It was a comfortable rhythm that worked for decades from Masters to Masters. Augusta National Golf Club would make changes behind the curtain – some major, some subtle – to the home of the Masters Tournament. Qualified players would trickle through town as spring approached to get a preview peek at the course. Members of the media would catch up with them at various stops on the Florida swing and mine for little details of what was happening inside the gates off Washington Road.
A new tee box here. Another pin placement there. Some bunker shifting. Trees either felled by ice storms or suddenly casting shade where no tree had stood before.
That access is yet another one of the casualties of COVID-19. But as an unprecedented November Masters looms, a new method of reconnaissance has arrived in the form of a 60-year-old flight instructor from North Augusta who admittedly is “not a big golf fan.”
With his Cessna 172 and a mounted camera, David Dobbins has lifted the veil on Augusta National and shared the view he sees nearly every day with the wider world via his EurekaEarth social media feed. Through his aerial lens, we’ve seen the construction on land behind Amen Corner acquired from Augusta Country Club, the annual process of scalping and overseeding and the steady progress the club has made in getting the course ready for the 2020 Masters that starts next Thursday.
“It is phenomenal what they did from the time they shaved it down and reseeded to when they opened. Unbelievable nine or 10 days later how green it was.” – David Dobbins
“I see that property just about every day and see the changes through the seasons,” Dobbins said. “I’m a curious sort myself and I don’t mind sharing it as long as I’m doing it legally and morally. I do enjoy that. … I admire what they do and what they’ve accomplished out there. Sure is beautiful.”
Dobbins takes roughly 300-400 pictures from the camera mounted under the wing of his small plane from an altitude comfortably above the 1,000 feet set out by FAA regulations for public air space over a populated area. Not being much of a golf fan, he’s not exactly sure what he’s seeing with regard to any course changes when he looks through his images.
But when he passes some of those photos along to golf journalists, low and behold small but important details are detected. For instance, there seems to be a little preemptive Bryson DeChambeau-proofing going on at the dogleg of the 18th hole.
In recent years, Augusta National planted a few pine trees behind the fairway bunkers at the corner of the famous finishing hole. That effort has been extended with a handful more trees extending a little bit further toward the green – a thicker grove that seems intended to prevent someone like DeChambeau from getting the idea he can simply fly his driver over the fairway bunkers into the once open area beyond and have an unobstructed shot to the green.
In another picture, it also seems as if the Masters tee on the 13th hole may have been slightly shifted to the left – no longer aligned dead on with the member’s tee. Such a subtle shift could require players to shape their drives to get around the dogleg on the par-5 hole rather than potentially cut the corner over the trees.
“When I’m up there shooting it there’s so much to see, you just don’t know until after the fact,” Dobbins said. “We wouldn’t have noticed anything if you didn’t bring it to our attention. We weren’t looking for any particular changes, we were just shooting the natural beauty of the course.”
Dobbins is a U.S. Army veteran who worked with the Secret Service during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies. As a civilian contractor, he took reconnaissance photos in the Middle East and South Asia during seven tours from 2010 to 2017. “Now I enjoy doing that when I’m not getting shot at,” he said.
Running MVP Aviation out of Augusta Regional Airport’s Bush Field, he started taking pictures over Augusta during the 2018 Masters as a proof-of-concept exercise for his startup called EurekaEarth, which can produce higher-resolution images than satellites in areas where unmanned drones are prohibited from flying by FAA regulations. And it’s timelier than Google Earth imagery. With a camera system he’s patented, he envisions it becoming the “Uber of aerial imaging services” that could enable users to track a plane’s flight and view its camera feed while even controlling the pictures from a remote ground location. The infrastructure of Cessna pilots across the country could be used to deploy the operation.
That’s what he was able to do during the 2018 Masters, when he captured beautiful “eye candy” pictures including eventual winner Patrick Reed playing on the ninth green. In 2019, he flew more than 20 hours above the Masters and once again captured eventual winner Tiger Woods also on the ninth green.
“Caught both eventual winners on the ninth hole the last day of the tournaments, so I’m going to try to do the same this year and predict the winner myself,” he said.
In his small plane about 1,500 feet above the course, Dobbins is surprisingly hard to notice. Patrons can often hear jet engines revving for takeoff at nearby Daniel Field during the tournament, but Dobbins can almost hide in the open air about the tournament – at least when there’s a constant thrum of patrons around.
“I have friends at the Par 3 who call and ask, ‘Can you see me or hear me?’ and they can’t even find me,” he said. “I was overhead taking their picture. … That’ll tell you how carefully I flew it because I had no complaints.”
During a long 2020 with the Masters postponed from April to November, Dobbins’ glimpses at Augusta have provided a bright spot that’s only helped build anticipation for a Masters unlike any other. His pictures of a freshly scalped and brown course in September sent shudders through the golf world, yet 10 days later he delivered pictures of an already lush course as the overseed quickly took over. It illustrated clearly what Augusta National is capable of doing agronomically.
“I think I caught it just about right,” he said. “It is phenomenal what they did from the time they shaved it down and reseeded to when they opened. Unbelievable nine or 10 days later how green it was.”
Dobbins (@EurekaEarthPlus) has been counting down the days to the start of the Masters with aerial pics of each hole, and the feed has even been posting more “eye candy” to compliment the small promotional vignettes being posted by @TheMasters.
For all those requesting side-by-sides to compare and contrast. Different zoom and angles, but the same content. Should still provide interesting comparisons. Cheers! 🍁⛳️ ©24SEP2020 David Dobbins/Eureka Earth – ©03OCT2020 David Dobbins/Eureka Earth pic.twitter.com/qF8OB79xjq
— Eureka Earth (@EurekaEarthPlus) October 4, 2020
Should Augusta start making changes to extend the length of the 13th hole or any other kind of DeChambeau-proofing project between the conclusion of next week’s tournament and the start of the 2021 Masters in April, EurekaEarth is likely to let us know.
“I pass over the course literally almost every day, so I see a lot going on there and some of it is obvious,” Dobbins said. “If they do something, I’ll know about it.”
And thanks to social media, we all will as well.
Aerial photos courtesy Courtesy EurekaEarth
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