Anyone who started competing in the Masters during the early 1970s might think the Augusta National Golf Club was always in immaculate condition. Masters champions like Jack Nicklaus, Bob Goalby and Gary Player know better.
"When I look at these beautiful fairways and greens ... (Arnold) Palmer, Nicklaus and myself never had the opportunity to play under such conditions when we were winning," Player said.
Says Nicklaus, "They used to put a lot of money into it (the course) but never got much out of it. It was just like everybody else did. But as technology improved for golf clubs, technology has improved unbelievably for maintenance equipment."
Player said at one time the Augusta National fairways were some of the worst the pros played each year.
"That may be an exaggeration, but Augusta's fairways weren't very good," Nicklaus said. "You didn't know what they would be from year to year. The common Bermuda grass they had would be very skinny when they scraped it down. In 1965, I shot a (then-tournament record) 17-under-par 271. In 1966 I won a playoff after shooting 288. That's 17 shots higher. And the difference was the fairways."
Goalby said the worst fairway in those days was on the seventh hole, a short par-4.
"You couldn't even get on the green from the bottom of No. 7," Goalby said. "They had a one-row watering system 40 years ago. If the wind blew, they didn't get any bermuda growth at all. Believe me, you were on bare mud all the time."
Two other trouble spots were the back nine par-5s, Nos. 13th and 15th.
"On those holes, it wasn't whether you could reach the green (in two shots) or not," Goalby said. "It was whether you had a good enough lie to go for it. I'd hear people say, 'Why don't you go for it?' And we'd say, 'You should have seen my lie.' Now they've got super lies out there."
Because of the dodgy lies back then, Goalby says fewer eagles were made on Nos. 13 and 15 than there are today. The reason? Fewer golfers tried to get home in two shots.
"The tees were up farther than they are now, so we'd drive it as far as they do now, but the difference was in the condition of the fairway," Goalby said."
Nicklaus says portions of the 13th fairway are still skinny some years.
"Overall, the fairways are basically the same every year," Nicklaus said. "They are good now."
Golfers like Nick Price, who didn't start playing in the Masters until 1984, have seen photographs and films of the Augusta National when it wasn't the Cathedral in the Pines that it is today.
"I saw some old footage on The Golf Channel the other night," Price said. "They had grass this thick on the greens. Arnold Palmer hit a putt that, I swear, if he hit that putt today he would have putted it clean off the green, into the water."
Compared to other courses on the PGA Tour in the pre-1970s, Augusta National was still among the best conditioned, even if the fairways were inconsistent from year to year.
"The whole winter tour was played on public courses," Goalby recalls. "This was always the first private course you got to. Before we got here, we'd play on rocks sometimes. Down in San Antonio, we teed off on rubber mats at Breckenridge Park for 10 years. They had little tees and was one of the busiest courses in the country, so they played off the mats.
"Back then, we didn't know a golf course could be like this one is now. It's like an automobile. Fifty years ago, they didn't have any idea what an automobile would look like today. We had no idea a golf course could be conditioned like this one. The conditioning got better each year but it didn't get to looking like the carpet that it is now until the early 1970s."