Augusta and Pinehurst – What might have been

Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National

Pinehurst No. 2 and Augusta National

A shocking upset of the world’s best player may have changed the course of golf history


Pinehurst and Augusta National each have lofty and secure niches in the game of golf. Pinehurst was America’s first true golf destination and its venerable No. 2 course as of 2014 will have been the battle ground for three U.S. Opens, one U.S. Women’s Open, one PGA Championship, one Ryder Cup Match and two U.S. Amateurs. And Augusta National is the home of the golf tournament that each April generates more goose pimples, gallery decibels and history fodder than any other venue in the game.

But it’s entertaining as The Masters Tournament rolls around each April to wonder just what Augusta and Pinehurst might look like today had the great Bobby Jones not inexplicably lost his first round match of the 1929 U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach to an obscure player by the name of Johnny Goodman.

Jones by that time had dreamed of an idyllic golf club somewhere near his home in Atlanta and apparently had a handshake agreement with Pinehurst’s Donald Ross that Ross would design the course whenever Jones was ready to embark on the project. But when Jones lost in the first round at Pebble Beach, he had a week to kill (travel arrangements not being as fluid as they are today), so he spent considerable time playing a new course on the Monterey Peninsula and getting to know its architect. Jones was smitten by what he found in Cypress Point and Alister MacKenzie that he left California knowing that MacKenzie, the British physician-turned-golf architect, would be his designer—not Ross.

Donald Ross and Bobby Jones

Donald Ross and Bobby Jones

“Ross was a notorious individualist,” author and historian Charles Price explained in A Golf Story, his 1986 book about Jones and The Masters Tournament, “and Jones wanted a course with his designs incorporated into it, not a course entirely of somebody else’s … The more they talked, the more impressed Jones became with MacKenzie’s theories. While neither was aware of it, the Augusta National Golf Club—and, hence, the Masters Tournament—was being born.”

Ross wasn’t happy to learn that Jones was hiring MacKenzie to design the new course in Georgia. Pinehurst resident John Derr remembers the hair standing on Ross’s neck in the mid-1930s when Derr, at the time a young sportswriter from Greensboro, innocently made a glowing remark to Ross about this terrific new course in Augusta.

“Ross was a proud, reserved, standoffish man, almost egotistically so,” Price wrote. “He was miffed. He considered himself to be America’s foremost architect.”

So as Augusta National and The Masters were nearing their unveilings in 1933, Ross set about a major retooling of his prized course, No. 2. Over the course of the next two years, he added the fourth and fifth holes and abandoned two weak holes that ran on ground now occupied by course No. 4. He rebuilt and re-contoured all the greens and their surrounds and replaced the sand/clay putting surfaces with Bermuda grass. He added new tees and bunkers.

Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross

Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross

Ross was not about to let some upstart course in Augusta challenge the spot of No. 2 as one of the finest courses in the south and the nation.

“I don’t see how a course could be any harder, but at the same time it’s the most pleasant course I’ve ever seen,” Johnny Revolta said in 1936 as the PGA Championship began play on No. 2. “You have to play No. 2 with your head as much as your hands.”

So “what if …”

  • What if Jones doesn’t lose to Goodman, never gets to know MacKenzie and hires Ross to build his course on the site of the Fruitland Nursery on the west side of Augusta?
  • What if Ross hadn’t been personally motivated to take a No. 2 course already well-respected and kick it up a notch?
  • How would this new Ross course on the red Georgia clay have compared to his tour de force on the sandy Pinehurst loam?

It’s all speculation, of course, but an interesting exercise as we reach for another pimento cheese sandwich and listen for the roars on Sunday afternoon. We can take these ruminations a step further as well and wonder what the golf landscape would look like today had Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts not ended one of the tour’s top events, the North and South Open, upon its conclusion in the fall of 1951.

More on that later.

Lee Pace’s book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.