Augusta changes will be the talk of the tournament

The gates have yet to open officially, and already there is conversation. Lots of it. It seems to be a big story every year, and it will be again next week when the 70th Masters Tournament is played.

For what feels like the 70th time, the Augusta National course underwent significant change.

That is an exaggeration, of course, but it is no stretch to say the alterations are controversial.

Past champions and Augusta National members Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have weighed in, both saying in a Golf Digest story that they are uncomfortable with what has taken place.

And several participants who are eligible for the tournament journeyed to the course in recent weeks to get in some practice and check out the differences.

"I did see the changes, obviously, and they are quite major," said Ernie Els, who visited Augusta National for two days before the Bay Hill Invitational.

Tiger Woods, who got his fourth Masters win last year in a playoff over Chris DiMarco, took in 36 holes at Augusta National three Sundays ago and described it as "interesting, very interesting."

After adding 285 yards in 2002, Augusta officials spread another 155 yards over six holes this time.

The real eye-openers are at the par-3 fourth, which has been stretched to 240 yards (it can play to 260 because it has such a big tee box), and at the par-4 seventh, which used to be considered a short, tricky hole but is now 460 yards.

To find the first tee now, you need only walk toward the practice putting green. They are just a few yards apart.

"I didn't hit enough club to No. 4," Woods said. "I needed a wood to get to 4. [No.] 7 is certainly changed. It's a totally different hole now. [No.] 1 is 300 yards just to get to the [fairway] bunker. If we get any kind of cool north wind, you won't be able to see the flag [for the second shot]. You won't be able to see the green. Some of the changes are pretty dramatic and certainly going to be very interesting if the wind ever blows."

The other changes occurred at the 11th, 15th and 17th holes. In all cases, the tee was moved to make the hole longer and bring original landing areas back into play. The 11th is especially troublesome, as the par-4 plays to more than 500 yards and has had trees added down the right side of the fairway. That means a tougher tee shot, and a much more difficult second shot to a green guarded by water.

Almost all have suggested that if the potential pool of winners has not been reduced greatly, it at least will be much more difficult for a player of medium length off the tee to win.

"It eliminates a lot of guys, yeah," Woods said.

Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, is not counting himself out, but he knows it will be much harder to win now. His comments were the strongest, as he suggested Augusta National founder and golf legend Bobby Jones "would be like, 'What are you guys doing?'

"I don't know what they're doing," Weir said. "I don't mind them lengthening it. ... What disturbs me is they are getting away from the character of the golf course. They're bringing all these trees in."

Weir said he wasn't aware until he got there that the tee at the par-5 15th had been moved back 20 yards and to the golfers' left. He was surprised so many trees had been planted at the 11th hole. He believes that the accuracy will be rewarded more than ever but that the longest hitters still will have an advantage.

"All in all, it's very tough," Els said.

All this, and we have yet to get to Masters week.

Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.