Most die-hard golfers have an internal bucket list of courses they would like to play once in their lives. If they are passionate enough, they can camp out for a spot at Bethpage Black, save up some dough to experience Pebble Beach, organize an overseas trip to St. Andrews, or if they know the right people, pull some strings to play Merion or Oakmont. But the one course that lingers just beyond the realm of possibility for most golfers is Augusta National.
Home to the Masters, the season’s first and most prestigious major, Augusta National holds a special place in the hearts of many golfers, even if they have never set foot on its storied grounds. For the select few that are fortunate enough to play golf’s greatest sanctuary, it is surely an experience that will resonate with them for the rest of their lives.
One of those people lucky enough to find their way onto Augusta’s pristine fairways is Clay Long. TaylorMade’s former Director of Product Creation has led a legendary career within the golf industry as a club-maker. Working closely with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus through various stages of his 36 years in the industry, Clay was the man behind the design of Nicklaus’ putter that helped him win the ’86 Masters. At the time of this story, Clay served as the creator of TaylorMade’s OS putters and a consultant on the EF wedges. We sat down with Clay to reflect on his memories from his first Augusta experience and those that followed.
Clay sits comfortably in his Carlsbad, CA office despite being completely boxed in by hundreds of putters and wedges scattered around the room. Resting prominently above his head is an impressive display featuring Jack Nicklaus at the ’86 Masters, complete with his championship putter and a personal message signed to Clay. As we chat, Clay shares his stories from Augusta in his unmistakable Mississippi accent with a mixture of nostalgia, reverence, and gratitude.
When was the first time you saw Augusta in person?
"Well, I have an interesting story to tell you about that. I was living in Mississippi in ‘76, and [a friend and I] came over to play the Southern Amateur in Charleston, SC. So we drove over to Charleston… and we both missed the cut. And on the way back to Mississippi from Charleston, you go right through Augusta. It was the middle of the summer, and we didn’t know anything about Augusta—we figured there would be bus tours, being such a famous place. So we pulled up to the gate and told the guard what we were doing and where we were from:
Guard: “Oh well, you know nobody gets in here, in fact, it’s closed in summertime. The only reason that I’m here is that I’m waiting for my wife to bring me a sandwich up here for lunch.”
Clay: “Aw, well we were hoping we could see the place—maybe there was a tour or something?”
Guard: “No, nothing like that… Are you guys pretty good players?”
Clay: “Yeah, yeah we’re pretty good.”
Guard: “Well look, if I let you come in, will you take a look at my swing?”
Guard: “Drive on in down Magnolia and park in front of the clubhouse and I’ll be up there in a few minutes to show you around.”
I know it sounds like I’m making this up…
We pull in, park, and then the guard comes in—I don’t know if he ate his sandwich or not—anyway, we hit a few balls on the range and then we went and played. There weren’t any pins in the greens, but we played 10, 11, and 12, and half of 13. Every so often, we would have to leave so the guard could punch his clock.
Then we got to look inside the clubhouse. The Caddy Master was there, and we sat and talked just like we were at any club with friendly guys. You know, I think they were the only two guys on the premises at the time. So anyway, we leave and go home and I remember I sent [the guard] a box of cigars. That was in ’76, so you know, you figure that’s the only time you’ll ever set foot there."
But lucky for you, that wasn’t the case. When was the first time you played a full 18?
"In 1981, I had just started working at MacGregor Golf, and I invited an old college friend to come to the plant, so he could get a set of really good custom clubs. He came, and we built him a set as well as a custom driver for his father. We sent the clubs off to them, and about a week later, I got this handwritten card in the mail from his father thanking me for the driver and asking if I would join him and his son to play Augusta National. And I’m thinking to myself, “to play Augusta National?!” So I call my buddy on the phone:
Clay: “What is this?”
Friend: “Oh, my dad’s a member of Augusta National.”
Clay: “You’re kidding me.”
Friend: “No, no. So you can make it, right?”
Clay: “Well… duh!”
I was just flabbergasted. So anyway, I drove down Magnolia Lane, right where I had driven up 5 or 6 years [earlier], and we played golf on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful 72-degree day. We played golf, spent the night in the clubhouse, ate dinner there, played the par 3 course, got up the next morning, and played it again. Two perfect days and it was just like, Can you believe this? Can you believe you’re actually playing this golf course?
I shot 71, so you know, I was thinking, I’m done. I don’t ever need to play another round of golf. I shot 71 at Augusta – just stick a fork in me."
How did your first impressions compare to what you’ve seen on TV?
"It’s better than TV. It’s prettier than TV, even in high def. I think if you talk to people that have been to the tournament, they will say the same thing—that they couldn’t imagine how pretty and how perfect it is until you see it first-hand. It kind of reminds me of going to the Grand Canyon. I went to the Grand Canyon the first time about 3-4 years ago. You’ve seen millions of pictures of it on television specials and everything else, [but] you walk up to the rim and look at it and think, Oh my goodness, none of that did justice to this. Augusta is kind of like that—you’ve seen pictures, but [now] you see it first-hand and pictures don’t do it justice."
Beyond physical characteristics, how would you describe the atmosphere at Augusta?
"I remember it being such a relaxing place. It’s a very “golfy” place, it’s not very intimidating… it’s an old wooden clubhouse that’s in perfect shape, and it’s all about playing golf, really. You feel that when you’re there.
It was just an awesome experience. There’s nothing about it that’s too much or overdone, it’s just an awesome place to be. People are awesomely nice and you just, it’s just—I don’t know how to describe it other than you feel pretty much at home there. You would think everything would be so uptight ’cause you hear about how strict rules [are] and you hear all the stories—but this place is here for people to play golf, and it’s just great. Playing it is really like nothing else because of the history. It’s everything you can imagine, and then it’s more once you put your foot on it."
What was the experience like staying in Augusta’s clubhouse?
"I remember things, like, every time I left the room and came back, my shoes were shined. You go to breakfast, you go play golf, you come back, and every time you came back to your room your shoes would be shined. And you never saw anybody—you never saw anybody walking the halls. I remember things like going to eat breakfast, and the waiter comes to the table—and there are no menus on the table—and he says, “What would you like? Whatever you’d like, we’ll make it for you.”
It was over-the-top in terms of just being there. I’m at Augusta National, I’ve watched on television my whole life. It couldn’t have been more perfect. If you catch good weather and you’re lucky enough to get to play Augusta, there’s nothing better in golf. I’ve never experienced anything better, not even close."
As a golf course, how does it play?
"Well, it’s a lot longer now than it used to be. The first time I played it was when it was, what I call, the “old course.” It’s not that tight, as is well documented, but the greens, the greens really make the golf course. To play well, the greens require precise shots to get the ball where you can get down in two, and certainly if you want to try and make a birdie. The greens are such that if you don’t hit it into the right place, you’re totally in defensive mode with your putter. And the greens are undulated and there’s, like, maybe three greens in each green. There are maybe three places that, on a normal golf course, would constitute a green. When you look at that and you think about when guys in the tournament shoot 65, it’s just mind-boggling that someone can play with that much precision the whole day without getting stung somewhere along the way."
Were there any holes that you played exceptionally well?
"I’ve played 12 really well. I think I hit a 7 or 8-iron. I birdied it the first time I played. So I have memories of hitting really good shots on 12.
I went there one time to meet Jack Nicklaus. I had some clubs for him to look at and he was filming his 18 favorite major championship holes, and #10 and #12 were on the list. So I went over to 12, and he was standing on the tee talking about how difficult the hole was. He said that one of the things that make this hole so difficult is the wind. So, he takes a handkerchief out of his pocket—and this is not on queue—(Clay now assumes the role of Jack, dangling an imaginary handkerchief from his fingers) and he says, “Now you see where that’s going?” (Clay mimics a leftward wind with his fingers) “Now look down at the green.” The 12th flag was going the other way. “Now look over at 11 green.” And it was going a different way… 11 was going this way, 12 was going this way, and his handkerchief was going this way. The wind was going three different directions. He said, “Now that is what makes this hole so difficult.”
It was just classic. You couldn’t make this stuff up and I just thought it was really cool. Then he mentioned that he never aimed right of the bunker. He walked down to the green and said, “I never aim to the right of the bunker and here’s why.” Then he took a ball and dropped it about [six inches] off the right side of the bunker. It hit the ground and went straight into the water. He said, “Now that’s why I never aim to the right of the bunker.” It was all priceless stuff to get to witness."
Would you say that #12 is your favorite hole on the course?
"There are 18 favorite holes there, really. Every hole is just like, this is a hole at Augusta National. None are alike, they’re all unique, and every hole is like, wow."
Was there any one particular moment where the weight of playing Augusta really sank in?
"I think it’s pretty surreal to get to [play there]. Certainly the first time I went I was just thinking, Someone really invited me, a 28 year old, to go play Augusta National? I mean people would cut their arm off to go do that. So it’s kind of surreal. But once you get there, the whole ambiance of the place is: this is a golf club; this is a place to play golf. I just felt at ease pretty quickly. ‘Cause when you first get there, you’re a little worried, thinking, will I walk in a place I’m not supposed to go or take my shoes off in the wrong place? You’re worried about all that, and then pretty soon you realize it’s a common sense kind of a place. Everyone is excited to be there to play golf. And to me, that’s the best part of it. If you’re a golfer, you’re in the right spot."
How does it feel to be walking the same ground as so many legends and to be playing shots from places that have been engrained in golf history?
"It’s great fun. I gotta tell you, it’s great fun. You really have a sense of history when you’re hitting a second shot into 13, and you’re thinking about how many times that shot has made or broken somebody’s chance of winning The Masters. You sit there and think, I wonder if I could hit that shot under the gun? ‘Cause some of those shots don’t actually look that hard. The 13th is a BIG green—it’s fronted by the creek, but it’s a big green. It looks like a big target, but by [simply] getting it over the creek you’re still not done by a long shot."
For the average 10 HDCP, how many strokes should they expect to add to their score at Augusta?
"They’ve got no chance of breaking 100."
How about a scratch golfer?
"From the member’s tees, which are about 6500 [yards], you can play pretty well. If you play well, you can certainly shoot par. But as I understand from some people that have played in the Masters, they tell me that the golf course undergoes a change from Wednesday to Thursday. When the first round of the tournament comes it’s like the golf course has morphed during the night. It’s much firmer than it was in the practice rounds. If you look at the scores that the amateurs shoot—and these guys are world-class players—you look at the scores they shoot in the tournament and you know something’s up. You know this is requiring a level of skill that even some of the very best amateur players in the world are just not quite ready for yet."
What is it about Augusta National that makes it resonate with so many golfers, even if they’ve never been there?
"I think it’s probably the consistency of the tournament and the broadcast every year, because you really get to know it as you watch it year to year to year. You just get familiar with all the things that go on [around] the golf course. And I think that familiarity is what really makes it. You just feel like you know it. You know the course, you’ve seen it so many times and you’ve seen shots do certain things, or you see someone get in a certain place and you think, Oh boy, watch this. He’s in trouble now! I think that’s what does it."
Looking back on your experiences playing Augusta, is there any one particular memory that stands out to this day?
"All of my trips to Augusta. Every trip to Augusta is beyond special. I went last May, and I think that was my 5th trip there, and we just had an awesome-good time. I was there with three other great guys, and we had a blast just playing golf. We had a little bet and it was just like playing your home course with guys you like to play with, except we were at Augusta! How much better can that be?"