The Augusta National golf course is known for its azaleas and astonishing variety of trees (tall pines, dogwoods, hearty oaks and even the odd palm tree), but its most distinctive feature is the bright white sand in the bunkers, which on a sunny day can probably be seen from outer space.
However, contrary to Augusta lore, the sand in those bunkers is not "feldspar sand." Less poetically, that famous Augusta National sand is actually a waste product of the feldspar mining process, according to Drew Coleman, professor of geological sciences at the University of North Carolina.
See, sand is more complicated than you think. The most abundant minerals in the earth's crust are feldspar and quartz. In simple terms, quartz is silicon dioxide, and feldspar is "dirty quartz," that is, quartz that contains other elements like aluminum and potassium. If you went to a beach in North Carolina, you'd find about 88 percent of the sand is quartz, while 10 percent is feldspar. That other 2 percent is nasty stuff you don't want to know about, Coleman said.
Feldspar is very rich in aluminum, which in olden days was used in ceramic pottery and today is used to make plumbing ceramics (aka the bath section at Home Depot). That's where Augusta National comes in. The Spruce Pine Mining District in northwestern North Carolina is famous for its feldspar and quartz, and since the 1700s feldspar has been mined there. When they mine the feldspar for aluminum, they just discard the quartz. That's the stuff Augusta National uses for its bunkers. What we call feldspar sand is a waste byproduct of the feldspar mining process, Coleman said, and there's likely not any feldspar in it.
But just because it's a waste product doesn't mean it's junk. The quartz created by this mining process is extremely pure, which is why those bunkers really pop on your HDTV.
"That's why the bunkers are so white," Coleman said. "Spruce Pine quartz is the best in the world, and the quartz created from the feldspar mining process is so white and so pure."
More recently, the quartz has become more valuable than the feldspar, according to Coleman. The same stuff in those Augusta National bunkers is now used for silicon chips. Coleman said that these days there is probably more quartz mining than feldspar mining in the Spruce Pine district.
"I doubt if Augusta National wanted discarded sand if they could get it because it's too valuable these days," Coleman said.
Somehow, we think they could afford it. (Photo: Fred Vuich/SI)