Then, in 1999, they added "rough" to the edges of Augusta National. Of course it's only 1 3/8 inches, and they cannot call it rough because Augusta National cannot have anything on its grounds as crude as rough and because the patron saint of Augusta National, Bobby Jones, who had this place built with St. Andrews in mind, was emphatically opposed to having rough anywhere near his golf course.
Thus the Augusta people dubbed the higher grass the second cut. And all was good. If the announcers at CBS Sports did their job right, then you never heard the word rough in their extensive coverage. More on that in a minute.
"They had to make changes," six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus says. "With all the advances in equipment and the way the golf ball flies now...." Nicklaus can get rolling pretty good when he starts talking about the way the golf ball flies now. His point was that the Masters people really had to lengthen and toughen the course. People have called it Tiger-proofing, but it's obviously much bigger than Tiger Woods. The 300-yard drive is standard now. Just about everybody has the 140-yard wedge shot in his bag. Nobody wanted golfers to come in and overpower Augusta National. Everybody wanted Woods and Phil Mickelson and the rest to face the same shots that Nicklaus and Palmer faced, which are the same shots that Sam Snead and Ben Hogan faced.
"Certainly there was an effort—a successful effort, I think, during the tenure of my predecessor [Hootie Johnson]—to restore a lot of the shot values that had become obsolete with the equipment and the ball," says Augusta National chairman Billy Payne.
This cuts to the heart of Augusta National's surprisingly effective plan: change to maintain. Reshape to stay the same. Of course there are side effects. While everyone appreciates that the course did have to grow—literally and figuratively—all of the changes have altered another tradition: the tradition of past champions playing in the tournament. When I started to cover the Masters in 1992, the older players were a huge part of the fabric of the tournament. They were, frankly, the main reason that the Masters was different. Past champions like Palmer, George Archer, Gay Brewer, Doug Ford, Tommy Aaron and Billy Casper, among others, would come to Augusta, wave to the fans and, sure, usually miss the cut. But they brought with them history, class and, yes, tradition.
Then ... they didn't. There has always been some grumbling among younger players that the old guys were clogging up traffic, but for a long time there was just grumbling. Then, in 2002, the Augusta National folks sent out a couple of indelicate letters to some of the past champions suggesting that maybe they no longer belonged on the more difficult course. The scarlet lett er of golf. Then, to seal the point, a mandatory retirement age of 65 was hastily instituted.
That same year the most beloved golfer to ever play Augusta, Palmer, said he was done playing in the Masters because "I don't want to get a letter."
"I guess you might say that I overfixed our problem," Johnson said the next year—this was when Augusta National was facing protests because it had no women members.* Johnson asked Palmer to return, and he did. The mandatory retirement age was scrapped as well.
*Of course Augusta National still has no women members. So that tradition remains, at least for now, though there are always rumors.
Still, over time, the older players have stopped coming. This year 1976 champion Raymond Floyd announced two days before the Masters began that he wasn't going to play anymore. "I'm 67 years old," he said, "and it's getting to a stage for me that I felt like I wanted to leave with really fond memories.... I didn't want to go out and embarrass myself."