Augusta decides to roll with ball

Far-flying solid cores spur course overhaul

Notebook

The Masters

April 05, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - It's not Tiger-proofing, it's Titleist-proofing.

Masters chairman Hootie Johnson admitted as much yesterday in announcing that a major overhaul of Augusta National is in the works for next year's tournament.

"We don't have those plans finalized," Johnson said. "We've been looking at those for four years, but we're confident that we're close enough that the changes will be made. A number of our par-4s will be strengthened from the standpoint of length and others have to do with accuracy off the tee."

Asked if the changes are related to equipment, in particular the ball that has become the rage of golf on all levels, Johnson said: "I think you hit it right. Someone brought up Jeff Sluman. He was regarded as a short hitter and now he's approaching being a long hitter."

Johnson said that noted course architect Tom Fazio would oversee the project.

Six-time champion Jack Nicklaus said he wasn't surprised to hear about the changes, and used the announcement as another platform to talk about how the juiced-up, solid-core balls are ruining the game.

"I think if you let the golf ball go any further, pretty soon we'll be teeing off downtown somewhere," Nicklaus said. "It's so simple to just restrict the golf ball. The golf ball I was playing last year isn't even considered a long golf ball anymore. It was the longest golf ball by the USGA's test standards two years ago. It isn't even remotely close today."

Nicklaus said he played a practice round here recently with his son, Michael, a mini-tour player in Florida. Even the younger Nicklaus could reach most of the par-4s with a driver and a wedge, or perhaps another short iron.

"Now here's somebody who isn't even a [PGA Tour] player," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus believes that records will be skewed by new technology, particularly the ball. While several manufacturers are now making the solid-core balls, the Titleist Pro V1 has been the most revolutionary. Several players have attributed their sudden, Tiger-like length to the ball.

Even Nicklaus, who uses the Titleist ball, said he is as long as he was in his prime.

"There's nothing wrong with Augusta National. It's a wonderful course," Nicklaus said. "To have it diminished by a golf ball because the manufacturers can't stand to have their golf ball go shorter ... and because the USGA can't stand up because they're afraid of being sued to death - and I don't blame them - [but] where do you go? The game gets ruined.

"I mean, you've got to stand up to this. Somebody has got to stand up to this sooner or later. ... We've got so many wonderful golf courses in this country that are playable and in the world that are playable with a golf ball that doesn't go so far. St. Andrews last year was an absolute joke. That golf course withstood the test of time for hundreds of years and all of a sudden there wasn't a bunker in play."

Knows Woods well

The first time Mike Weir played with Tiger Woods, the left-handed Canadian watched Woods win the 1998 Western Open by three shots. The next time they played together, in the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, Weir shot an 80 and Woods won by a shot over Sergio Garcia. The last time they played, in the third round of last year's Bay Hill Invitational, Woods went on to win, too.

All three rounds will help Weir get ready for today, when he is part of a threesome with Woods and 21-year-old amateur Mikko Ilonen of Finland. In fact, Weir isn't acting as if he's merely a piece of scenery on golf's biggest stage.

"I don't look at this as an opportunity at all. Tiger Woods happens to be playing with me," said Weir, 29, whose victory in last year's World Golf Championship in Valderrama, Spain, was his second on the PGA Tour.

Weir admitted that the circus atmosphere that followed Woods at Medinah affected him adversely, but doesn't expect the same craziness here.

`That stuff just doesn't happen here," Weir said.

Nor does Weir believe that a left-hander - and a low-hitting left-hander at that - can't win the Masters.

"You hear the same myths," said Weir, who is coming off a second-place finish in the BellSouth. "You have to hit the ball high and you have to hit it right to left. I saw Mark O'Meara win here. He doesn't hit it high."

Doing the honors

The tournament will get under way this morning with honorary starters Sam Snead and Byron Nelson hitting drives off the first tee. It will mark the last time for Nelson, 89, who has had problems with his hips after having his natural ones replaced. Snead, 88, suffers from a degenerative eye condition.

That ceremony, which will begin at 8 a.m., can be seen on the tournament's Web site at Masters.org.

The Masters

What: The 65th Masters Tournament, first of the four men's major tournaments.

Where: Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, 6,985 yards, par-72

When: Today-Sunday

Today's TV: USA, 4-6:30 and 9-11:30 p.m.

Defending champion: Vijay Singh

Field: 93 players, including five amateurs

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