Augusta’s secret routes

The challenge remains the same today as it was when it opened. Jock Howard reveals the way MacKenzie and Jones intended the course to be played – and the secrets to scoring well.

Fashions come and go, technology moves forward and golfers change – but Augusta National has stood the test of time as one of the greatest layouts in the world.

This is largely down to the fact that the challenge designers Dr Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones envisioned and created in the early 1930s remains fundamentally unchanged today. It’s a design that tests every facet of the best players in the world and forces them intently to analyse every shot they play and execute it to near-perfection. Make bad choices and errant swings and you will be punished. But understand the design philosophies behind one of the most revered courses in golf and you’ll discover the road to Masters success – Augusta’s secret routes.

MacKenzie and Jones complemented each other perfectly. Jones’ brilliance as a player meant that he had a unique understanding of how the elite player would think and how the ball reacted once it hit the ground. MacKenzie’s brilliance as a designer and his fascination with camouflage from his time spent serving in the Boer War meant he was able to take the greatest possible advantage of the natural terrain and beauty of the former nursery land. And they both agreed on the design philosophies that would underpin their ‘dream’ course.

They wanted the mental challenge to come to the fore in a way that would allow both the elite and the average player to be tested at the same time, over the same piece of land. This was especially important to Jones. Writing in his book Golf is My Game, he said: “The first purpose of any golf course should be to give pleasure, and that to the greatest possible number of players, without respect to their capabilities.” And this fitted perfectly with MacKenzie’s mantra that he tried to build courses “for the most enjoyment for the greatest number”.

Both men also shared a love of St Andrews that prompted the belief that each hole should offer a variety of strategies. The thing that made golf interesting to them was options: let a player judge his own capabilities on any given day, and give him one or two alternate routes. If a player felt strong enough, he should be encouraged to cut the dog-leg (and be rewarded accordingly); but if he felt less sure, he should have other options.

This was precisely what made the Old Course unique in their eyes. Designing was a subtle art. It wasn’t simply about putting hazards out there, and punishing bad shots; more about rewarding good ones. If, for instance, you could gently encourage a player to bravely take on a tricky tee shot, he should be rewarded with an easier second. It wasn’t necessarily the case that holes had to be protected with harsh water hazards, aggressive bunkering and impossible rough. You could just as easily defend a hole with slopes and hollows, which meant a brilliant recovery shot was always possible.

Furthermore, they believed that a shot that was carelessly played, without much thought, deserved to be punished more than the cleverly planned shot that was badly executed.

The result of this agreed thinking was a clear philosophy, as set out here by Jones himself: “With respect to the employment of hazards off the tee and through the green, the doctor and I agreed that two things were essential. First, there must be a way for those unwilling to attempt the carry; and second, there must be a definite reward awaiting the man who makes it. Without the alternative route, the situation is unfair. Without the reward, it is meaningless.

Augusta Plan

“There are two ways of widening the gap between a good tee shot and a bad one. One is to inflict a severe and immediate punishment on a bad shot, to place its perpetrator in a bunker or in some other trouble, which will demand the sacrifice of a stroke in recovering. The other is to reward the good shot by making the second simpler in proportion to the excellence of the first. The reward may be of any nature, but it is more commonly one of four – a better view of the green, an easier angle from which to attack a slope, an open approach past guarding hazards, or even a better run to the tee shot itself. But the elimination of purely punitive hazards provides an opportunity for the player to retrieve his situation by an exceptional second shot.” 

Experience is often cited as pre-requisite for success at Augusta – and that’s no accident. The best way of playing each hole is not obvious and many of the shots required are not commonly used in modern golf. But experience and understanding enables a player to identify the best strategy on each hole.

Seven of the original greens (1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 14th and 17th) were designed to favour a running approach; only experience could teach you its optimum angle. Nine of the originals MacKenzie cited as having specific characteristics of famous British holes. The par-3 4th, for instance, has many similarities with the 11th on the Old Course at St Andrews. It might be inland Georgia, but this was not designed to be traditional American target golf – and shot selection into the firm and fast greens must reflect this.

There are optimum clear routes from every fairway, into every hole. The better the tee shot you hit, the easier your approach will be. Nowhere is this more obvious than at the par-5 13th, where you’re faced with the momentous decision on the tee of whether or not to attack the corner of the dog-leg. If you take on the carry over the trees and creek, and play a good shot, you’ll be rewarded with a shorter second shot from a flattish lie. A safer drive out right increases the length of the second shot; and in addition, you have to deal with a tricky sidehill lie.

The decision on whether or not to go for the green with your second is just as puzzling and complex. The contours of the green mean that an eagle is a distinct possibility if the pin is back right and you go for it in two, but Rae’s Creek or a tough bunker shot down a fast slope towards the water awaits if you get it wrong. The reward for brave play is enticing; the penalty severe.

“I have always said that this can be a very easy golf course, or a very tough one,” said Jones. “There isn’t a hole out there that can’t be birdied if you just think. But there isn’t one that can’t be double bogeyed if you stop thinking.”

And that is the nature of MacKenzie and Jones’ genius. On every tee, the world’s best stand on the brink of a momentous birdie or eagle or a potential calamity. Find the correct options – take advantage of Augusta’s secret routes – and you could find yourself slipping into a Green Jacket come Sunday evening.


Alister MacKenzie’s early course notes identify the risk and reward strategy he envisioned for these par 4s.

Augusta Holes

The opening hole is a traditionally tough start to the round. MacKenzie designed the hole so players must skirt trouble on the right to leave a favourable approach.

Originally designed to receive a running shot up the hollow short of the green; but the addition of bunkers at the front means it now needs a flighted approach.

The easier drive to the centre or right of the fairway brings the water into play on the approach but a bold and long drive down the left opens up the green.

Augusta Holes

A long drive skirting the trees on the right leaves a visible shot to the green, but it’s a semi-blind approach from the middle or left-hand side of the fairway.

This is another hole originally designed to receive a run-up shot. Even though the bunker has taken this out of play, the best angle in is still from the right of the fairway. 

A great risk-and-reward tee shot. A long drive up the right leaves a straightforward approach; a simpler tee shot to the left forces you to play in over a large bunker. 


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