The Sheen of Augusta

Walking the lush fairways and playing the holes that he had watched for 20 years on television was a dream come true for Lukas Michel. Through more than a dozen rounds at Augusta, he discovered its intricacies and secrets, and eventually rubbed off some of the blinding lustre of the ‘Augusta Sheen’.
Written & Photographed by Lukas Michel


My first time on site at Augusta National was in December 2019. I’d come off a run of my best ever golf, including a historic win at the US Mid-Amateur (the first ever international champion), a runner-up at the Victorian Amateur, and a T21 finish at the Australian Open. Ostensibly, the purpose of travelling halfway around the world for just three days on the ground was for tournament preparation as a ‘Masters Invitee’. The goal was to scout the course to best prepare my game for the event. The real draw, however, was the opportunity to play a course I’d dreamed about for my whole life.

On day two of my visit, the reality of my hard work and good fortune was crystallised in one beautiful moment. On that day, I was the first player on course; and a 7:30am call time had me teeing off just a few minutes after sunrise. I recall walking to the first tee and facing out to the 9th, 2nd, and 7th greens. The warm glow of the sun had just broken through over the glossy, dew covered fairways, casting a golden light on the scene in front of me. As I rounded the crest of the second hole, the dew had begun lifting off the ground, creating a foggy mist that was illuminated by beams of light breaking through the Georgia Pines. At that moment it dawned on me: I was playing golf at Augusta National, by myself, as a Masters Invitee.

Though I had to wait another 11 months to realise my dreams of playing the tournament proper (thanks COVID!), I had further opportunities to play the course. In early March, I played three more days of golf whilst staying in Butler cabin. I returned in November, for a disappointing (but not embarrassing) tournament week, shooting 76-74 to miss the cut. All-up I played the course 14 times. This was on top of the countless hours spent looking at yardage books, Google Earth, and watching the replays from prior years. I even bought the 2014 EA Sports game which featured Augusta National to study the course during the lockdowns that prevented me from practicing for real. 

As I spent more and more time studying and playing the course – with a keen eye for golf architecture and design – I was struck by two competing perspectives that were growing in my mind. The first was developing a stronger appreciation for the design.

While the back-nine clearly has some of the most thrilling and famous holes in golf, the course is strong throughout. Holes 3, 5, 6 and 14 stood out to me as underappreciated, and up with the best on the course with repeat play. For the tournament player, the 3rd hole is one of the few short par-4s in golf where there is a good balance between risk and reward. In the modern era, it almost always pays to play aggressively on holes like this and get up as close to the green as possible. But playing the 3rd, I couldn’t quite make up my mind on what to do. This uncertainty is created by the wicked false front, where even good drives will finish well below, leaving an extremely awkward pitch to a heavily right-to-left sloped J-shaped green. It’s just not a place you want to be. Laying back leaves a simpler approach, but being further away from the hole is rarely a good thing. Despite the temptation to hit driver, when the thought of that awkward pitch comes to mind, the attraction of laying back can be too strong. The balance is truly perfect.

On holes, 5, 6, and 14, the diversely contoured greens require exacting approach play and recovery. There is also immense variety from day-to-day, with the movement of the pin affecting strategy, angles of attack, and club selection like few other places. The 5th green is characterised by a strong landform that extends from the front left, through the middle, creating a two-tiered target with a bunker hiding at its back left. The 6th, on the other hand, is more softly contoured, but tilted heavily from back to front. In my second tournament round, I hit what I thought was a perfect shot to a rear right pin, only to miss my landing point by about 3 feet. This left me with a massive lag putt from off the front edge, while 3 feet further would have resulted in a makeable birdie putt. The 14th, like the 5th, has bolder internal contouring that follows the natural grade of the land from left to right. A cascading series of interesting pin positions flow down from the back left to back right of the green. While being challenging greens to putt on, they also place emphasis on approach play and recovery like almost no other course I can think of (Royal Melbourne may be the closest comparison).

But for all the ways that I better understood and appreciated the course with repeat play, the second and competing perspective that emerged over time was a slight dulling of the Augusta National lustre. This was a glossy coating that had built up in my mind over the 20 years of my golfing life. Every year’s flawless Masters coverage, the shots of its immaculate conditioning, the words of acclaim from golfers’ whose opinions I held in highest regard, had created a lustrous varnish across all 18 of those rollicking fairways. But with every footstep I took on property, that varnish got rubbed back a little, and I was able to see the course more and more for what it is.

The course at Augusta National is not perfect. It is not the first on my list that I want to return to play – and it might not even be in the top 10. And in its current form, I don’t believe it sets a good example for our sport on its biggest stage. But none of these statements mean that I do not think it is a fantastic venue to host the most famous event in golf – it absolutely is. 

For me, the complicating factor for Augusta National is that last sentence – ‘hosting the most famous event in golf’.

While the back-nine clearly has some of the most thrilling and famous holes in golf, the course is strong throughout, and holes 3, 5, 6 and 14 stood out as underappreciated, and up with the best on the course with repeat play.

Lukas Michel

On my first visit to Augusta National I was toured around the whole property by the head pro. The clubhouse, pro shop, and dining spaces could be mistaken for any other top club. But not everything else. We drove past building after building, which formed a compound reminiscent of a wealthy American suburb-themed movie set. Clearly running golf’s biggest event is a massive undertaking, and with that comes its challenges. 

For one, the course is tasked with providing a good test for the best players in the world, which is becoming increasingly difficult. MacKenzie and Jones couldn’t have predicted the distances that modern players hit the ball when they set out to design the course in the early 1930s. In fact, MacKenzie wrote about designing to allow for lengthening as one of his 13 Principles of Golf Architecture.

“…the course should be arranged so that in the first instance there is always a slight walk forwards from the green to the next tee, then the holes are sufficiently elastic to be lengthened in the future if necessary.” 

Dr. Alister MacKenzie, 1930

With nowhere further to take the tees back, Augusta has resorted to buying up neighbouring property to move tees back far enough for the modern game. When the club opened, it tipped out at about 6800 yards – long for its time. Today it’s been stretched to 7500 yards – an increase of approximately 10%. By comparison, over the same time period the driving distance of elite players has increased from approximately 240 to 295 yards – a greater than 20% increase.

So, despite the club’s best efforts to lengthen the course, its scale has been distorted by modern driving distances. To combat this, the committee has taken other measures to increase the difficulty of the golf course for the players. There are far too many changes to go through individually (and this Golf Digest article does a great job at summarising them all). However, in short: holes have gotten longer; fairways have gotten narrower; and greens have gotten smaller.

Additionally, maintenance practices have also evolved. One such change was to the bermudagrass fairway turf, which is now oversewn with rye grass and mown towards the tee. Both factors reduce the amount of bounce and roll of the ball and were practices introduced in the 1960s. Another change is green speed which, with the conversion to bentgrass greens in the 1980s, has increased the difficulty of the dramatically contoured surfaces. There has also been the addition of rough and increased vegetation (trees and bushes) which has added further penalty for errant shots.

Overall, the character of the golf course has been drastically altered in the fight to keep up with advances in the way the modern game is played. But with the objective of hosting a tournament like the Masters, is it even possible to present a course that tests the modern player, but remains true to the vision of its famous architect? Is it even important? 

In a recent episode of The Fried Egg podcast hosted by Andy Johnson, Tom Doak posits that ‘…there should be a handful of any designer’s best work that you don’t mess with too much’. Given the conflicting objectives at play here, I don’t think it’s reasonable for Augusta National to reverse course and faithfully restore the holes to be a living example of MacKenzie’s work (Alwoodley, The Valley Club, Cypress Point, Royal Melbourne, and Pasatiempo will have to carry the torch here).

I see room for the greatest improvement in the presentation and aesthetic of the golf course. Augusta has formed a reputation for its perfect conditioning. Quite literally, it’s difficult to find a stray pine cone, or crooked blade of grass amongst the sprawling 345 acre property – trust me, I’ve looked! It certainly is incredible to witness first hand, and TV does a great job at showing this level of perfection to its audience. However, I wonder if this is really a positive thing for golf? Does the perfection of Augusta set unrealistic expectations for golf courses around the world?

If it was simply expectations for the way the golf course plays (generally firm, fast, and true), this wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But unfortunately, it’s the visuals of bright green oversewn fairways, the highly curated flowering gardens, and blinding white bunker sand that are most prominent to the golfing audience. As for non-golfers tuning in, is this really what we want to be showing off to our largest viewership? In a world increasingly focused on sustainability and reductions in chemical and water use, such displays of extreme resource extravagance only do further harm to golf’s poor image.

What then, if Augusta skipped the oversew, cut the fairways tighter, and burned them out, promoting the ground game? Yes, we’d see more rollout on some tee shots, but it would also make several drives more challenging. For holes like 9, 11, and 14, balls could run away from the ideal line rather than settling safely near it after they land. Some of the original width of the course could even be restored, as the effective width of certain fairways play much narrower under these conditions.

I’d also move away from the delineation between pine straw and maintained rough, creating a more organic and natural transition from fairway edge out. Additionally, fluffy and dry bermudagrass rough would make for a thrillingly inconsistent penalty for the game’s top players. This type of rough is known to be extremely difficult, due to the looming risk of fliers.

Finally, restoring the bunkers to the shapes and style of MacKenzie’s originals would be an admirable nod to arguably the greatest architect of all time. MacKenzie was probably best known for the character of his bunkers, and believed that “…artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself”. 

Clearly the above suggestions would go some way towards creating a course that is indistinguishable from nature.

There’s a fine line between modernising golf and honouring the vision of those who have shaped the game along the way. No organisation in golf is better positioned than the universally admired Augusta National to shepherd the game into its future. Importantly, it could set a healthy and sustainable example for courses around the world, showing that a course doesn’t have to be bright green, enclosed by flowers, or be manicured to millimetre perfection to provide an interesting and thrilling test of this great game. Indeed, in this case, I would argue that the best way forward is to look back to those who came before.

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