At Augusta, change adds up to big deposit in history

Addition of rough, moved tees greet field for Masters

April 08, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Those dark green patches of thicker grass framing the smooth fairways of Augusta National are what most golfers call rough. Here at the 63rd Masters, the new growth and other course changes might be called blasphemy.

The threesomes who will tee off in today's first round are the norm at PGA Tour events, as is the practice of having the same three play together in the second round. Neither has been done here since 1962.

What's next, giving the champion a red jacket rather than a green one?

In his first year as chairman of this hallowed event, Hootie Johnson sees the alterations as a sign that a tournament steeped in tradition is moving away from its past and stepping into the new millennium -- soft spikes first.

"What we hope to do is keep up with the world and the game of golf today," Johnson said at the annual state-of-the-Masters news conference yesterday. "All the guys are hitting it longer, they're in better condition and the equipment is better. We're attempting to strengthen the golf course and stay in tune with the times."

To do that, tournament officials started by fiddling with Augusta National's most well-known feature -- uniform grooming that barely differentiated between the grass on and off the fairway. They grew rough to 1 3/8 inches, well short of the typical four- to six- inch rough seen annually at the U.S. Open.

They also moved the tee boxes back on two holes, removed mounds on the 15th fairway and added 20 tall pine trees between the 15th and 17th holes.

Johnson said the changes weren't due to the way Tiger Woods obliterated the course two years ago with a record 18-under-par 270.

"I don't think we've ever made any changes in my 30 years here in response to a single player," he said. "All these changes that have taken place have been in the works for a number of years. We just hadn't been comfortable in making them. It just takes us a while to make up our minds."

Woods and other long hitters could gain an advantage from the way the course is likely to play. Moving the tee makes the now-575-yard second hole unreachable in two shots to all but a handful in the field. The now-moundless 500-yard 15th is a much tougher hole to birdie.

"I think the changes are good," Woods said Tuesday. "All the changes are beneficial to all the long hitters; there's no doubt about it. Some of the short hitters who could use the mounds at 15, they're now not there."

The most controversial change was moving the tee box at the par-4 17th back 25 yards. It's not merely the added distance to what is now a 425-yard hole, but that the famous Eisenhower Tree now comes into play.

The tree was unofficially named for former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who asked that the tree be cut down after many of his sliced tee shots found its branches. His request was made at the end of a members' meeting.

Clifford Roberts, who co-founded the club with the legendary Bobby Jones and served as its chairman until his death in 1977, reportedly told Eisenhower to sit down and called the meeting to a close.

Asked yesterday what Roberts might think of the changes, Johnson said: "I think he'd like them. We don't think we'd make them if he didn't like them."

Joked competition chairman Will Nicholson, "He [Roberts] had a vote."

If defending champion Mark O'Meara had a vote, he probably would have left the tee box at 17 where it was. O'Meara's ability to fly over the tree and make birdie helped him win last year's tournament.

It started a stretch of three birdies in the last four holes, including the last two, that helped O'Meara overtake David Duval and Fred Couples. O'Meara's winning score was 9-under.

"It bothered me before," O'Meara said of the tree. "Unless the conditions are right, I probably can't hit it over the Eisenhower Tree. I probably have to work around it."

Then there is the rough. Though there was some scraggly rough back in the early 1960s, it was more grass that was left uncut rather than cut with a purpose.

This year's decision was to reward accuracy and prevent players from spinning their recovery shots onto the green.

It might also serve as a cushion for errant tee shots headed for the woods.

"I think the rough is fun," said Couples, the 1992 champion. "Maybe next year they won't have it."

But Johnson, a semi-retired banker from Columbia, S.C., and a club member here since 1968, said: "I don't think it's experimental. It's come and gone before, but I think it's here for the foreseeable future."

This year's renovations, which brought the number of changes to more than 80 from the time Augusta National opened in 1931, are the most significant in number during one year.

"Not just in recent memory," Johnson said. "Maybe ever."

More are being considered, both to the course and to the tournament.

The club has already announced that qualifications for next year's Masters will be geared toward the world rankings and that winning a PGA Tour event will no longer mean an automatic invitation.

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