Masters Golf

Rafa Cabrera-Bello hits a chip shot on the third hole during a practice round Monday at Augusta National Golf Club.

Time and time again people have asked me to tell them if ice is used at the Augusta National Golf Club to delay the bloom time of the azaleas.

Most have asked me this question as soon as they learn that I had at one time worked on the nursery crew at this famous golf course. The question is usually asked with an aside, “Is this why the Augusta National is so beautiful with the azaleas blooming right at Masters time, and are they keeping this horticultural practice a secret?”

Until writing this I have kept quiet and not answered this question for anyone and have thus kept this secret. During my one year as an employee of this club with its beautiful course that was the brainchild of Georgia’s Bobby Jones, the people who asked me knew that I certainly had the opportunity to obtain an accurate answer to their question, even though I would not tell them.

They were right about my being in a position to find out as my nursery work took me all over this course and even into the “cabins” used by the members of this exclusive club. All the azaleas on the entire course were met by me a number of times during that year in the regular day-to-day work of feeding, pruning, mulching and checking these plants.

Then there was the day that, with another member of the nursery crew, we fed almost every azalea on that entire 18-hole course! (The two of us did not feed any of the azaleas on the Par 3 course.) That day we spread almost a ton of plant food! So in my regular work at the National I got to know their azaleas quite well.

What I learned by questioning my fellow employees and my boss about the horticultural practices used allowed me to come to a good and what I believe is an accurate and truthful answer to give these curious folks. However, before letting you know what was learned about the use of ice, please allow me to share with you a little background about the “course that Bobby built.” I will also give you a little of the history behind the plants that were selected for the course and the man with a Rome connection who did it. That way my answer will have more meaning.

The architect for this course was a team effort by Bobby Jones and a British man by the name of Dr. Alister MacKenzie, who had at one time been a practicing physician in his home country. This doctor gave up his medical practice for a most unusual reason — the game of golf was curing more of his high-strung executive patients than his medicines!

He is quoted as saying: “How frequently have I, with great difficulty, persuaded patients who were never off my doorstep to take up golf, and how rarely, if ever, I have ever seen them in my consulting room again.”

After closing his practice, MacKenzie started designing golf courses in his native England and eventually all around the world. During his lifetime he was the architect and designer of more than 50 courses, including golf courses in Argentina, Ireland, Uruguay, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The last course he worked on, to the best of my knowledge, was Augusta National. Of the many links he designed in the United States are the famous Cypress Point Club in Monterey, California, and Pasatiempo at Santa Cruz.

When Bobby Jones retired from golf in the 1930’s after all his success as an amateur, he chose Augusta as the place where he wanted to construct probably what was his dream golf course. He said that it would be America’s answer to the Old Course in Scotland where the game of golf began. Augusta was selected as the site rather than his hometown of Atlanta because in Augusta the milder climate allowed the golfers to have more days throughout the year to play the game.

The site for what would eventually become Augusta National had been first an indigo plantation in the 1800’s and then the location of one of the most successful nurseries in the United States — the old Fruitland Nurseries. It was from the expertise of the owners of this business that the real beauty of this golf course began, not the architects.

The story of the man who made these selections, certainly with the assistance of his family, is interesting and demonstrates how so many pieces came together to make Augusta National the beautiful course that it is today. Back in the 1800’s a family named Berckmans migrated from Belgium to the United States and settled in New Jersey. The father was trained as a horticulturist so the family started a nursery business. Realizing the advantages of moving to a warmer climate, Prosper Berckmans — one of the sons — undertook a trip through the southern United States to find a new site for the family business. He even came to Rome, probably attracted to our area because of the Belgium settlement here.

He eventually selected Augusta. What was called the Fruitlands Nurseries purchased land where Augusta National is now and the business truly prospered. Fruitlands became one of the most successful nurseries in the nation. They even added a landscape design service to their business. Prosper Berckmans designed and executed a landscape plan for both the Norton Home place — known as Valley View — outside Cartersville and was also responsible for the design and choice of the plants at Barnsley Gardens.

This is the first of a four part column series. Tommy Robins is a Rome native who has worked on the nursery crew at Augusta National Golf Club, home of The Masters. He owned a landscaping business but is now retired and resides in Cave Spring.

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