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The Mysterious Masters: How to break the Augusta code

By James Montague, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thursday sees the start of the 75th Masters
  • The tournament is played at the Augusta National Golf Club
  • Designed by Dr. Alister MacKenzie, it's considered one of the finest in the world
  • MacKenzie also designed several courses that cost just $20 to play
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(CNN) -- To most golf fans, the annual arrival of yet another Tiger Woods-branded computer game was met with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. But in the cloistered world of the Augusta National Golf Club, this year's arrival -- ahead of this week's 75th Masters -- was nothing short of a revolution.

After years of obstruction and disdain, computer game aficionados could finally play Amen Corner after the club belatedly agreed to allow the course to feature in "Tiger Woods 12."

Most of us will never play Augusta, and seldom few will get the chance to watch the action in the flesh. After all, mere mortals -- including several U.S. Presidents and movie stars -- can only dream of playing at the famously conservative, and ultra-exclusive, club.

Or maybe there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

The Augusta National Golf Club may well be forever associated with its founder Bobby Jones, the legendary American golfer of the 1920s who remains the only player to win the Grand Slam in a single year, but the course's beauty and uniqueness stems from its creator, the Scottish golf course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie.

Caddy Carl: A true master of Augusta?

Dr. Mackenzie was responsible for dozens of courses across the U.S., Australia and even New Zealand, each using his trademark style perfected at Augusta of building holes that fitted around nature's contours rather than vice versa.

Augusta's English cousin

One such cousin of Augusta is the South Moor Golf Course in County Durham, north east England. The course, which saw a fighter plane crash on it during World War Two and another British airforce jet do the same in 1951, was built eight years before Augusta was completed and exhibits many of the same features. What's more it is open to the public and costs just $20 to play a round.

"Our course started in 1923 and it was very much a private club, invite only," explained Guy Carr, competitions secretary at South Moor.

Would I recommend Tiger practicing here? Yes
--Guy Carr, South Moor Golf Course

"It got to the stage that every miner working in the local [coal mining] pits would get charged a ha' penny [half a penny] a week for the club, so they just opened it up to everyone."

Whilst the course doesn't have the tree-lined fairways of Augusta, South Moor still offers the kind of test that any golfer hoping to don the green jacket would be wise to hone.

"Would I recommend Tiger practicing here? Yes, I would do. You've got to curve the ball in the air both ways. In Augusta you go through tree lined avenues, here it's gorse and heather. You go a little awry here and you are in a foot of heather. No-one has broken the course record in over 15 years."

Genius

That Augusta can stand next to a public course in a remote part of the British Isles is testament, according to one of the world's current leading golf architects, to Dr. MacKenzie's genius.

"Dr. MacKenzie was never a scratch player and only late in life got to the point where he could break 80," Tom Doak, of Renaissance Golf Design, told CNN.

"MacKenzie recognized other appeals of the game and of golf courses that were of no interest to other designers. He wanted to make his courses beautiful, because he knew that a lot of people played golf simply to enjoy the outdoors and the beauty of nature. He wanted to build features that frustrated good players, but located in places that wouldn't bother the fellow just trying to break 100."

His designs of Augusta National and Royal Melbourne in Australia are two of the most influential courses in golf
--Tom Doak, golf architect

In fact according to Doak, who claims that the Scotsman is his biggest influence and who wrote "The Life and Works of Dr. Alister Mackenzie", his work is still having an effect on golf courses being built today.

"His designs of Augusta National and Royal Melbourne in Australia are two of the most influential courses in golf," said Doak.

"In the boom of new course construction over the past twenty years ... MacKenzie's bold bunkering has become the style du jour because it photographs so well."

It is ironic that the egalitarian Dr. Mackenzie, a man who valued utility and access above prestige, is mostly associated with a club famed for being the most conservative in the world.

It's rumored that there are fewer than 300 members but there's no application process either: future members are merely nominated.

"Elitism"

"From day one it was a club for elites. The original idea was for a private playground for Bobby Jones, who was such a hero and a paragon for the South. He couldn't play a golf game in private. And when he played without a view he'd throw a club, swear, drink. He couldn't do that, except on his home course in Atlanta," explains journalist Curt Sampson, author of "The Masters: Golf, Money, and Power in Augusta, Georgia."

But under the current club chairman Billy Payne, Augusta has evolved, embracing the Internet and gaming in ways that would have been deemed unthinkable even a few years ago. Not that everyone is happy about that.

You wouldn't tear down a Frank Gehry, would you?
--Curt Sampson, author and journalist

"Now they are televising all 18 holes. I'm like, no! Never televise the front 9. Live streaming of Amen Corner? You end up losing some of the deliciousness you used to have by attending," said Sampson.

The Frank Gehry of golf?

"I dislike every single change. They've ruined the 11th. They are turning it into another PGA or European tour event. They need to stick with this 1931 look and feel. I've played a lot of MacKenzie courses. I'm involved in trying to save another MacKenzie course, Sharp Park in San Francisco.

"It's home to a species of snake and frog, much treasured by environmentalist. It's ironic that they wouldn't be there, if it wasn't for MacKenzie's design in the first place, but there you go. It's a MacKenzie well down on its luck. The idea is to reinvigorate it and highlight its MacKenzieness."

Whether it's in South Moor, San Francisco, or even on a Play Station, MacKenzie's influence still inspires, and his work offers the chance to experience a little of Augusta in the most unlikely of places.

"His designs are worthy of saving if anything is," said Sampson. "You wouldn't tear down a Frank Gehry, would you?"

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