National Is Not Augusta’s Only Distinguished Presence

Considering its pedigree and its next-door proximity to a golf temple, Augusta Country Club (ACC), right on the other side of Rae’s Creek from Augusta National, has always maintained a low profile. Which seems to be the way they like it.

This writer visited ACC with a group of media marking the culmination of a restoration project just before the 2002 Masters. By coincidence, the club’s distinguished neighbor had just undergone a 400-yard lengthening, the sort of adjustment to be repeated before subsequent installments of the tournament.

Alterations to ACC provided an interesting counterpoint on “modernizing” the course. In this case, rather than worry about becoming “obsolete” — the standard expression of concern among older, classic tracks — the design principle was to take the course back to the future, consistent with Donald Ross’s 1927 vision.  (Having first opened in 1897, ACC actually predates Ross’s arrival in the area, at which time he devised the existing configuration of the course.)

The project was overseen by Brian Silva, then a principal in Uxbridge, Massachusetts-based Cornish Silva Mungeam, Inc. (he is now the proprietor of Brian Silva Design) with an extensive portfolio of Ross renovation projects – including Seminole Golf Club in North Palm Beach, Florida, Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, North Carolina, and Old Elm Golf Club in Chicago, among others.

“We have the plans; let’s put everything back as Ross first conceived it,” recalls Silva of his proposal to the ACC members, noting that Ross’s original drawings and handwritten notes were obtained from the Tufts Archive in Pinehurst. The membership agreed.

The hottest ticket in town for non-pros during Masters week, the renovated ACC is a joy to play and an object lesson that, in golf course architecture at least, ‘classic’ is not synonymous with ‘antiquated.’  A par 71 of 6,500 yards and change from the back tees – they’ve added several tee boxes since the 2002 renovation, but mostly for increased playability – it is not long, nor is it extremely tight.

There are few forced carries, and most approach shots have “alleys” to allow you to bump-and-run or to carry the putting surface on the fly.  There’s almost no water, no bells and whistles, not even signs.

Yet there is intrigue aplenty, especially thanks to Ross’s often-precipitously and multifariously contoured greens and the aprons surrounding them, which force players to choose among a chip, a putt, or a pitch.  The value of “blowing by” a bunker is somewhat undermined, since, while some cross-bunkers are positioned in landing areas, a series of randomly placed bunkers – another classic design element – await even the longest hitters.

True, unlike its better-known neighbor, ACC’s objective was not to prepare for a major but to enhance members’ playing experience and preserve its rich history, of which the place fairly reeks.  One of the best examples Ross’s work in the South, ACC also has a tournament tradition of its own.  In 1930, several years before he would found Augusta National, Bobby Jones began his Grand Slam year at ACC with a 13-shot victory over Horton Smith in the inaugural Southeastern Open.

Winners of The Women’s Titleholders Championship, held at ACC from 1937 to 1966, include Patty Berg, Louise Suggs, Babe Didrickson Zaharias, Peggy Kirk Bell, Mickey Wright, and Kathy Whitworth.

Larry Mize moved over to Augusta National after winning the Masters in 1988, but he remains an honorary member at ACC, where he caddied during the 1971 USGA Girls’ Junior Championship, when Hollis Stacey beat Amy Alcott.  Charles Howell III, who grew up on the ACC course, made his Masters debut in 2002 and hopes one day to duplicate Mize’s feat.

As Silva points out, though, ACC’s “update” of its Ross treasure is about more than just tournament toughness.

“The desire to keep up with changes in the game is understandable and by no means all bad,” Silva observes, “but what’s sometimes lost is a certain amount of fun.  We wanted to put fun back into the equation.”

ACC also added a distinctly contemporary feature – a two-acre short-game practice facility, a clever use of limited space. A visit to Augusta Country Club is worthwhile, Masters or no.

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