New Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said, in a pre-tournament press conference, “Augusta National does not have a suggestion box.” This, apropos of the changes the tournament committee has had to make in the famed golf course in the years since Tiger Woods set a scoring record of 18 under par in 1997. The term used almost immediately was “Tiger-proofing.” Rough was allowed to grow, where formerly Augusta had offered seemingly limitless wide fairways. Trees were planted, pinching in formerly open shot avenues. Most significantly, tees were moved back to lengthen holes that had played at the same length in tournament competition for 50 years or more.
Examples abound. The tenth hole, for years a 500-yard par 4 — playing steeply downhill — has been lengthened by moving the tee back. The 475-yard thirteenth, a par 5 (yes, shorter than the tenth), required the most dramatic lengthening, with Augusta National actually having to buy a piece of real estate from the adjoining Augusta Country Club. Trees now separate the fifteenth fairway from the seventeenth, where there had formerly been open space and mounds. In addition, the tee has been moved back there, too.
The formerly 400-yard uphill eighteenth can now play up to 60 yards longer, I believe. The eleventh has been distorted practically beyond recognition, with the tee moved back nearly 80 yards and hard to the right, re-shaping the hole entirely.
THIS IS NOT BOBBY JONES’S golf course anymore. Why? Because clubs, and especially balls, have gotten so much more advanced that players can hit the ball much, much further. Drives of 320 yards are now common — even longer. That turns Augusta’s par fours into driver-pitching wedge shots. The greens were designed to challenge mid- and longer irons, not precise wedges. So it’s understandable that Augusta has changed from 6,900-some yards to 7,400.
But it’s also a shame. The golf course used to challenge players by requiring the playing of angles. Choose a tee shot right, left, or center, and the green opened up in entirely different ways. The course could change from setup to setup, from day to day. Now, there is one line and one line only. Esthetically, what used to be a scattering of greens amid a glorious series of meadows, broken up by groves of trees, now presents as a series of claustrophobic corridors. And the greens have been hardened and speeded up to the point where they are of near-mini golf ridiculousness.
ONE OF THE MANY COMMENTATORS before the tournament said, “I don’t think the day will ever come when Augusta designates a specific ball, and the players draw their balls from a bin before starting play.”
That is exactly what ought to happen. Alone among the major courses in golf, Augusta has the clout to enforce a “single ball” rule. Alone among the courses in championship golf, Augusta has the prestige and the connections to work with one or more of the major ball manufacturers to create a ball for Masters week alone. This ball would spin more than the current offerings and would fly 10-15 percent shorter distances. Tiger’s average drive would be 270 yards.
No less an authority than Jack Nicklaus has been touting a limit on the modern golf ball. Golf, like baseball, glories in its connection to the past. Major league baseball has, in the face of all technological advances, insisted on players using wooden bats, even as college, American Legion, and Little League have allowed aluminum bats.
Augusta may “Tiger-proof” its holes by making them longer, but Tiger Woods already ranks below the top five in driving distance on the PGA Tour. Golf ball and golf club technology do not stop — just check out the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. What’s next? Bubba Watson-proofing? This is getting ridiculous. It’s time for the Augusta National to stand athwart history and shout, “Stop!”
And to remember that the most challenging tee shot on the course remains the twelfth hole, which played at a mere 144 yards on Friday this past week.