At first glance you probably couldn’t get two golf courses more different than the raw, rustic (almost primal) Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland (the birthplace of golf) and the pristine, pastoral Augusta National Golf course, in Augusta, Georgia.
After attending a practice round for this year’s Masters Tournament, hosted every year at Augusta National, I thought it would be fun to compare and contrast the two most famous golf courses in the world. I played the Old Course at St. Andrews back in 2007.
Perhaps the biggest link between the two courses is the fact they each host one of the most prestigious golf tournaments in the world – the Masters and The Open Championship. For non-golfers The Open Championship is sometimes called The British Open to distinguish it from tournaments like the US Open and Canadian Open. The Old Course at St. Andrews hosts The Open Championship in a rotation with other several other British courses, while The Masters is always hosted at Augusta National Golf Course.
Public vs Private
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two courses is you can play the Old Course as it is a public course (you do have to have an authorized handicap under 24 for men and 36 for women) and you can’t play Augusta. In fact, the Old Course is built on common land held in trust by The St. Andrews Link Trust under an act of Parliament. Along with tee times for the general public, several golf club members also have playing privileges including the oldest and most renowned club, The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews.
Augusta National is very exclusive members-only club. You can only play if you are invited -good luck with that! They are very protective of who is a member as membership is by invitation only. No official list of the membership is published and the criteria for membership is not known. It said “if you have to ask, the answer is no.”
What’s In A Name?
The most obvious link (pun intended) between the two courses is the #10 hole at The Old Course is named for Bobby Jones, who was not only the best golfer of his time, but the co-designer of Augusta National.
The first time Jones played The Open Championship at the Old Course, he ended up in the infamous Hell Bunker on the 11th hole during his first round and took four shots to get out. Some say he ripped up his scorecard immediately; others say he simply just didn’t turn in his scorecard - either way, he disqualified himself.
He returned a few years later to win The Open Championship and over time, The Old Course became his favourite course. He has been quoted as saying “if I could only play one course for the rest of my life it would be The Old Course.”
Many have said The Old Course is “an acquired taste, like a good whiskey.”
Another link between the two golf courses is that all of the holes have names.
In the case of Augusta each is named after a flower, while The Old Course hole names have no theme, some are descriptive e.g. the Road Hole is played to a green by the road.
The 18th hole, is named after Tom Morris are in recognition of the famous greenskeeper, club maker and four time Open Champion.
At The Old Course, each of the 112 bunkers (sand traps) also have a name, while that isn’t the case for Augusta. Personally, I love the names of the Old Course bunkers eg. Principal’s Nose (#16). I wish naming holes and bunkers was a more common practice at more golf courses.
The most famous bunker at The Old Course is aptly called “Hell Bunker” because it is 10 feet deep. You can almost see “hell” from the bottom and often the word “hell” is often heard coming from down below.
Not only was it the demise of Bobby Jones’ first Open Championship, but in 1995 Jack Nicklaus took five attempts “to get out of hell.”
Another religious reference at The Old Course is the depression at the front of the 18th green called the “Valley of Sin,” which has punished more than one pro golfer trying to win The Open Championship and many amateurs.
A third link with religion at The Old Course is the fact it was Archbishop John Hamilton, in 1552 AD who gave the townspeople of St. Andrews the right to play on the golf course.
Augusta’s religious connections begin with its famous “Amen Corner” which comprises the 11th, 12th and 13th holes, which put the fear of God into even the most experienced golfers because of the tricky wind and Rae’s Creek.
The name actually isn’t a direct religious reference as Herbert Warren Wind coined it in a 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated story. He referred to the three holes as “Amen Corner” based on a jazz song called “Shoutin’ in Amen Corner.” The reference to jazz music is appropriate given Amen Corner often requires golfers to improvise shots they wouldn’t normally play.
For avid golfers visiting The Old Course or Augusta is a sacred experience. It is like a pilgrimage. Both courses evoke a sense of awe, a feeling of reverence and respect for tradition and are full of rituals. For avid golfers, the clubhouses at the Old Course and Augusta are like cathedrals. And the term term “cathedral of pines” has been used to describe the pine trees at Augusta.
The Old Course is unique in that it has 7 double greens which allows the course to be played clockwise or counter clockwise. Today, the course is played counter-clockwise expect for one day a year or for special tournaments. (Note: In the past it was reversed several times a week). As a result of the double greens, the Old Course has huge greens, which means you can sometimes find yourself with an extremely long putts with huge swales and breaks if you end up on the wrong side of the other green. FYI. So you know which hole to aim at, the flags on the outbound 9 are white and the inbound are red.
Augusta’s greens are known not so much for their size but for their speed and undulations. I recall one pro golfer practiced in his putting on his garage floor to prepare for The Masters. Some say the greens at Augusta are the fastest on the planet. Some even swear there are “VW Beetles” buried under the greens, given the severe undulations. Ironically, at the Masters the pros make more 3 to 10 foot putts than at any other tournament, but make the least number of 10+ foot putts.
So, for both courses the ability to read the greens and make putts is critical to playing well.
Both golf courses have undergone many changes over the years, often as a result of technology changes. The original Old Course, established in 1552 with just 11 holes, was expanded later to 22 holes and then reduced by Old Tom Morris in 1764 to 18 holes, which then became the standard for all championship golf courses. In 1904, 13 bunkers were added to The Old Course in response to the new livelier Haskell ball. Hallet’s Bunker, on the 18th hole halfway between the Swilcan Bridge and the Grannie Clark’s Wynd has also removed.
Look close and you can actually still see the “March Stones,”(small grave-like markers) in middle of the 5th and 7th fairways and the 2nd and 11th tees that marked the original golf course boundaries.
Augusta has been a constantly evolving golf course since its beginning. Immediately after the inaugural Masters Tournament in 1934, the nines were reversed and each year since the course is altered - sometimes more subtly than others. It is not uncommon to add mature 50 foot or taller trees to alter the tee shot by narrowing the fairway and reducing the ideal landing area. Tee boxes have been enlarged to make holes longer as a result of new club and ball technology allowing golfers to this the ball further. Over the years the length of the course has grown by 500+ yards.
Mother nature has also caused changes at Augusta, the most famous being the ice storm of 2014 that damaged the famous Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole and ultimately led to its removal.
The Augusta National’s co-designer was Alister MacKenzie, born near Leeds, England but with strong Scottish roots, spending his summers near Lochinver.
While his earliest golf experiences were based on Scottish link golf courses (like The Old Course), he was the originator of many of the modern golf course design principles – undulating greens, long and narrow greens angled from the centre of the fairway, fairly large and free-formed bunker shapes and substantial additional contouring of the course.
In 1924, he completed renderings of the Old Course that are thought by many to be some of the best documentation of the course at that time.
He relocated to the United States in the late 1920s and completed the Augusta National in 1933.
The design of both The Old Course and Augusta National involved the participation of a famous golfer. Old Tom Morris, the best golfer of his era, was the designer The Old Course, transforming it from 22 holes to 18. Bobby Jones, the best golfer of his era, worked side-by-side with MacKenzie to design the original Augusta National Golf Club.
Both golf courses are well known for their vegetation.
In the case of The Old Course, the signature vegetation is the “gorse.” Gorse is a yellow-flowered thorny shrub that gobbles up golf balls and is impossible to play out of – even the name has a nasty ring to it.
Heather another hearty shrub with a mixture of subtle colours commonly grows in rocky areas around the golf course - not a good thing for golfers. “Au natural” pretty much sums up the vegetation at the Old Course.
Augusta National is the polar opposite. It is like walking into a botanical garden, with its signature vegetation being - magnolia trees and the azaleas. The entrance to Augusta is called Magnolia Lane, with 60 magnolia trees planted from seeds in the 1850s, which now create a magical 330-yard (or a short par 4 in golfer lingo) canopy.
Rumour has it that in warm years or when the Masters is later in April, the azaleas are frozen to make sure they bloom at the right time. Also, the course superintendent isn’t afraid to use a bit of green paint to cover up some of the brown or bald spots on the course.
Both the Old Course and Augusta are known for their famous arched stone bridges. The Swilcan Bridge is a small bridge that spans the Swilican Burn (creek) in the fairway between the 1st and 18th hole on The Old Course. It was originally built 700+ years ago to help shepherds get livestock across the burn.
Today, it provides a great backdrop with the grand Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and Hamilton Hall in the background. It is customary for The Open champions to publicly pay homage to the bridge.
In 2010, Tom Watson, a five-time winner of The Open Championship, was captured kissing the bridge by a photographer.
Augusta has three iconic bridges – Hogan, Nelson and Sarazen. The Sarazen Bridge (15th hole) was the first to be dedicated.
In 1955, the 20th anniversary of Gene Sarazen’s famous double-eagle (a two on a par five) that helped him win The Masters in 1935. Both the Hogan and Nelson Bridges were dedicated in 1958 - the Ben Hogan Bridge (12th hole) in recognition of his record low 72 hole round to 274 (-14) in 1950 and Byron Nelson Bridge (13th hole) in honour of Nelson’s 1937 Masters win where he made up six strokes on Holes 12 and 13.
Personally I found it very interesting to gather these factoids that compare two famous golf courses. However in sharing a draft of this blog with a good friend, and golfing buddy he offered a very different, insightful and valid perspective.
“Frankly, the comparison doesn't make a lot of sense to me. To me, the story of the two courses centers around the philosophy and accessibility behind them. St. Andrews is golf for the masses, owned by a public trust, with guaranteed and highly affordable access to all residents. Golfers from everywhere in the world are welcomed with open arms. The course is closed to the golfing public on Sundays and opened to strollers, picnickers, wedding pictures, dog walking, etc. The course is not walled off from the public, and pedestrians can stand along the fairways on the Road Hole and 18 to watch play anytime.
Augusta epitomizes the exclusivity, privilege, and power that golf assumed in North America. Other than a few handpicked members (multi, multi, millionaires as a starting point) and their guests, no one will ever play Augusta. You cannot even drive onto the grounds. And with the exception of the Masters coverage, you cannot even see the course. And in today's world, it likely best explains why golf is failing in North America.”
Last Last Word
After researching and writing this blog, I have come to the conclusion the Old Course at St. Andrews is a masculine course (raw, scruffy, and natural) while Augusta is more feminine (beautiful, curved and manicured). More on this male, female thing in a future blog.
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