Alterations To Augusta
Rough and Tough
Change has been the rule at Augusta National and the Masters for 65 years, yet almost every change has been met with trepidation and resistance. Last year the National took a quantum leap by adding rough. This year the fairways were narrowed. As the players got their first look at the course in the days preceding the tournament, the cries rang out: The place was losing its distinctiveness; it was ugly; the vaunted birdie runs would stop. Tom Weiskopf, himself an architect, likened the course to a med-school cadaver—sliced and diced. Jack Nicklaus, a six-time winner there, said the work of the architect hired to make the latest changes, Tom Fazio, looked like the effort of "somebody who doesn't know how to play golf."
Guess what happened when the tournament began? Nothing. Everything we like about the Masters remained intact or was enhanced: There was the outstanding leader board; the game's power players came to the fore; Nicklaus made a cameo; and Vijay Singh's winning score of 10 under par had a major-championship heft.
After Tiger Woods went 18 under to win in 1997, when he and several others were reaching most of the par-4s with a driver and a short iron, the club had to make a choice. One option was to leave everything alone. That would have meant that some future winner would probably shoot 22 under. Or the greens could be made even faster and trickier. That would mean that rounds would last more than six hours.
Instead, Augusta chose a third option: growing rough, or what the club calls the second cut, because the grass stands only inches tall—what muni players would consider manicured. Unlike U.S. Open rough, which is designed to exact a half-stroke penalty for those who drive into it, the cost for venturing into Augusta's is more subtle. All that happens is that a player cannot spin the ball as much as he can a shot from the fairway, which makes it harder to stop the ball close to the hole on the course's firm greens.
The effect has been significant but not stifling. In 1997 and '98 the field hit more than 83% of the fairways. Last year that number dropped to 69.5%. This year, with most of the fairways narrowed by another two yards and those at the 9th and 10th brought in 10 yards, the percentage went down even more, to 65.0%. At the same time, the percentage of greens hit in regulation dropped only marginally—from about 59% in '97 and '98 to slightly more than 56% in '99. This year the percentage increased to 60.8%.
What this means is that, in essence, Augusta is asking for a little more from the players—a little more strategy, a little more thought off the tee and a little more skill at how to read flier lies. These are things that the best players do better than the others and that produce the best winners.
The rough doesn't kill the long hitter; it nourishes him. Even Nicklaus, who claimed that he does not like the changes, says, "[The rough] rewards power more, because the farther you hit it, the more you can negate the rough." Adds Davis Love III, another big hitter, "They did it just right. The changes they are making will always make it better for the long hitters who can putt. About the only thing is, there are fewer eagles, so I guess they're saving on crystal."
That touches on the strongest point raised by those who wish Masters officials would leave the course alone. "What the club has done is fine, but the golf's not as fun to play or to watch," says two-time champion Ben Crenshaw. "It's not as interesting a course. You can't pull off the fun shots, and that's what really made this tournament so special—the fun of playing."
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