April 13, 2009

Augusta National Is Alister McKenzie's Second Best Course

"Being a Scotsman," McKenzie said, "I am naturally opposed to water in its undiluted state."

Don't get me wrong, I love Augusta National, and I think that the Masters is probably the best run tournament in the world. I also think that Augusta National is an incredible golf course.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I do have to say that I do tire of the endless hyperbole that comes with the Masters. It seems that every other sentence from the announcers must be a sycophantic kiss to the golf course, its upkeep and naturally, its membership. Most all of it is deserved, of coursebut goodness gracious sakes alive, it really goes over the top by about 3pm on Saturday afternoon. Anyone with a television can tell you how fantastic the National is.

Fantastic, But Perhaps Not The Very Best

In my opinion, Augusta National is not even the best golf course that Alister McKenzie designed. As beautiful as the parklands course of the National is, it is surpassed in almost every phase of the game by Cypress Point in California. That's because Alistair McKenzie was heavily influenced by St. Andrews' Old Course, and like the Old Course, Cyprus Point sits aside the sea. And the sea adds a dimension that simply is not available to Augusta National. To pay homage to the Old Course without the elements of the sea is like asking Van Gogh to paint without using yellow or blue paint.

The sea, they say, is as capricious as any woman, liable to change its mood on a whim and with no notice. And near Monterey Bay, where upwelling ocean currents mix with relatively warmer shallower waters, that romantic description is incredibly accurate. The weather can change from hole to hole on courses located along the bay and its nearby waters. This adds another layer of complexity to Cyprus Point and requires a flexibility and adaptability rarely needed at inland courses.

If you like #12 at the National, and if you love Amen Corner, consider #16 and #17 at Cypress Point. Not only are the holes more dramatic, they also have an additional element the National can never have: seaside winds that can be as gentle as a butterfly kiss or as raw as a hurricane's fury. And that's on the same afternoon. Anyone who has played Cyprus will tell you: any golfer - and that's any golfer - will need every bit of their game to get round and score on those links.

Consider this: how rousing would it be to watch the pros hit driver on a 3-Par with a major on the line? That's often the case at Cyprus's #16. That, my friends, is goat or glory riding on a single swing and a rub of the green. And don't think that the course is only those holes -- it's an 18 hole roller coaster than makes its brother down the street, Pebble Beach, look easy by comparison.

Also consider this: Cyprus Point is so exclusive a club they feel no need whatsoever to host a tournament and display their embarrassment of golf riches. They used to, back when the Tour was smaller, and Cyprus was part of the rota of courses for the old Crosby. After 1990, however, Cyprus members said, "thanks but no thanks" to diversity requirements by the PGA Tour. This is a threat oft-made by the Men of the Masters, but it is one that has been carried out by the members of Cyprus.

I also find it deeply ironic that Cyprus was created at the behest of a woman, Marion Hollins. Hollins and Mackenzie built Cypress together. Now, in our supposedly enlightened time, the beauty and challenge of Cyprus Point is the exclusive domain of men - on a course founded by a woman. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

(For the record, I think that the 250-odd members of Cyprus Point were wrong to take the tack they did. I personally would never be a member of a club where minorities or women weren't allowed as full and regular members. It's the 21st century, not 1935, and it is time to go up and accept people for what their character is, not their color or sex.)

The 1990 decision was a shame from golf's point of view: now golf fans only know Cyprus through iconic photos, thus missing one of the world's gems. And depending on the conditions, Cyprus gave a pro a chance to shoot in the fifties -- or over 100. Depending, of course, on the weather and on the golfer's skill grappling with Old Man Par on a masterpiece of a golfing test.

I'd love to see a US Open battled at Cyprus. Sure, it would need to be lengthened from its current length of 6,600 yards, and the members will never do it, even if it were possible. Besides, I doubt Cypress's members would ever let the USGA come in an monkey with their course the way they do for any course hosting a US Open. But I can dream.

For that matter, I would love to see The Open at Old Head or the European Club, but that's just me. More about that when the time draws closer.

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