From the verge of extinction to one of sport's most celebrated events... by Roderick Easdale

Why Is The Masters A Major?

The Masters is the odd one out of the Majors in so many ways, not least because it is an invitational tournament with a small field and run by an elitist, secretive, private club. How, then, does it stand alongside open events run by golf’s governing bodies as one of the four ‘Major’ golf tournaments?

In the early years, the Augusta National Invitational Tournament – as The Masters was first known – was a little-regarded event held by a private club in desperate financial straits struggling to survive.

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This was not how it was meant to be. The idea of the club’s two founders, New York investment banker Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, one of the greatest golfers of all time, had been to create a club for the rich elite which would host the US Open. There would be two 18-hole courses, 1,800 members and homes built on the site. None of these four things came to pass.

Bobby Jones tees off in 1935, with Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour.
(Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Funding issues

Augusta had for decades been a popular winter destination for wealthy north-easterners, and the club had aimed to carve out a part of that market for itself – hence the National part of its name. It was not to be a locale for the locals.

The club had bought the land cheap from a hotel chain, which had purchased it from a plant nursery that closed in 1925. The plan had been to construct a hotel there, but the hoteliers ran out of money to do so, and ended up selling the land for a third of what they paid for it.

The club also struggled to raise the money to build what it had intended. It managed to build one course, although it defaulted in paying Alister MacKenzie, who died without remuneration for his most famous design.

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Although Mackenzie’s course was clearly a good one, the United States Golf Association was not prepared to host the US Open in Georgia as the weather was too hot in June.

As such, the club decided to create its own event to be played in the cooler spring. It had no money itself to put up as the prize, so it passed the hat around its members. But even then it failed to produce the requisite sum.

Part of the problem was that rather than having 1,800 members as planned, it had 76. The club had opened in December 1932 during the Great Depression in the aftermath of the stock-market crash of 1929. Not only were there now fewer wealthy businessmen to attract to the club, but fashions were changing and Augusta was being superseded by Florida as a holiday destination for the elite.

Bobby Jones (left) won the original Grand Slam in 1930. (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

So the inaugural Augusta National Invitational Tournament could be held in 1934, the City of Augusta council gave the club $10,000. The hope was the tournament would boost the city’s profile and declining tourist industry. It was estimated that 20,000 people would come to watch the tournament, pumping $1million into the local economy. In the end, only about 1,000 came each day.

Prize money was important in securing prestige for the event. A combination of Bobby Jones‘ name and contacts and the lure of big bucks ensured a high-quality field. The winner of the first tournament, Horton Smith, got $1,500; in comparison, the champions of the US Open and USPGA in 1934 took home $1,000.

Reliance on other parties

The media were also courted. For many years, selected journalists had their travelling expenses paid by the club to encourage them to report on the tournament. Bobby Jones came out of competitive retirement to give a story for the media for that first tournament and continued in a ceremonial playing role until 1948. Newspaper reports focused as much on how Jones was doing – he finished 13th in the 60-man field, ten shots behind – as to who was leading it.

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But with the event failing to attract spectators to Augusta, the hoped-for boost to the local economy hadn’t materialised. The next year, the council only put up $7,500 – and handed over only $5,000 of it as it deducted $2,500 to cover a water bill the club had twice defaulted in paying.

The following year, the council delayed a decision on funding the tournament. Its staging was announced only three months before once funding had been agreed. But this was the last time public money was provided. There simply wasn’t the return on the investment and the club’s secrecy as to how it spent this public money also rankled.

Augusta was founded by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1933. The course was designed by Alister MacKenzie.
(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Even fewer people came in 1938. Rather than grow a spectator base, the club seemed to be shrinking it. Without either public money or much revenue from ticket sales, the tournament’s future looked bleak.

But a local businessman had big plans for promoting The Masters as the tournament was renamed in 1939. Alvin M. McAuliffe formed the Business Men’s Masters Tournament Association to sell tickets through local businesses. By the following year the Association had doubled ticket sales. Yet again the locals had come to the aid of this exclusive club for the rich from the other American states.

Yet for decades still the tournament did not attract huge crowds. It was not until 1966 that it had its first ‘sell-out’. By then, The Masters was a Major.

The modern Grand Slam

Although some events had long been described as ‘major’ tournaments, major in this case was an adjective and not a noun. There was a general understanding in the golfing world that some events were more prestigious than others, but the decline of amateur golfers at the top level meant there was no clearly-defined tight grouping of the first rank of tournaments.

It had been different in 1930 when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam. A lawyer, he played as an amateur, although he made money from golf-related activities. Not least from the 50-1 bet he placed before the 1930 season that he would win The Open Championship and The Amateur Championship, at Royal Liverpool and St Andrews respectively, and then the US Open and US Amateur in his native land. When he did so, he won $60,000, retired from competitive golf and was lauded in the press.

But what of this quartet of victories? Atlanta Journal’s OB Keeler, adopting a term from bridge, described it as “the Grand Slam”. George Trevor of the New York Sun wrote of Jones’ triumph in the US Amateur that, “This victory, the fourth major title in the same season and in the space of four months, had now and for all time entrenched Bobby Jones safely within the ‘Impregnable Quadrilateral of Golf’, that granite fortress he alone could take by escalade, and that others may attack in vain, forever.”

Indeed, Jones’ win in 1930 was the sixth and last by an amateur at The Open, and three years later, John Goodman became the last of the five amateurs to have won the US Open.

The term Major, to describe what we now know of as the four biggest events, is said to date from a conversation on an aeroplane between Arnold Palmer and the journalist Bob Drum in 1960. They were travelling to Ireland for the Canada Cup and then on to St Andrews for The Open Championship.

Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam was a thing of history – in all senses. No one was going to win the same Grand Slam he had ever again, so Palmer speculated on what a contemporary Grand Slam would consist of. The Open Championship and US Open remained, but what would replace the two amateur events?

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Palmer’s quest

The Masters was the event with the most prize money – that year, the winner, Palmer himself, had received $17,000, compared to $14,400 for triumphing at the US Open. The winner of The Open would get £1,250, equivalent to about $3,500 dollars. Palmer nominated The Masters and the USPGA. Drum liked the idea and wrote about this quartet of tournaments comprising golf’s new Grand Slam.

“One thing led to another,” Palmer later recalled. “Drum got me all excited about it. He got the British press all excited about it. Everybody picked up on it at St Andrews that year.”

Mark McCormack, Palmer’s agent, certainly did. His client had already won The Masters and US Open that year, so was halfway to achieving this new Grand Slam. Few Americans travelled to compete in The Open at that time. Palmer, now 30 and with 19 PGA Tour wins, hadn’t before.

Arnold Palmer won two Masters titles. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus watch on.
(Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

His participation caused a stir, and it was hyped up with the narrative of him going for this modern Grand Slam. The fact it was the centenary of The Open Championship only added to the romance and drama. He was tied for 4th after the first round and tied for 3rd after both the second and third rounds. On the final day, Palmer was unfortunately unable to haul in Australian Kel Nagle’s four-shot overnight lead and finished runner-up by a single shot.

Palmer was never able to win a Grand Slam, nor indeed a Career Grand Slam, as the USPGA always eluded him. But he did create one.

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