- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Historians, take note. We have pinpointed the exact moment when Hootie Johnson, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, was once again proved right. Unquestionably a man of action, Johnson had ordered 155 yards and bunches of trees added to six holes for this year's Masters, and criticism of the changes was coming from all directions in the weeks leading up to the tournament. � Even Tiger Woods joined the crying game. On the eve of the opening round he ruefully admitted that during practice on the newly lengthened (by 35 yards, to 240) 4th hole, "I had to hit a three-wood into a par-3. I don't do that very often." And that was the tipping point. When Woods--a winner, not a whiner--joined the chorus of players bemoaning the National's increased difficulty, you knew Johnson was right. Because there is a truism on Tour: When most of the players are complaining, the course has probably been set up correctly. By the end of the week the new Augusta National had cemented its reputation as the world's most demanding course, and the Masters had retained its status as the world's most glamorous and exciting major championship. � All along, Johnson said that the club was "very comfortable" with the changes, so comfortable that he says Augusta National is no longer entertaining the notion of introducing a restricted-flight "Masters ball" for the tournament. The latest alterations, Johnson said, have succeeded in forcing today's players to use pretty much the same clubs for approach shots as their predecessors employed.
Maybe the Masters got lucky with the weather. During the opening two rounds the course played firm and fast for the first time in six years, which mitigated the layout's length (7,445 yards). It also helped that the 1st and 4th holes didn't play into the wind. In fact, it may have been an omen when the first player to birdie the longer (by 20 yards) 455-yard opening hole was 70-year-old Gary Player. It was quite a birdie: Player couldn't see the flagstick from where he was on the upslope of the fairway, 224 yards from the hole, but he struck a sweet four-wood to 18 feet and made the putt.
Did someone say the National was too tough? Player shot a seven-over-par 79. Vijay Singh had an opening 67 that, he said, was "one of my better rounds here."
Did someone say the National was too long? Charles Coody, 68, followed his opening 89 with a 74, his best score since 2001, and finished a shot ahead of Charles Howell, who is 42 years Coody's junior. Coody was actually one under through 15, but he bogeyed 16 and made a double at the newly lengthened (by 15 yards) 17th.
Did someone say only long hitters could play the National? Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, 54, hasn't been competitive even on the Champions tour, but he was on the leader board for two rounds before Saturday's rain finally put the new National beyond his reach. "The whole course, from the opening tee ball to the 18th green, is a much tougher examination now," Crenshaw says. "Length is always going to get its due--playing shorter clubs to the greens makes a huge difference, I can assure you. But no matter how long or short the course plays, you have to deal with these greens. They have been the main defense of this course, and they always will be."
Let's look at the specific changes. On the 1st hole the fairway bunker on the crest of the hill is in play, yet plenty of players reached the top with their drives and hit no more than nine-irons in. At the 4th the tee was moved up for the second round, when the pin was placed back right, and required a shot of only 180 yards. When the hole played at a full 240 yards (on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), a few players hit three-woods, but most played two- or three-irons or higher-lofted fairway woods or hybrids. "I didn't think you needed to mess with number 4," Woods said early in the week. "I thought it was one of the cool holes." Trust us, the 4th still is. And it remains Augusta's toughest par-3. Fred Funk paid homage to 4 during his Tuesday practice round. After he and Craig Stadler came up short of the green from the back tee, Funk pulled a skirt out of his bag--the one he donned in the Skins Game when Annika Sorenstam outdrove him--and held it up to Stadler's considerable waist.
The consensus was that the 530-yard 15th had needed a little more length--30 yards were added--but by shifting the tee to the left, the go-zone in the landing area was considerably reduced. At the par-4 17th, pushing the tee back brought the Eisenhower tree (now 215 yards out on the left) back into play.
The par-4 7th, 410 yards before the alterations, used to give players a breather. They could lay up off the tee and hit a wedge in. Now it runs 450 yards with trees on both sides of the fairway, so the players are forced to hit driver and hit it straight. Seven's a terrific hole now.
Only at the storied 11th was there a questionable change. While the 11th remains the National's hardest-won par--one player jokingly called the 505-yard par-4 the easiest par-5 on the course--the more than 50 pines planted to the right of the fairway also make it Augusta's most unsightly hole. Were that many trees really necessary? "Instead of having U.S. Open rough, you have a forest," says Phil Mickelson. "You don't have the ability to hit a shot from there. You can only try to get the ball back in play."
A handful of smartly planted trees, instead of the forest, might have accomplished the same goal and tempted players into trying heroic--and dangerous--recoveries. The sideways chip-out, the least exciting shot in golf, has never been a Masters staple, but it's now an everyday play at 11. The hole played so tough that Rocco Mediate felt guilty about dropping a five-iron shot to 10 feet on Thursday and making the putt for birdie. "You're not supposed to do that on that hole," Mediate said. "I actually apologized to the hole as I left."