Augusta National is one of the most famous clubs in the world, organising one of the most prestigious sports tournaments in the world. But it was once a struggling golf club which ran a little-regarded annual competition...
The Masters is now one of the hottest tickets in sport. But it wasn’t always thus.
When Augusta National opened in December 1932 it was in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929 and during the Great Depression.
The idea had been to found an exclusive golf club for the wealthy. Problem was there were now far fewer of these wealthy people to attract.
Augusta had been for decades a popular winter destination for wealthy North-easterners, and the club hoped to tap into that market – hence the National part of the club’s name. It was not to be a golf club for the locals.
But Augusta was losing its allure as a holiday destination due to the depression and the rising popularity of Florida for winter sun.
Through its founding businessman, New Yorker Clifford Roberts, the club had bought the land cheap. They had got it off a hotel chain, which no longer had the finances to build the hotel they had planned for the site. The club paid about a third of what the hoteliers had for the land, a plant nursery that had closed in 1925.
Alister MacKenzie, who had designed the course, was not paid by the club. It had no money to pay his fee. MacKenzie resorted to sending begging letters, and reducing his fee in an effort to get the club to cough up. He died without getting his money.
The plan had been to build two 18-hole courses at Augusta National. The second layout would be the ladies course. But finances prevented this second course happening.
The course they did have was a good one though. The club knew that. It wanted to host the US Open. But the US Open is held in July, when Augusta is too hot. So the USGA said no.
Instead Augusta National founded its own tournament. It was first run in 1934 and played in the cooler Spring. The cap was passed around the members to drum up prize money.
But even then the club could not afford to put on a tournament.
So the City of Augusta council gave Augusta National $10,000, hoping 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 every day.
The next year the council put up only $7,500 – and handed over only $5,000 of it as it deducted $2,500 to cover a water bill that Augusta National had twice defaulted in paying.
The following year, the city council delayed a decision on funding the tournament. The tournament was announced only three months before the event, after the public funding had been agreed.
But this was the last time the city did fund the Augusta National Invitational, as the tournament was then known. It just wasn’t attracting the visitors. The club’s secrecy as to how its spent this public money also rankled with some.
Fewer people came to the 1938 tournament than the underwhelming number that had come in 1934. The club was focusing on a national audience but the national audience was not focusing on Augusta National.
However a local businessman Alvin M. McAuliffe saw the business merits of having a successful golf tournament in Augusta. He formed the Business Men’s Masters Tournament Association to sell tickets through local businesses. (In 1939 the event was renamed the Masters Tournament.)
By the following year Business Men’s Masters Tournament Association had doubled ticket sales for the event.
Yet again the locals had come to the aid of this exclusive club for the rich from the other states of America.
But for decades still the tournament did not attract huge crowds. The organisers still had to work hard to woo people to come to it, both media and spectators. Selected press men would have their travelling expenses paid by the club.
Anyone who had bought a ticket previously was entered on a patrons list by Augusta National and were contacted and urged to buy tickets for the next one.
It was 1966 when it had its first ‘sell-out’ tournament as demand had finally caught up with supply. Demand for tickets then began to exceed supply and in 1972 the patrons’ list was closed by Augusta National and a waiting list for it had to be instituted.