I’m sharing my secrets to enjoying The Masters based on my eight trips to this iconic tournament.
I’ve been to Augusta National to watch The Masters Golf Tournament eight times, and I can tell you it’s everything you’d imagine it to be. The Masters experience is like no other in golf. For most of us, it’s a dream come true. The history and tradition will surely deliver a precious memory as you stroll golf’s hallowed ground. But the history of The Masters extends well beyond the grounds of Augusta National, and if you really want to make your visit special, you might just get to play a little golf where The Masters champions historically teed it up before they played at Augusta. If you’re a student of golf history, read on.
Just 20 minutes from Augusta National, you’ll find lovely Aiken, South Carolina. It’s a fine southern town with a long history of sleepy southern aristocracy. But it also has Palmetto Golf Club. Founded in 1892, Palmetto is arguably the second oldest golf course in the US. (For trivia fans – Chicago Golf Club is the oldest.) Founded by northern industrialists who formed Aiken’s “Winter Colony”, the course made year-round play possible for those looking to escape the cold. Famed architect Alister MacKenzie redesigned Palmetto after completing his work on Augusta National in 1932. Since then, Rees Jones, Tom Doak, and Gil Hanse have all tuned it up, making it one of the few courses in America to be tinkered with by some of golf’s greatest architects. But Palmetto has another side that links it inextricably to Augusta National’s historic Masters event.
Palmetto’s storied history really began when Harry Vardon visited during his initial trip to America in 1900 – the year he won the US Open at Chicago Golf Club. (During his visit, he was denied access to Palmetto’s clubhouse and was not allowed to wear “plus fours” on the golf course.) Following Vardon, many famed golf notables played frequently at Palmetto, including Augusta’s Bobby Jones. Our favorite story, however, starts in the 40’s when The Masters came into prominence. The purse for The Masters was a paltry $1,500 for many years. As a result, many professionals (Hogan, Nelson, Snead, etc.) would come in early to play in the Devereux Milburn Pro Am at Palmetto. Rumor has it the Calcutta at Palmetto dwarfed the purse at Augusta by many multiples and attracted journeymen golfers seeking fame and fortune from all over.
Based on all this golf history, we couldn’t wait to play there. (While Palmetto is a private club, they do allow limited outside play during Masters week.) Three years ago, we arrived during a driving rainstorm. It didn’t look good. We tucked into the cozy lounge and filled up on $1 hotdogs and $2 beers (their standard price at Palmetto) while we waited for the skies to clear. They didn’t. Two hours into our wait, an older gentleman wandered in and joined us for a beer. He was a member at Palmetto for decades and proudly held court on the club’s history. “Most people don’t know that, in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, the Masters purse was only $1,500,” he said. “Most of those boys would come in a few days early and play the Calcutta at Palmetto for the big money. So we had ‘em all here. All the great ones. Here at Palmetto.”
As lovers of golf history, he had us. At his urging, we retired to the men’s locker room. He produced a bottle of scotch, a putter, and a ball. We enjoyed an epic putting contest all over the locker room (which he won) and listened to his endless tales of pre-Master’s hijinks that made us feel like we were there watching while it happened. A wonderful afternoon of golf without the golf.
When we finally left the locker room, it was still pouring. It wasn’t going to happen. The next day the sun came out, and we spent a glorious day at Augusta National watching golf’s greats.
The next year, we called Palmetto to see if our friend might meet us there for a drink before our round. Sadly, he had passed away during the prior year. But the staff and members of Palmetto Golf Club welcomed us to play a round in his honor. And it was fantastic. All mounds and slopes and undulations, the Course requires golfers to make both bold and careful shots to score. The fairways are generous and the rough is fair, but the greens are the real defense of the course. Three putts are commonplace. Just like Augusta National. It’s a genuine delight and not to be missed.
Perhaps the greatest compliment for Palmetto Golf Club came from the Chairman of Bobby Jones’ Executive Committee at Augusta. In 1933, he told Alister MacKenzie, “We have only one serious complaint to make against you regarding the Augusta National. That layout you designed at Aiken is liked so well that the Aiken colony does not seem to be the least bit interested in coming over to Augusta National.”