41-Year Journey at Augusta National

By Richard Hurley, PhD
Turfgrass Specialist 
Center for Turfgrass Science
Rutgers University, Retired

(Richard Hurley is a GHS member who was also the turfgrass specialist for the new Bayonne Golf Club in Bayonne, N.J. His book Bayonne Golf Club, which chronicles the building of this course, was reviewwed in The Golf, No. 1, Autumn 2018.)

As the 2019 Masters Tournament week draws near, I cannot help but think how much the Augusta National Golf Club has been a focal point for me, each April, as springtime arrives.

I would like to share my Augusta National and Masters Tournament journey.  The year 1978 was the start of having the opportunity to attend 41 consecutive Masters, first as a part of the “Turf Advisory Team,” Official Observer – as was designated on my Masters Tournament badge, and as a Masters Golf Course Tournament Support volunteer. After 30 years of service, I retired in 2008 from “Tournament Support” and was rewarded with two “Patrons Badges” for the Masters Tournament for as long as I live.   For the past eleven years, I have been attending the Masters as a spectator, telling Masters stories and enjoying the tournament from outside the ropes.

Traveling to Augusta each year to attend the Masters makes me feel like Augusta is my home, at least for one week of the year. That special week is always the first full week of April, when the Masters Tournament is scheduled.  

After all of this time, since the 1970s, I feel I know the golf course better than any other I have played, worked on, or been associated with. I have learned the nuances of the golf course and have implanted in my mind dozens of Masters stories of times past, and over the years have developed a deep respect for the history and tradition of the Augusta National Golf Club and The Masters Golf Tournament.  I have an enduring appreciation for the people I have met along the way who have played a role in making the golf course and the Masters Tournament so admired around the world.   

Over the years, I have been blessed to observe some of the most exciting tournament finishes including, Gary Player overcoming a seven shot deficit to shoot a 64 in the last round and win the Masters; Jack Nicklaus charging on the back nine to win in 1986; the Larry Mize winning pitch in for the 1987 Masters; Ben Crenshaw making the “defining side hill putt” on the 17th green in 1995; in 1997, watching Tiger Woods shoot a 40 on the front nine holes, then play the final 63 holes in 22 under par to win the Masters. 

When Zack Johnson won in 2007, Zack’s caddy, Damon Green, was staying at the house I rented for the tournament week. After Saturday’s third round, Zack was in contention going into the final round. Before retiring for bed, I asked Damon, “Do you think Zack can win the tournament tomorrow?” The answer from Damon was not totally reassuring. However, the next day Zack posted a score of 69 for the win. We now laugh about the little Saturday night conversation before the final round, knowing how Zack closed the deal on Sunday and won the coveted green jacket.

Growing up, my parents lived next to a golf course in New Jersey and I started to play golf at age 12. Playing golf through high school was my love. Caddying at the golf course across the street from my house during my early teen years was a learning experience, as well as working on a golf course maintenance crew during summer breaks and later during college, and occasionally caddying for one of the premier golfers in the world, Bruce Crampton, on the PGA Tour.    

My journey eventually led me to the Augusta National and The Masters. Starting during the early 1970s, while attending college as a turf major, I had my heart set on eventually grooming turf at a prestigious golf course and was on track to become a golf course superintendent.  

I first attended the Masters, as a spectator, in 1973, not only to see the golf tournament but also to visit my friend, Bruce Crampton, the Australian golf pro who had the distinction of winning the Australian Open at age 21. I first met Bruce at the Doral Open while I was a college student in Miami in 1966. A friendship developed and I was able to caddy for Bruce part-time during my college years, both at the Doral Open in Florida and the Dow Jones PGA tour event at Upper Montclair, N.J.  

In 1972, Bruce finished second to Jack Nicklaus at the Masters and was one of the top five golfers in the world during the 1973 Masters Tournament week.  

One of my personal highlights of the 1973 Masters was when Bruce introduced me to Mr. Clifford Roberts, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, and co-founder of the Club. It was gracious to be included in the conversation with Bruce and Mr. Roberts. I already knew that in the early 1930s Mr. Roberts and Robert Tyre Jones (or Bobby Jones, as he was known to the golfing public), co-founded the Club. Those who know golfing history place Jones as one of the greatest golfers of all time, the one who won the “Grand Slam” of golf in 1930 at age 28, then retired from competitive golf.

During that 1973 visit I was also introduced to Bubba Luke, the first golf course superintendent of Augusta National.

In 1978, five years after completing a master’s degree in turf management from the University of Rhode Island, I joined Loft Seed Inc. in New Jersey as director of research and development. Loft Seed was a premier lawn and turf seed company and had been the exclusive supplier of grass seed to Augusta National since the late 1960s.

One reason I took the job was that Peter Loft, the company chairman, encouraged me to enroll at Rutgers University and attain a PhD, studying under Dr. C. Reed Funk, a world-famous turfgrass breeder. Loft’s headquarters was only fifteen minutes from the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, so I could work at Loft’s full-time, direct its turf breeding program and continue research toward the PhD degree in turfgrass.  

This was my life from 1979-1983. There were long days and nights, but the hard work paid off in 1983 when I was awarded my PhD in turfgrass breeding from Rutgers.  

Over the next 25 years my focus was breeding dozens of improved turf grasses. One of them we named “Palmer perennial ryegrass” after Arnold Palmer. Palmer rye was first used at Augusta National in 1983 and was revered for many years for grassing the golf course fairways, tees, and roughs in preparation for golfing season and the annual Masters tournament.      

Peter Loft loved to play golf. One of his closest childhood friends was George Wislar, who was also a classmate at Yale and later a member at Augusta National.  

Loft introduced me to Wislar in 1978 and we enjoyed a close friendship until his passing in late April 2017. George was a very good story teller and, over the years, I heard many tales about Augusta, the course, and amusing member tidbits that occurred during his tenure as a member of the famous Club. From time to time, as his guest, I had the opportunity to play the course and each time greatly enjoyed the experience and his company.  

In 1978 I was invited to join the “Turf Advisory Team” at Augusta National by the Club’s manager, Phil Wahl. Also on the team were Harry Buchanan, chairman of Virginia Chemical, and John L. Murray Jr., of Murray Biscuit Company, at the time the primary supplier of Girl Scout cookies; Dave Spencer, the golf pro at the Augusta National; and Lloyd McKenzie, the golf course superintendent.

The advisory team was later expanded to include Dr. Tim Bowyer, a turf pathologist at the University of Georgia; Dr. Joe Duich of Penn State University; Dr. Coleman Ward, a turf specialist from Mississippi State University; and Palmer Maples, a prominent golf course superintendent from North Carolina. 

We met three or four times a year, on site, to focus on agronomics to produce the best possible playing conditions for the members and for the Masters Week.  

It was the late 1970s. I was a young turf professional, an avid golfer, and now part of a team advising the Augusta National on tournament prep and turf improvement. This was a dream come true.

The late 1970s saw significant improvements in turf management and tournament planning. New and better turf equipment was available, new varieties of grass seed were offered, and there were improvements in irrigation systems. All of these advancements were incorporated into a comprehensive plan for the operation of the golf course. Course maintenance benefitted from more sophisticated mowers to advanced aerification and topdressing machines, and new verticutting equipment. Smaller triplex mowers were now in use, along with new hydraulic-driven mowing reels, and use of new herbicides for weed control and fungicides to control diseases. All of this was happening very quickly and Augusta National wanted to be at the forefront of innovation to produce the best turf conditions possible.

When Billy Fuller arrived as the next Augusta course superintendent in the early 1980s, more agronomic improvements were instituted. By the time Paul Latshaw Sr. arrived as the course superintendent in the mid 1980s the conditions of the golf course for the members and the Masters Tournament had been dramatically improved.  

During the tenures of Fuller and Latshaw things only got better and better, both in day-to-day course preparation and for the members and for Tournament planning.  

In 1986 I discussed with Latshaw the idea of “supplemental lighting” to the 12th green, as the tall pines in back of the green provided excessive shading during the short days of the year, making it harder to maintain a quality putting surface during the winter season.   

Marsh Benson, who succeeded Latshaw, followed through with the idea and consulted with GE to provide the “grow lamps” that are still used today. The grow lamps are of the correct wavelength for photosynthesis to take place in plants. During the fall and winter months the grow lamps are used, as needed, late in the day after play. Mounted on platforms with rubber tires, the lights are rolled onto the green and positioned approximately six feet about the surface. The units are removed before the next morning. The grow lamp experiment has been helpful, allowing the turf on the twelfth green to have sufficient light during the short days of winter.

Going into the 1990s the team of Marsh Benson and Brad Owen continued to institute best practices for maintaining turf and tournament preparation. Regular “Turf Advisory” meetings were no longer needed as management of Augusta’s course agronomics were now in the hands of a most capable team.

During the 1990s I transitioned to assisting with on-course tournament preparations during Masters week. This was a Sunday-to-Sunday endeavor in cooperation with approximately one hundred seasoned volunteers who support the regular full-time golf course maintenance staff.  The “Tournament Support Volunteers,” as they are known, include very talented golf course superintendents, university turf specialists, equipment supplier technical staff, and others who have a vast range of golf tournament experience. Volunteers assist with mowing, cup changing, raking bunkers, and all other activities that must be accomplished each day to present the course to the world during Masters Week.

One perk to being a volunteer is an invitation to play the Augusta National Golf Club each year, at the end of May, immediately after the course is closed to the membership for the summer.

As I get ready to pack for visiting Augusta the first week of April 2019, I cannot help but reflect on my 41 consecutive Masters tournaments, 42 in total counting the 1973 Masters when Bruce Crampton introduced me to Mr. Clifford Roberts, chairman of Augusta National.  

Over the years of my career as a turfgrass breeder and as a golf turf specialist, assisting with tournament preparations and maintenance staffs, I have had the pleasure to meet and work with some of the finest and most competent individuals in the turf industry. Many of those individuals I would see each April at the Masters Tournament, on the golf course, volunteering to make The Masters as good as it could be for the members and the players.

I have great admiration for Brad Owen, who has been the golf course superintendent for many years, and Marsh Benson, recently retired after the 2015 Masters, who is now in an executive long-range planning position with the Club. Both are good friends whom I respect and greatly admire.  

At this time (April 2019) I am a lucky man to have experienced a generation of Masters memories. My goal is to continue to attend the Masters Tournament each April, at least to 2034, which will be the 100th anniversary of The Masters, and would be my 57th Masters Tournament.