With bigger Augusta, short hitters become longer shots to win

April 06, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, GA. — AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --Don't believe the hype about golf primarily being a contest between man and nature.

The central battle is between golfers and the people who own and design courses - man against man, if you will.

Oh, sure, nature can pose its share of golf challenges, as anyone who has ever played 18 holes in a 35-mph wind can attest. (Don't ask.)

But course owners and their bulldozers can be the toughest foes.

That's the subplot of the 2006 Masters Tournament, for which Augusta National has undergone radical changes since Tiger Woods' 2005 victory.

Tired of seeing longer-hitting pros making a mockery of certain shorter holes, the members of the Augusta National Golf Club, who run the Masters, decreed that their course should grow, and then grow more.

Enter the bulldozers.

Six holes were lengthened by a combined 155 yards, and on top of a similar 305-yard expansion four years earlier, Augusta is now one of the longest courses ever to host a major championship, at a forbidding 7,445 yards.

Previously known for being fair and of typical length - a shot-maker's haven, accessible to all - the course has become such a monster that Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson suggested that only a dozen or so long hitters have any chance of winning this week.

"They've just bumped any short hitters out of the championship equation," Watson, a two-time Masters winner, told The Augusta Chronicle.

Phil Mickelson, the 2004 Masters winner, is among the long hitters who should thrive, but although the changes benefit him in theory, he doesn't foresee his life getting any easier.

"The course is just a lot harder now," Mickelson said after a Tuesday practice round. "I think it is going to play a full shot harder each round."

Thirty-five yards were added to the par-3 fourth hole, already a tough test. The hole is so long now at 240 yards that 1998 champion Mark O'Meara hit a driver off the tee during his Tuesday practice round. That's right, a pro hit a driver on a par 3 - yikes.

Woods, playing with O'Meara, also hit a wood instead of an iron for the first time on the hole, then later smiled and told reporters, "I've never hit lumber [wood] into 4. That's different. That's a tough hole now." (He later said the hole was fine as it was and didn't need to be "messed with.")

Also markedly tougher now is the par-4 seventh, which was lengthened by 40 yards and, according to Mickelson, went from being an easy birdie hole to a tough par. Only 15 yards were added to No. 11, already a tricky, downhill par-4, but a new grove of trees on the right side of the fairway will change everything from where drives are hit to how approach shots can be angled.

The changes are the inevitable response to years of increasingly sophisticated club and ball technology, golf's version of an arms race, in which the only aim is to hit balls farther. Golfers themselves are also in much better shape than before, thanks mostly to Woods' influence.

It was just a fact that they had outgrown certain holes, Augusta's included, and also just a fact that bringing in the bulldozers and adding length was the only appropriate response.

But while many believe it will only separate the long hitters from the pack even more, Mickelson warned there's another way of looking at it.

"Now we're going to playing for par [on the longer holes] like everyone else," he said.

The only certainty, and a predictable one, is the changes are causing a mighty fuss. Golf reveres its traditions like few other sports, and tinkering with the Masters is extreme stuff. Alister Mackenzie, one of Augusta National's original architects (along with Bobby Jones), died of heart failure, and Sports Illustrated recently suggested he would succumb to heart failure again if he saw the changes to his course.

"It's just not the gem of architecture it used to be," golfer Stewart Cink told The Augusta Chronicle.

On the other hand, 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples said he approved of the changes, and Scotland's Colin Montgomerie termed them "fine." Chris DiMarco, a relatively short hitter who lost the 2005 title in a playoff with Woods, said, "As long as it plays fast, I can still contend."

Tournament chairman Hootie Johnson explained that the changes actually take the course back to its roots, forcing today's golfers to hit the same approach shots that golfers of 30 years ago were hitting - before the arms race took off.

"It's just a gradual thing that keeps moving out on us," Johnson said of the length of shots. "I don't know that anyone has the answer."

In other words, as radical as this year's changes might be, they probably aren't the last Augusta National will see.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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