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65TH MASTERS

Are These Changes for the Better?

April 05, 2001|GEOFF SHACKELFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The declaration by Dan Jenkins, almost always dead solid perfect when it comes to writing about golf, that the Masters doesn't begin until the back nine on Sunday was not merely a romantic notion. It was the truth.

But under new Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson, the 68-year-old club made a series of perplexing changes to its traditional Masters course.

The major alterations were made during the summer of 1998, more than a year after Tiger Woods broke the tournament scoring record with his unforgettable 18-under-par performance. Club members were embarrassed by the impressive manner in which he lapped the field by 12 strokes in 1997.

In their view, the course no longer could defend itself against modern equipment. Something, they vowed, had to be done.

They did something. They took the drama out of the Masters.

With the addition of previously nonexistent rough, extra yardage on key holes and newly planted pine trees, the last two tournaments have rewarded a conservative U.S. Open style of golf emphasizing cautious pars over well-timed risk taking.

And Johnson said Wednesday that more changes were coming next year, with a number of holes to be lengthened.

Most players were not happy that the club altered Bobby Jones' masterpiece.

Two-time Masters runner-up Tom Weiskopf likened the changes to medical students "hacking away at a cadaver," while the normally soft-spoken Phil Mickelson became the first player to question Augusta National's consulting architect, Tom Fazio.

"When Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed the course way back when, they did a fabulous job," Mickelson said. "I don't think a 20-handicapper knows more than those guys did."

And in a rare moment of criticism aimed at one of his favorite courses, Nicklaus dealt the harshest blow.

"They've taken a golf course that played for years a certain way and now they've eliminated that," he said last spring. "It looks like somebody who doesn't play golf or understand the game did it."

Fazio's first change came when he narrowed the once-enormous fairways to a 37-yard average, not much space considering that Augusta's steeply sloped fairways roll at speeds similar to most putting surfaces.

According to chairman Johnson, the goal behind the narrower approach and the 1 1/2 inches of surrounding rough was to "put a premium on accuracy."

Fazio also planted small pines to tighten key tee shots and filled in tree gaps from which wayward players once could try risky recovery shots, most notably on holes 13, 14 and 18.

New tees on the par-five No. 2 and the par-four 17th have transformed the character of holes long considered legitimate birdie opportunities.

If that was not enough, the club now mows all fairways toward the tees so that balls land into the grass "grain"--the theory being that such technique slows down roll and makes holes play longer.

As Nicklaus said Monday, the aggressive implementation of Fazio's design suggestions has given greater advantage to long hitters while also distancing the modern-day Augusta from the strategic design masterminded by club founder Jones and executed by architect MacKenzie.

"The ideal golf course would have to be played with thought as well as mechanical skill," Jones wrote in his book, "Golf is My Game."

The original design of Jones and MacKenzie relied on severely contoured greens that, depending on the day's hole location, required the player to attack the hole from a variety of angles. Some days the player could be aggressive, other days he had to lay up. Wide, undefined fairways were integral to the course's character.

Due to this flexible approach, the Masters has proven to be as difficult as any major championship course while still exciting for fans because of the chance for aggressive shotmaking.

"I believe with modern equipment and modern players, we cannot make a golf course more difficult or more testing for the expert simply by adding length," Jones wrote in 1960.

"The only way to stir them up is by the introduction of subtleties around the greens. It is our feeling that there is something wrong with a golf course which will not yield a score in the 60s to a player who has played well enough to deserve it. We are willing to have low scores made during the tournament and it is not our intention to rig the golf course so as to make it tricky."

However, the fear of low scores and long tee shots motivated Fazio's effort to "modernize" Augusta National. So far, the results have been back-to-back Sundays lacking the usual back-nine drama.

Because there is no room to lengthen the 500-yard par-five 15th, Fazio eliminated fairway mounds created in 1969 by former club chairman Clifford Roberts. The mounds were originally installed to slow down drives, but in recent years were believed to be "slingshotting" the tee shots of today's longest hitters.

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