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Augusta National is a fake Southern wonderland inspired by trench warfare

Spencer Hall went to Augusta National, the world's best imitation of a real place

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Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

I. A respectable corporate office building's worth of hills

Old dudes openly consider calling the EMS cart to get back up to the clubhouse -- or at least two old dudes I overheard during the tournament were thinking hard about it. On television Augusta National looks like a smooth, pine-lined tunnel of cart paths and fairways, but what anyone who's trundled up and down the course will tell you is this: shit is hilly. The drop from the first tee to the green on the 12th hole is 176 feet, or around the height of a respectable corporate office building. It winds a lot of that elevation out in duplicate and triplicate, too, pitching up and down from the 12th and back up to the final climb up to the high ground of the 18th.

You can't tell that on TV, though. You can't tell a lot of things watching the course on a flatscreen. Even in HD, there is no way to see the massive dropoff to the left of the green at the third, or see just how concealed the two bunkers behind the green on the seventh are. The blast out from the 18th tee looks like a cinematic straight drop onto clean fairway, but in reality it's a threaded needle through shot-eating trees on the right and a gigantic bunker to the left. You may know there is a green up there. But heading toward the high ground, there's no way of seeing what you're shooting at -- or that more bunkers lay just out of sight over the lip of a very short horizon.

II. A Camofleur


A Scottish surgeon named Alister MacKenzie designed Augusta with Bobby Jones. MacKenzie followed a bizarre path into golf architecture, even by the terms of a profession that in the early-1900s was still open to novices and the random unpedigreed genius. MacKenzie, after training to become a surgeon at Cambridge, went to serve in the Second Boer War in South Africa. The conflict between the Afrikaans-speaking settlers and the British from 1899-1902 featured some grimly familiar features of 20th century warfare: concentration camps, trench warfare, scorched earth tactics, and a protracted, costly, and unpopular guerrilla war opposed by many at home in England.

During the conflict, MacKenzie the surgeon became something different -- a "camofleur," in his own words, an expert at using local cover to conceal British troops, supplies, bunkers, and supply lines. He learned a lot of his tactics from the outgunned but "cunning" Boers. Without superior numbers or firepower, the settlers instead used their familiarity with the landscape to ambush British troops tramping haplessly through alien territory.

An anonymous British officer writing under the pseudonym "Linesman" recognized the advantage almost immediately:

" ... I think most soldiers would agree that if a dozen Boers and a dozen English privates were pitted against each other, say from opposite ends of a three-mile stretch of average South African country, the Britons would probably be surrounded, without, perhaps, having caught even so much as a glimpse of their opponents, unless the glimpse were given them on purpose."

MacKenzie developed a reputation as an expert in the most lethal form of landscape architecture by doing precisely what the Boers did. The Boers would never, ever run a trench in a straight line; straight lines stuck out immediately to the human eye in the rolling, curvy landscape of the Transvaal. The Boers dug in behind low rises to hide their positions; they turned blind corners and long curves into ambush lanes with clear paths of fire. The surgeon used a super Frenchified title for his new profession, and stole the Boer camouflage playbook wholesale.

He was good at it. The British adjusted their tactics, defeated the Boers, got the gold mines they were after, and annexed Boer territories into what would become the modern day South Africa. MacKenzie returned to England to his golf club, wheedled his way out of the surgery business and into golf course design, and gradually became a well-regarded course guru because this was the early 20th century, and people simply weren't as big into checking pedigrees or prior experience as they are now.

By 1915, MacKenzie was well-regarded enough as a course design theorist to pass as a publishable expert on the subject. Naturally, MacKenzie wrote one of the strangest misfit sports articles in American journalism history by penning "Military Entrenchments," a 1915 Golf Illustrated piece that mostly talks a lot about how you, too, can learn to hide dangerous men with guns and knives in the ground around your town. There are notes about lines of sight, angles of trench entry, and trench construction. There is a boast that if you gave MacKenzie a force of armed civilians and proper preparation, they could defeat a force 10 times their size. There are diagrams, and two photos showing proper trench design.

It mentions golf exactly once:

"It may be asked what earthly connection is there between golf course construction and trench making? The connection consists in the imitation of nature. The whole secret of successful course construction and concealment in trench making consists in making artificial features indistinguishable from natural ones, and for the last ten years I have been daily attempting to imitate nature."

MacKenzie met Jones sometime in 1927, agreed to design the course with him, and died two weeks before the first Masters tournament in 1934.


III. Seeing the mortar bunker at 18

Since 1933 most of MacKenzie's features have been plowed, picked up, redone, or removed altogether. Yet the basic routing and shape remain, and even with the endless tweaks you'll walk Augusta and start to notice two things. The first is that the course tends to run counter-clockwise, bending left and around off the tee with a frequency suggesting it was designed for someone who drove high, and a bit to the left. Someone did: Bobby Jones, the club's founder and co-designer.

The other undeniable feature is Augusta National's curvilinear camouflage. Doglegs turn longer holes into blind corners. Greens with innocent, flat-seeming surfaces turn out to be hilly and twisted in the exact shape of a melted vinyl 45 left in the backseat of a car too long. Sometimes the bunkers and water hazards hide behind small rises. Sometimes, as it is on the 15th hole, the fortifications are in plain sight, with the green being surrounded by a bunker and strategically placed baby-moats on either side. Even the trees turn into blinders and light baffles; Amen Corner, as hard as it may be already, only gets more difficult when the afternoon sun slants and paints shadow-stripes across already unreadable greens and approaches.

Augusta National finishes at 18 with a brutal uphill slog through bunkers and hostile surroundings to the high ground. You see the green only because you've seen it before, and can picture it sitting up there, waiting flanked by bunkers and fans. And because you know the man who set the line of the course got his Ph.D. in course architecture in the middle of a guerrilla war, you also start seeing Boers in the bunkers and lines of fire everywhere.


IV. "... I have been daily attempting to imitate nature."

There is nothing natural about The Masters, or Augusta National. This is a place that by demographic, birthplace, and upbringing I'm supposed to like, or respect, or at least recognize as being something. It's part of a tour of sports milestones around the South: football season, then the Masters, then the Derby, then back around to football, and then repeat. The people who attend this are the same people you see in the infield who you later see at the tailgate who you then see again chewing a pimento cheese sandwich and sipping a beer from a tower of stacked Masters cups. Even if you don't like golf -- and full disclosure, I generally don't -- this should be the transcendent event capable of inducing instant awe in even the casual bystander.

Yet the overwhelming feeling for me walking around Augusta isn't one of soaking in a warm pool of tradition. It's the sensation of being screened, manipulated. It feels less like a place, and more like the precise construction of a "Southern" place, assembled meticulously by hyper-intelligent xenomorphs with infinite cash, resources, and will. It feels like it was built by the kind of people who got Alister MacKenzie to build trenches for them in wars over gold overseas, and then turn around and asked him to build their golf courses at home. It is a brilliant technological piece of ersatz nature, so elaborately wired that, in the event of civil unrest or an advancing sea, it can probably, at the bidding of some unseen green jacket's finger, levitate from its spot on Washington Road and find a new home elsewhere.

It's an arcology for the wealthy set up for television cameras. The landlords will take the azaleas with them if they ever have to leave.

It's a bubble, and that bubble surrounding Augusta is camouflage. That camouflage runs bone-deep to the root of the course's design and its membership. The South's totemic elitist golf club -- and all the attendant -isms that go with that -- was founded and funded primarily by New Yorkers. Clifford Roberts, the chairman who ushered the club to its lofty status and brought the tournament to television, was a self-invented stock broker from Iowa.* The live oak outside the clubhouse, where players enter the course and step to the first tee flanked by members and patrons, is trussed up by wires. Its shade is natural, but the height of its limbs is a bound gut waiting to be cut free from a horticultural girdle. Its full members list remains a mystery just like the numbers surrounding the club's finances.

*Roberts considered the club his creation, so much so that he chose to end his life there. After getting a cancer diagnosis, he shot himself with a revolver at the age of 84 by a pond on the par three course at Augusta National.

There is some reality at Augusta. The golf, even for being golf, is spectacular. The simplicity and traditions of the club aren't a total facade -- this is a place where you will be exiled forever for having the 21st century intrusion of a cellphone -- but then again, neither is the hive of computer screens and touchscreen analytics in the room, where you can watch the words "TIGER WOODS" pulse with the clicking of a thousand social media mentions a second, or flick a touchscreen to see the hot spots where people are talking about the tournament. (The Southeastern United States appears as a series of bright overlapping yellow dinner plates.) The biggest imitation of all: Augusta sits in the buggiest part of the United States, and yet you won't find a squirrel anywhere on the grounds.

Augusta National sits practically invisible for 51 weeks of the year; then, from an angle visible only one week a year, you can see the clubhouse at the end of Magnolia Lane where the richest people in America hide. Even then, that's only more camouflage rigged up for the observer. The richest of the rich, the hyper-wealthy, aren't at the clubhouse. They're at Berckmans, the VIP's VIP area behind the fifth hole. It has three restaurants, including MacKenzie's, a bar named after the club's co-designer and original camofleur. The one eyewitness account of the place says a green-jacketed Condi Rice greeted them at the door. They reportedly have 25 types of single-malt scotch there. You won't ever see one of them.

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