The Masters was once the most exciting golf event in the world, but club members anxious to protect the reputation of their course, as well as modern agronomy and Augusta National's dreaded Cup and Tee Marker Placement Committee have turned the tournament into a springtime version of the U.S. Open, sans rough. Often Augusta National seems just a few short steps from the point where windmills replace the flagsticks. When the course is hard and dry, as in 1993 and '94 and this year's weekend rounds, spectators giggle at the contestants and their miniature golf escapades, and golfers grumble about Augusta the way they used to about The Players Championship's stadium course in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Chip shots trickle across greens and into water hazards. Balls take funny Pete Dye bounces. Good shots are not rewarded. All that's missing are some railroad ties and an island green.
These days in dry conditions the Masters is seldom about thrilling charges through the Georgia pines a la Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Snead and Ballesteros. It has become an annual game of up-and-down, par-saving golf. The booming roars that shake the ground and echo up through the valley to salute a birdie or an eagle are giving way to collective silences or moans of disappointment as players bogey hole after hole. The excitement meter doesn't run in the red for long.
Last year the average score at the Masters was 74.19, nearly one stroke higher than in 1993, and more than two higher than in 1992. After this year's practice round, players said they had never seen the greens harder early in the week. But Thursday rains softened the course, and players shooting in the 60s flooded the interview room. The green jackets' worst fears were being realized. The course, with its short par-5s and closely cropped rough, became defenseless when the greens were not rock-hard, which makes it clear why the tournament committee feels compelled to trick up Augusta National. The average score at last week's Masters was 72.59, proving it is nearly impossible to trick up a wet golf course.
Masters officials claim that tricking up the course is not their intention. "Unless it rains, our greens are fast and firm," said tournament chairman Jack Stephens. "I don't know what they mean by 'tricking up. 'We don't do that."
There are those who beg to differ. The outcry began in 1988, when '79 Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller shot 66 in the second round and then blasted the green jackets for turning the golf course into a morgue. "When I first came here, the greens were the perfect speed," Zoeller said. "If you had a downhill putt, you had a chance. Now you tap it and just pray to God you get it down to within eight or 10 feet of the hole. If that's golf, I'm in the wrong damn league."
That same year Charles Coody, the '71 champ, referred to putting at Augusta as "goony golf." "It embarrasses you," he said. "Sometimes you do stuff where you want to walk off and hide. I try to look at it as I would if I stood behind the ropes watching. If I want to see 75s and 76s and people three-putt from six feet, I'll go to my club and watch members."
"We have the highest respect for the players," retorted then Masters chairman Hord Hardin. "We would do nothing to embarrass them." This from the man who once said he would provide ice skates on the first tee to players who thought the greens were too fast.
The seeds of controversy were sown, literally, in 1981, when Augusta's greens were converted from Bermuda to much faster bent grass, commonly used in the Northeast. The consensus among the players was that bent grass wasn't meant for steep, mounded, elephant-grave-style greens. Augusta's ultrafirm greens became very i difficult to hold and even harder to putt.
Although there had been many changes to Augusta National over the years, this was the first major adjustment to be greeted with fervent disapproval. Most of the early modifications to the original design of Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones were considered good ideas. When the first Masters was played, in 1934, today's back nine and front nine were flip-flopped. In 1935, after tournament organizers realized that morning frost took too long to thaw on the shaded, low-lying greens of what were then the 1st, 2nd and 3rd holes, they switched the nines. Robert Trent Jones totally redesigned the 16th hole in 1947, moving the tee and green and damming Rae's Creek to create the pond that makes this one of Augusta's postcard holes. Three years later, Jones added the pond in front of the 11th green, which Raymond Floyd found in his playoff loss to Nick Faldo in 1990.
The golf course has been lengthened considerably over the years, with tees moved back at the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th holes. But the extra yardage has not offset the increased club-head speed of today's players or other technological advances. "These guys are hitting it miles farther," says Pete Dye. "It's a crime these older golf courses are outdated because of modern equipment."