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Tweaking Continues at Augusta National

April 02, 2006|From the Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Phil Mickelson accepts the blame.

One of the purest shots he ever struck at Augusta National, besides that 18-foot birdie putt to win his first major, was a driver on the 11th hole in the 2001 Masters. He described it as a hot draw around the corner, which took a hard hop and rolled forever, leaving him a sand wedge into a hole that measured 455 yards.

"Darn it if Hootie wasn't standing right there," Mickelson said.

Indeed, Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson was down at Amen Corner that day, and he often mentions Mickelson's tee shot as a reason for lengthening the golf course. So, he added 35 yards to the 11th hole during the most expansive makeover ever in 2002. Two years later, he had three dozen pine trees planted on the right side.

This year, the tees at No. 11 have been moved back 15 yards, and more pine trees were added down the right side of the fairway, turning it into a miniature forest.

When the Masters begins Thursday, it will be played on a course that looks nothing like when Arnold Palmer thrilled his army with four green jackets in a seven-year span, or when Jack Nicklaus mounted his famous charge on the back nine in 1986, and certainly nothing like what Tiger Woods saw when he won by 12 shots in 1997.

"Hit driver all over the place," Woods said. "Now, you have to."

Not long after Woods slipped on the green jacket for a fourth time last year, the bulldozers went to work at Augusta National by making significant changes to six holes -- Nos. 1, 4, 7, 11, 15 and 17.

The course now measures 7,445 yards, the second-longest for a major championship next to the 7,514-yard beast at Whistling Straits for the PGA Championship.

This isn't about keeping scores around par, the unspoken motto of the USGA.

"We have never been worried about scores," Johnson said. "Our greatest concern has always been that the course be kept current with the times. Change has been a constant at Augusta National, starting in the earliest years of the tournament. Bobby Jones made innumerable modifications to the layout, and that philosophy continues to this day."

But would Jones recognize the course he helped build?

"I wonder if he would approve," Arnold Palmer said quietly in his office at Bay Hill Club.

Palmer understands change, and often has come to expect it at Augusta National. He keeps a photo from one of his four victories at the Masters that shows him blasting out of a bunker onto the eighth green to set up a birdie. It is a shot that cannot be duplicated, because the bunker has been replaced by large mounds.

He is more concerned with No. 7, which played 365 yards when Palmer won the 1962 Masters, and now is 450 yards. Palmer usually hit his driver on that hole, followed by a 9-iron or a wedge. Woods hit 2-iron and sand wedge when he won in 1997. During a practice round two weeks ago, Woods crushed a drive and was between 7-iron and 8-iron.

He went with a hard 8, and hit it to within inches for a birdie.

Has it always been a driver hole?

"It is now," Woods said. "Not because I'm being aggressive, but because I have to."

Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods and his caddie, Steve Williams, were interviewed separately over the last few weeks and asked how they typically played Augusta National.

There is evidence Johnson has the right idea.

Palmer said he usually hit a driver and a 7-iron into the 18th hole, and Nicklaus said he had anything from a 5-iron to a 7-iron when the hole was about 420 yards. Woods hit driver and sand wedge from 97 yards when he won in 1997, but in his playoff win last year he hit 3-wood and 8-iron on the 465-yard hole.

At the par-five second hole, which measured 555 yards in 1962 (Palmer) and 1975 (Nicklaus), Palmer typically hit driver and anything from a 1-iron to a 4-iron into the green, and Nicklaus figured he could reach the green in two no matter what the conditions. Woods, meanwhile, got home in two with an 8- or 9-iron in 1997.

But with the par five stretched to 575 yards, his club selection after a good drive is between a 3-iron and a 4-iron.

And then there was Mickelson's big drive on the 11th, and he wasn't alone in hitting wedge.

It was usually a 3-iron for Palmer, a 4- or 5-iron for Nicklaus when it measured about 455 yards, and now is about a 5-iron for Woods after it was lengthened to 495 yards. It now is listed at 505 yards on the card, and there is talk some players might have a fairway metal into a green guarded by water on the left.

Does that change the character of the course? Johnson doesn't think so.

He recalls its original design was for a drive followed by a pitching wedge, and the longest hitters could even go for the green. But in the early 1950s, Jones added the pond to the left of the green, and moved the tee box on the opposite side of the 10th green.

Jones wrote in "Golf Is My Game" that the 11th hole is "usually played with a 3-iron or a stronger club" when the hole location is to the rear of the green.

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