in 1930. Jones and his friend and club co-founder Clifford Roberts decided to start a national competition to showcase their masterpiece, the Augusta National Golf Club.

Jones had brought in architect Alister Mackenzie to design the course on land that had served as a plant and tree nursery; prior to that, it had been an indigo plantation. Mackenzie died before the inaugural competition, but he did provide plenty of insight into Augusta National’s design in an article that can be found in the First Annual Invitation Tournament program. A copy of the program can be found at the USGA Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History in Far Hills, N.J.

“The Augusta National represented my best opportunity and I believe my finest achievement,” Mackenzie wrote.

Mackenzie believed that Augusta National was the world’s finest inland golf course based on four key points:

• Pleasurable to the greatest possible range of players.
• Required strategy as well as skill.
• Gave average players a fair chance and at the same time required the utmost from the expert who tried for under-par scores
• Natural beauty was preserved. Natural hazards were utilized and a minimum of artificiality was introduced.

Details on the 1934 tournament field can’t be found in the program. In fact, not a single player is mentioned, nor is any criteria chronicled for how golfers came to be invited to this competition.

Instead, the program has more of a club newsletter feel. Every Augusta National member is listed in the front of the book – something that would never be revealed today – as well as a detailed outline of the club’s beautification plan.

Pictures of each of the holes are also included.

Back in 1934, the first nine holes actually played as the second nine holes and vice versa. So the famous par-3 12th on which players cross Rae’s Creek over what is now called the Hogan Bridge was the third hole in 1934.

The downhill first hole (today’s 10th) had an entirely different green. It was shaped like a kidney and a large bunker protected the left side of the complex. Today, that bunker is still there, but it’s 30 yards in front of the current green.

Even the format of the inaugural competition had a twist. There were three official practice rounds followed by a two-ball foursomes tournament on the Wednesday prior to the official competition.

Each competition day – except for Sunday’s final round – had an informal morning competition that preceded the tournament round. On Thursday, there was an approach and putt contest. Friday’s festivities included an iron contest and on Saturday, a long-drive contest was held.

Today, the fun ends on Wednesday with the traditional Par-3 Contest, and Thursday through Sunday are reserved for the serious competition.

Horton Smith won the inaugural competition with a 4-under-par total of 284, besting Craig Wood by one stroke. Smith collected a whopping $1,500 for his triumph and cash prizes went to only the top 12 finishers. Jones did participate, finishing in a tie for 13th at 294.

A year later, Gene Sarazen hit the “shot heard ‘round the world,” making a double-eagle 2 at the par-5 15th hole – the nines were reversed for the 1935 tournament – en route to the title.

Eventually this spring tradition evolved from an intimate Georgia gathering to worldwide prominence as one of the four professional majors, with its iconic green jacket becoming one of the enduring symbols of sports achievement.

David Shefter is a senior writer/content manager for the USGA. E-mail him with questions or comments at dshefter@usga.org.

Seventy-seven years ago this week a small gathering of 61 elite professional and amateur golfers gathered at a fledgling club in northeastern Georgia for what was then called the First Annual Invitation Tournament. (USGA Museum)