Historians, takenote. We have pinpointed the exact moment when Hootie Johnson, chairman ofAugusta National Golf Club, was once again proved right. Unquestionably a manof action, Johnson had ordered 155 yards and bunches of trees added to sixholes for this year's Masters, and criticism of the changes was coming from alldirections in the weeks leading up to the tournament. ¬∂ Even Tiger Woods joinedthe crying game. On the eve of the opening round he ruefully admitted thatduring practice on the newly lengthened (by 35 yards, to 240) 4th hole, "Ihad to hit a three-wood into a par-3. I don't do that very often." And thatwas the tipping point. When Woods--a winner, not a whiner--joined the chorus ofplayers bemoaning the National's increased difficulty, you knew Johnson wasright. Because there is a truism on Tour: When most of the players arecomplaining, the course has probably been set up correctly. By the end of theweek the new Augusta National had cemented its reputation as the world's mostdemanding course, and the Masters had retained its status as the world's mostglamorous and exciting major championship. ¬∂ All along, Johnson said that theclub was "very comfortable" with the changes, so comfortable that hesays Augusta National is no longer entertaining the notion of introducing arestricted-flight "Masters ball" for the tournament. The latestalterations, Johnson said, have succeeded in forcing today's players to usepretty much the same clubs for approach shots as their predecessorsemployed.
Maybe the Mastersgot lucky with the weather. During the opening two rounds the course playedfirm and fast for the first time in six years, which mitigated the layout'slength (7,445 yards). It also helped that the 1st and 4th holes didn't playinto the wind. In fact, it may have been an omen when the first player tobirdie the longer (by 20 yards) 455-yard opening hole was 70-year-old GaryPlayer. It was quite a birdie: Player couldn't see the flagstick from where hewas on the upslope of the fairway, 224 yards from the hole, but he struck asweet four-wood to 18 feet and made the putt.
Did someone saythe National was too tough? Player shot a seven-over-par 79. Vijay Singh had anopening 67 that, he said, was "one of my better rounds here."
Did someone saythe National was too long? Charles Coody, 68, followed his opening 89 with a74, his best score since 2001, and finished a shot ahead of Charles Howell, whois 42 years Coody's junior. Coody was actually one under through 15, but hebogeyed 16 and made a double at the newly lengthened (by 15 yards) 17th.
Did someone sayonly long hitters could play the National? Two-time Masters champion BenCrenshaw, 54, hasn't been competitive even on the Champions tour, but he was onthe leader board for two rounds before Saturday's rain finally put the newNational beyond his reach. "The whole course, from the opening tee ball tothe 18th green, is a much tougher examination now," Crenshaw says."Length is always going to get its due--playing shorter clubs to the greensmakes a huge difference, I can assure you. But no matter how long or short thecourse plays, you have to deal with these greens. They have been the maindefense of this course, and they always will be."
Let's look at thespecific changes. On the 1st hole the fairway bunker on the crest of the hillis in play, yet plenty of players reached the top with their drives and hit nomore than nine-irons in. At the 4th the tee was moved up for the second round,when the pin was placed back right, and required a shot of only 180 yards. Whenthe hole played at a full 240 yards (on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), a fewplayers hit three-woods, but most played two- or three-irons or higher-loftedfairway woods or hybrids. "I didn't think you needed to mess with number4," Woods said early in the week. "I thought it was one of the coolholes." Trust us, the 4th still is. And it remains Augusta's toughestpar-3. Fred Funk paid homage to 4 during his Tuesday practice round. After heand Craig Stadler came up short of the green from the back tee, Funk pulled askirt out of his bag--the one he donned in the Skins Game when Annika Sorenstamoutdrove him--and held it up to Stadler's considerable waist.
The consensus wasthat the 530-yard 15th had needed a little more length--30 yards wereadded--but by shifting the tee to the left, the go-zone in the landing area wasconsiderably reduced. At the par-4 17th, pushing the tee back brought theEisenhower tree (now 215 yards out on the left) back into play.
The par-4 7th,410 yards before the alterations, used to give players a breather. They couldlay up off the tee and hit a wedge in. Now it runs 450 yards with trees on bothsides of the fairway, so the players are forced to hit driver and hit itstraight. Seven's a terrific hole now.
Only at thestoried 11th was there a questionable change. While the 11th remains theNational's hardest-won par--one player jokingly called the 505-yard par-4 theeasiest par-5 on the course--the more than 50 pines planted to the right of thefairway also make it Augusta's most unsightly hole. Were that many trees reallynecessary? "Instead of having U.S. Open rough, you have a forest," saysPhil Mickelson. "You don't have the ability to hit a shot from there. Youcan only try to get the ball back in play."
A handful ofsmartly planted trees, instead of the forest, might have accomplished the samegoal and tempted players into trying heroic--and dangerous--recoveries. Thesideways chip-out, the least exciting shot in golf, has never been a Mastersstaple, but it's now an everyday play at 11. The hole played so tough thatRocco Mediate felt guilty about dropping a five-iron shot to 10 feet onThursday and making the putt for birdie. "You're not supposed to do that onthat hole," Mediate said. "I actually apologized to the hole as Ileft."
However, thehole's new length--it previously played at 490--was not an issue. Formerly thekickoff of Amen Corner was a dangerous hole because it required a long approachto a green guarded by a pond on the left. Ben Hogan famously said that hedidn't aim for the green because that brought the water into play. But by 2001"we were hitting wedges in there," says Howell. "[What Hogan said]had no meaning at all. Now it does [again]. You're going in there with a three-or four-iron, so you're not going to be aggressive." (On Friday, Howellmade a 9 at 11, not because he hit into the water but because he needed fourtries to escape a greenside bunker.)
The controversycaused by the changes was, predictably, reduced to a footnote by the time playbegan, but because of Johnson's changes the Masters remains the Masters. Thatwas evident from an exchange between two gentlemen watching near the landingarea alongside the 1st fairway. One of the men, wearing a gray stubble beard,looked into the distance at the colorful spectacle of fans milling around the1st tee and the 9th green and mused, "I wonder what ol' Bobby Jones wouldsay if he could see this place now?"
The other man,whose thick silver mane was combed straight back from a tanned forehead,followed his friend's gaze and said. "Well, I think he'd be tickledpink."
Color HootieJohnson the same.
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Going to Great Lengths
Here's how the six holes at Augusta National that were lengthened this yearplayed, on average, from 1997 (when Tiger Woods set the tournament scoringrecord at 18-under 270) through 2005, and how they played last week.
Of all the changes, the forest of pines to the right of the 11th fairway wasthe only example of overkill.
Woods hit a three-wood at the par-3 4th in a practice round but not during thetournament.