The Masters became a nearly-instant success because of major league baseball. Of course baseball and golf have been long connected. A ballplayer swinging a club is more common a photo than a golfer in a batting cage, but not by much. When I worked for a baseball team, the manager and coaches would make sure there was room for their clubs in the bus every trip, and a road trip that didn’t include a few rounds was a failed road trip, no matter how the ballclub fared. When asked by his friend Ted Williams to explain the difference between hitting a baseball and hitting a golf ball, Sam Snead said golf was harder because “golfers have to play their foul balls.”
Snead was an honorary starter at the Masters for nearly 20 years, an event he won three times. By the time he won his first Masters in 1949 the event had only been around 15 years yet was already one of the premier golf events in the world. Its quick growth was due to the intelligence of Augusta National Golf Club’s co-founder, the great Bobby Jones, and his business and media vision.
As the only man to win golf’s Grand Slam in one year (although, since The Masters didn’t exist, the Slam consisted of winning the British Amateur and Open titles and the US Open and Amateur titles, which he did in 1930), Jones was followed extensively by the media while a player. When building Augusta National with Clifford Roberts and designer Alister Mackenzie in the middle of the Great Depression, they realized that a tournament would help the fledgling club in many ways. Jones asked the PGA for permission to hold a U.S. Open, but the request was denied because Georgia is kind of a hot and humid place in the summer, not the ideal conditions for a golf tournament.
So Jones and Roberts decided to create their own tournament, and asked several golf friends to play in it, thus from the beginning it was an “invitational-only” tournament. Jones also wanted media coverage of the tournament. He knew that newspapers would be likely to show up just because it was a Bobby Jones Tournament. Roberts convinced him that if he played in it, it would result in even more attention. If the biggest golf star today retired, built his own course, started a tournament there and came out of retirement to play in it, you bet the media would show up in droves. Same idea in the 1930’s with Bobby Jones.
But unlike today, transportation was difficult. It took several days to take the train across the country (it still does) and air travel was in its infancy. Somebody at Augusta National realized that after covering spring training in Florida, all the baseball writers would be heading north through Georgia at the end of March and beginning of April in preparation for Opening Day. Remember, at the time the Major League season did not start until mid-April, and the teams often barnstormed their way up north, meaning there was about a two- or three- week break between the end of spring training and the beginning of the season.
Jones and Roberts therefore decided to hold their new tournament during that two-week break, while the writers were all heading north on the train from Florida to New York and Boston and St. Louis and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and Cleveland and Washington, D.C. It would be easy for all the top sportswriters in America to get off the train and cover “The Augusta National Invitational,” as it was known until 1940. And they did, although in the first playing of 1934 it was because of Jones and not the tournament. But still, they wrote about it. As a result, golfers wanted to be invited to the next year’s playing, if only to play with Jones, and people wanted to know about it.
The 1935 tournament helped The Invitational gain traction as an event independent of Jones. That’s because of Gene Sarazen’s double-eagle on 15- only three have been made during the tournament since- in the final round to tie him with Craig Wood, and the resulting 36-hole playoff, which Sarazen won by five strokes. It was extensively chronicled by the sportswriters and helped immensely in the aura of the tournament. The double-eagle became known as “the shot heard ‘round the world,” (because the media likes to make sports events bigger than life) and in golf circles it still is, although most people think of baseball and Bobby Thomson when it comes to “the shot heard ‘round the world.” If you want to get historical about it, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie in July 1914 is also known as “the shot heard ‘round the world,” for the small conflict that happened as result of it, and the phrase is also given to the first battles of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord. Among other things.
It may have been intended as a one-year thing, but it quickly became obvious that Bobby Jones’ tournament was a money-maker. Jones and Roberts had the course re-done extensively in the early years to make sure that golfers and sportswriters would keep coming back. The back nine and front nine were flipped beginning with the 1935 tournament, and remain so to this day. Can you imagine Amen Corner being holes three through five instead of 11 to 13?
In a large part, the tournament has baseball and spring training to thank for its early popularity. Although Sarazen only won the 1935 edition, for many years he was an honorary starter at Augusta, partnered with Sam Snead. Golfers may have to play their foul balls but there are few better places, if any, to hit them than at Augusta National Golf Course, especially in early April.