When cows ruled Augusta: The world’s most famous golf course was a cow pasture in WWII

AUGUSTA, Ga. – You look out at the vast, impossibly green expanse of Augusta National Golf Club, and you see absolute manicured perfection.

Cows, meanwhile, see their lost homeland.

Yes, there was a time when cows roamed the fairways of Bobby Jones’ golf course. They stomped across the greens, trundled up and down rolling hills, devoured grass in the shadow of the Big Oak, the Eisenhower Tree and Butler Cabin.

The time was World War II, and a little golf tournament at a nine-year-old private club in eastern Georgia was pretty much the last thing on anyone’s mind. Nearby Camp Gordon in Augusta was the focus of growing war efforts, and the 1942 Masters, held just months after Pearl Harbor, would be the last to be played while the United States was at war.

For that tournament, Augusta National cofounders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts decided to donate their entire proceeds to what they deemed an appropriate war charity: the construction of a golf course, and donation of golf equipment, for the soldiers at Camp Gordon.

“A man in Army training camp can’t come to a golf course— at least, not often,” the club announced in a press release. “So golf is coming to him.”

As John Strege wrote in “When War Played Through: Golf During World War II,” Augusta National held the tournament that year with a sense of both hope and finality: the hope that the tournament had reached a status commensurate with the U.S. Open was tempered by the sense that this would be the last such gathering for a long, long time.

Some things never change: a few players griped about the speed of the green and the conditions of the course, but others reminded them that Americans were dying at war, and perhaps complaints about speedy greens were a bit out of place. Byron Nelson would go on to beat Ben Hogan in an exceptional playoff, played as soldiers from Camp Gordon looked on.

But later that year, Augusta National’s leadership, seeing that few of the club’s 128 members were trekking to Augusta during wartime, realized the club had few options: reduce operations or disband entirely.

Enter: the cows.

Jones hit on what he thought was a genius idea to keep maintenance costs down while providing meat for the surrounding area: allowing steer to roam the grounds and keep the grass to manageable levels. Augusta turned loose 200 head of cattle and held its nose … literally and figuratively.

Problem was, the club forgot about the properties of its beloved Bermuda grass: namely, that it goes dormant in the winter. The cows thus turned to other foliage in the area … such as azaleas.

Augusta wasn’t alone in its unconventional course management strategies; other clubs used sheep for the same purpose, or pigs to dispose of waste. But after realizing that the cows were costing more money in terms of maintenance than they were saving, Augusta National turned to another unlikely potential savior.

“The Club also purchased 1,423 day-old turkeys and was successful in raising 1,004 of them,” Roberts wrote to the club’s members at the time. “These turkeys will soon be ready for market but over 100 are to be retained for Christmas distribution to our members—one to each member.”

Roberts had asked club members to contribute $100 per year (about $1,400 in today’s terms) to help keep the club afloat. Club members appreciated the generosity of the turkeys; as one member wrote, “It was a peach all right and doubly welcome in these days of tight rationing.” The gains from the turkeys’ sale offset the loss from maintenance costs incurred by the cows.

So, yes, Augusta National was once covered by cows and turkeys. Oh, and local boys would play in the pond in front of the 12th hole and sling cow patties across the fairways. Indeed, it was a very different time.

But the story doesn’t end there. Once the club had gotten rid of the animals and announced plans to reopen in late 1944, there was still the pesky matter of how to rehabilitate the now-blasted course. The solution came in the form of cheap but unexpectedly well-qualified labor.

More than forty German prisoners of war were being held at Camp Gordon. As Strege notes, these particular Germans were well-suited for the task ahead of them: part of Erwin Rommel’s Panzer division in North Africa, they were an engineering team tasked with building bridges strong enough to support tanks. The bridge they built over Rae’s Creek at the 13th hole would last until 1958, when the Nelson Bridge that now stands there was dedicated.

The Masters itself would resume in 1946 with 51 players, many of whom were returning veterans, and a crowd of 7,500. (This year features 93 players and estimated daily crowds of 25,000.) While the grounds and azaleas hadn’t yet completely recovered from the cattle assault, the prestige of the game had returned. Fittingly enough, Herman Keiser, a veteran who’d served aboard the USS Cincinnati, won the tournament. For years afterward, Augusta National would permit servicemen in uniform free admission to the Masters, and wounded veterans could play the course as part of their rehabilitation.

In later years, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, would later become one of Augusta’s few famous members. Several locations around the course still bear his name. Cows and turkeys, on the other hand, only show up on the course at Augusta National served on a bun or wrap. But, for a very short time, they owned the most famous golf course in the country.

-Follow Jay Busbee all week from Augusta National on Twitter at @jaybusbee.-