Want to Buy a Building Lot at Augusta National?

Olmsted Brothers’ 1932 Augusta National real-estate development plan. If your eyes are good enough, note the tennis courts and the brand-new clubhouse—none of which were built. Also note the small practice area, between the ninth and eighteenth holes.

Augusta National Golf Club suffered severe financial problems during its first two decades, which coincided with the Great Depression and the Second World War. Its lenders actually foreclosed in 1935, just eight months after Gene Sarazen had seemingly secured the future of both the club and the Masters by hitting “the shot heard round the world.” (I explore those difficulties at some length in The Making of the Masters)

One of the club’s best hopes for raising money in the early years was to sell building lots overlooking the course. Roughly a third of the club’s property was reserved for that purpose, and the lots were delineated and numbered on several early maps, including the plan reproduced above. For the most part, the lots occupied areas west of the second fairway and east of the tenth and eleventh. (Note to Laurentius: The spot where Rory McIlroy’s yanked tee shot on the tenth hole ended up during the final round of the 2011 Masters was near the edge of Lot No. 1.)

The club’s development plan, which was created by the landscape architecture firm Olmsted Brothers, called for two dozen building sites, and additional acreage was reserved for more. Most of the lots were between three and five acres; the largest, No. 6, was twelve acres. The club actively tried to sell those lots or others for more than twenty years. Boundary lines were cleared, access roads were built, lots were numbered with signs that faced the roads, and a major, continuing effort was made to stir up sales—all without success. In the early 1930s, W. Montgomery Harison, an early member, bought three adjoining lots just beyond the first green, but he was the only taker. He built a huge brick mansion, which stood until 1977, and the elder of his two sons built a much smaller house next door. (Harison’s younger son, Phil, was the tournament’s official starter for more than sixty years. He died 2008, at the age of 82. His own son is a member now.)

W. Montgomery Harison’s house overlooking Augusta National’s first green, during the Masters in 1941. (The photographer was standing near the ninth green and looking up the first fairway.) The house was torn down in 1977.

After the war, the club briefly considered leasing or renting the remaining lots, at annual charges ranging from $250 to $500 a year. When no enthusiasm for that idea was evident, the club gave up on the original subdivision and for four or five years pursued a more modest development plan in a different location. This new subdivision—which was to be called De Soto Trail—was situated just east of the area now occupied by the par 3 course. It consisted of twenty-four lots, most of them about a half-acre, and was targeted not at club members but at local middle-income families. To avoid the expense of building an access road and installing utilities, the club in 1949 offered the entire parcel to Augusta real-estate agents. There were no bids. The club then tried without success to sell the lots individually. Late in 1952, a developer offered $18,000 for fifteen acres. Roberts viewed that figure as too low, and the club eventually abandoned the entire idea.

Today, golf fans and even club members are almost always amazed to learn that Augusta National, in more than twenty years of conscientious effort, could turn up only one buyer interested in building a house near what today may be most fabled golf course in the world. If the same lots were offered for sale today, the bids would undoubtedly be astronomical. The failure of the real-estate projects underscores the immensity of the challenge that Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, Augusta National’s founders, faced in nearly every area of the club’s operation. As late as the early 1950s, Roberts couldn’t get local real-estate developers to return his calls.

It was only in the mid-1950s—when the tournament was securely established, and both the club and the country were on better financial footing—that Roberts began to view all development ideas as a mistake. A local club member named Julian Roberts (no relation) eventually bought Harison’s property and later sold it back to the club. One of Clifford Roberts’s last acts before taking his life, in 1977, was to walk to the first tee with the help of a waiter so that he could look up the fairway and assure himself that the house had been torn down.