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Sunday, April 2, 2006
Crack in the code of the green jacket

By Ron Whitten
Golf Digest

The problem with Augusta National is that it's a national treasure, but those involved with it act as though it's a state secret.

Consider all the changes to the course, the lengthening and tightening during the past eight years. Last summer alone, the club changed six holes, with new back tees, new trees and some bigger, deeper bunkers. Some of those holes had been changed just two years before.

But the club won't divulge the thinking behind such constant course tinkering. Not even to past Masters champions.

Some past champions are frustrated about that, but they won't go on the record. Call it the Code of the Green Jacket: Thou shalt not speak ill of Augusta National in public.

In private, more than one has complained that the course has been stripped of its unique personality, its ebb and flow. Players could thrust and parry, expect birdies on some holes and accept pars on others. But now the course makes everybody play defensively, they say, from the first tee onward. A couple of former champions have suggested that the club keeps changing the layout to hasten their departure from the event entirely, and one even grumbles about the new "butt-ugly bunkers, all shaped like bathtubs."

But stick a microphone in front of them, and they clam up.

The only cracks in that code have come from Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, both Augusta National members now instead of Masters competitors.

"I think they've ruined it from a tournament standpoint," Nicklaus says. "Augusta has meant a ton to me in my lifetime. It's a big, big part of my life, and I love it. That's why I hate to see them change it."

"I love the place, just love everything that happens there," Palmer says. "But now, I'm not so sure. It's changed dramatically from the course I knew the last 50 years."

These two men, with 10 Masters titles between them, are disappointed that they've not been consulted on any of the changes that have occurred to the course since 1998, despite the fact that (or maybe because) they're both golf course architects. Nicklaus has even been a bit catty about it. He says some changes, which were supervised by consulting golf architect Tom Fazio and his team, looked as if they were done "by somebody who doesn't know how to play golf."

When co-founder Clifford Roberts ruled Augusta, in the club's first 42 years, he still entertained suggestions from past champions. Horton Smith recommended moving the seventh green up the hill, so it was moved. Gene Sarazen suggested a fairway bunker on the second, and it got built. But now, Masters champions have no voice. No one knows who is behind recent design changes. The architect? The Masters chairman? A committee? Who knows? Everything at Augusta seems classified.

Even Fazio, given an opportunity to respond to Nicklaus' comments at a public forum last fall, declined to do so, saying that he defers all comments regarding the course to the club.

Club officials say that statements issued by Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson should suffice. Johnson assumed his role in 1998, the year Tigerproofing began. The trouble is, Johnson's explanations have been superficial and rote. Here's what he said about changes in 2001: "We're always trying to keep the golf course current with the times ... and maintain its integrity."

And here's what he said last year about the most recent changes: "Our objective is to maintain the integrity and shot values of the golf course as envisioned by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie. ... We will keep the golf course current with the times."

A request for anything of substance regarding the Masters -- What's the speed of the greens? Is a former football coach on the tournament committee? Who thought it was a good idea to plant yet another row of trees down the right side of 11? -- is met with a resounding refusal to answer.

A lot of this secrecy is just plain silly. For instance, the club has long conducted stealth architecture, adding new features, such as tees and bunkers, while obliterating all traces of the old ones. Back when the club first lengthened the par-4 opening hole, officials still listed it at 400 yards on the scorecard, which led to a joke among players that either the back tee had been moved or the golf shop had.

To the credit of the present administration, the club is frank about the most recent increases in yardage. The course will play 7,445 yards, par 72, this year. That's 155 yards longer than it played in 2005, and 520 yards more than in 1997, the year Tiger Woods won his first Masters.

The first has been stretched to 455 yards. The par-3 fourth is now 240 yards, the former drive-and-pitch seventh is 450 yards, the par-4 11th is 505 yards, the par-5 15th is 530, and the uphill 17th is 440. But don't bother asking for details on why the first hole keeps getting longer, or why the 11th hole has had three new back tees since 2001, or why the 17th tee was shoved over to the left tree line, or whether the club has devised an exit strategy in this escalating war against ever-advancing club and ball technology.

Length isn't the issue

Past champions are on shaky ground when they privately gripe about the new length of Augusta National. No one is forcing them to play the course with persimmon woods and balata balls. If their games can't take advantage of modern technology, and Augusta is just too long for them these days, then their beef is with Father Time, not the Masters chairman.

With the exception of a couple of holes, the yardage added to Augusta National makes perfect sense, given how far many competitive players hit the ball these days. Whether the proper holes have been lengthened is another matter.

But sheer yardage is not what has gotten Jack, Arnie and others of the Old Guard riled up. They're mostly upset about the tightening of many holes, through the use of expanded bunkering, transplanted trees and the introduction of rough, what Augusta National calls, in delusional parlance, "a second cut of fairway."

This is where Jack and Arnie are absolutely right. Far from maintaining the integrity of the design that Jones and Mackenzie envisioned, the changes undertaken since 1998 have abandoned their philosophy of multiple options and different lines of attack.

"They've totally eliminated what Bobby Jones tried to do in the game of golf," Nicklaus says. "Bobby Jones believed golf was primarily a second-shot game. He believed that you should have enough room to drive the ball onto the fairway, but if you put it on the correct side of the fairway, you had an advantage to put the ball toward the hole. He wanted to give you a chance to do that shot."

Gone are Augusta's wide corridors that allowed every competitor to play his own game off the tee, to pick the spot he thought provided the best angle of approach for his trajectory and shot shape. Squeezed-in fairways now dictate the manner of play on every hole. It's as if the Masters Committee thinks it's now running the U.S. Open.

Which makes one wonder just how much research Augusta National has really done regarding the original Mackenzie-Jones design. Mackenzie believed that if a good player hitting good shots couldn't post a good score on one of his courses, then there was something wrong with his design. Jones once wrote that he never intended Augusta National to be a punishing golf course.

Jones and Mackenzie believed in rewarding risk on the golf course. Most of that is gone now. Consider the par-4 first. The optimum angle, particularly when the flag was on the left, had long been from the far right of the wide fairway. Today, that area is rough--not particularly nasty stuff, but enough to affect the spin of the ball.

When the hole measured 400 yards, it took a carry of 247 yards to clear the bunker on the right and gain the best angle. Even in Jack's day, that wasn't much of a carry, not much of a risk. But it was the opening hole. With the tee moved back 55 yards, one would think the carry over the bunker would have increased 55 yards, to 302 yards. But the fairway bunker has been enlarged (and deepened), so it takes a carry of 331 yards to clear it. That's not a carry most players will attempt for their first shot of the day in the Masters.

It's as though, in establishing its new yardages, the club used as its benchmark not the average carry of tour players but the maximum carry of a select few. It has targeted very specific golfers. The carry to the fairway bunker on No. 2 is 319 yards. To clear the second bunker on the fifth hole is 319 yards. To clear the bunker on No. 8 is 319 yards. To reach the second bunker on 18 is 317 yards. It doesn't take much imagination to realize that not much imagination went into establishing these distances.

The best course designs challenge different golfers on different holes. Augusta National used to do that. It no longer does.

It's a shame, too, that the club has eliminated all but one short par 4 on the course. When it measured 360 yards, the seventh was a short 4 for everyone. Short hitters could hit a full-out driver and a wedge, and big hitters had to throttle back with an iron off the tee to leave a full wedge into the green. Now, at 450 yards, the seventh might still be a driver and short iron for Woods, Mickelson and a few other monster hitters, but many in the field will be hitting long-iron approaches or even hybrids into a tiny green designed to accept high, short-iron shots, not low-trajectory ones.

Last summer, the club also eliminated the old backstop slope on the right side of the seventh green, the one players could rely upon to spin a shot back down toward front-right pin positions. Now, shots hit to that area will bounce over, into the bunker. The seventh was never that easy. Statistically, it played around par during every Masters. That could go up a half stroke this year.

The club planted many mature loblolly pines along the left of No. 7, too, just because it can, I guess. The club added more trees on the 11th and 17th, to go with ones added during the past four years. Given years of sprawling growth, those trees could make those holes look as narrow as the tee shot on No. 18. Unless some are eliminated. But it's hard to think of trees Augusta has cut down. The Eisenhower Tree at the 17th became famous for the club's refusal to cut it down.

The irony, of course, is that Augusta National used to be the trendsetter in matters of course design. But now it's well behind the curve. While Augusta is on a tree-planting splurge, most other prominent clubs are removing trees, having finally recognized their adverse effects on strategy, playability and turf quality.

Palmer found the new trees an irritation when he recently played the 11th.

"All the area on the right, which had afforded the gallery the opportunity to see, it's totally filled with trees. I was surprised," he says. "And I asked the chairman, who's a friend of mine, 'What are you going to do about the people? Those fans are what make Augusta great.'

"'Well, we can't make everybody happy.' That's what he said. Well, that affects me, and my thoughts about it."

The older pines at Augusta traditionally had a bed of pine needles beneath them, which allowed players to attempt all sorts of recovery shots. The newer pines have rough underneath, deeper than the "second cut," and are planted so close together that the only recovery available is usually a pitch out. It's one more example of how Augusta has stifled some playing options.

Relics of history

For a club that takes immense pride in its history, it certainly has a cavalier attitude toward certain parts of that history. From the time Arnie won his first Masters in 1958 to Tiger's first victory, in 1997, the course measured, officially at least, 6,925 yards. But nearly all those tee boxes have been bulldozed away.

What's worse, members and their guests can't try their skills at that old classic length. There are just the 7,445-yard championship tees, overwhelming for average player, and the member tees, at 6,365 yards.

Fortunately, someone at Augusta National had the presence of mind to record all those old tee-box locations with a global positioning device. So they have the data on file. At the very least, the club ought to install small plaques in the old locations, for posterity's sake. Even better, they should construct small tee boxes on those locations, for the benefit of their members. Who wouldn't want to play Augusta National from the tees where Arnie and Jack once reigned?

Ron Whitten is a senior editor for Golf Digest magazine