The power of precision at Augusta
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Deadlocked, they headed into a playoff that had to make Bobby Jones smile, given that they were men of diverse games. The massive ex-footballer, George Bayer, against the diminutive man from Taiwan, Chen Ching-Po. Power against precision. It spoke to the beauty of golf and validated the philosophies behind Jones’ beloved Augusta National Golf Club.
Bayer and Chen in a Masters playoff? Stop charging through the history books. It happened only as a prelude – the 1963 Par 3 Contest.
Sure, it’s a footnote, but at Augusta National even footnotes speak to its magic. Bayer, then the game’s longest hitter, winning on a short course is consistent with what Jones and Alister MacKenzie had in mind with their main stage, where short could conquer long.
Gene Sarazen, though hardly enamored with Augusta National when he first saw it in 1935, could even sense this flavor. “It doesn’t rank with Oakmont or Pine Valley as a tough course,” said The Squire, “but it takes real judgment and skill in playing approach shots.”
Exactly as the designer intended, for among the philosophies embraced by MacKenzie was this: “It would be possible to make a golf course measuring 5,000 yards a much finer test than some of those approaching 7,000 yards on which championships have been played.”
With the 75th birthday of the Masters upon us, one can only wonder whether the good doctor would cringe at Augusta’s 7,435 yards. Or, would he smile at the image of Zach Johnson transferring that green jacket to Trevor Immelman, trusty wedges and mid-irons at their sides?
Polished players, neither Johnson nor Immelman is a “bomber.” During the 2007 season when he won at Augusta, Johnson ranked 169th in driving distance on the PGA Tour. Immelman was 66th in that category in 2008, the year he triumphed.
Certainly, they seem to contradict a thought process that was born in 2002, the year Augusta National pushed beyond 7,000 yards. “It might be the wrong thing to say,” David Duval said that year and then continued: “If you keep adding yardage, I think you just keep eliminating people who can win there.”
Seven Masters have been played since, with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson – among the game’s biggest hitters – winning two each. The other three? Mike Weir, Johnson and Immelman, who all owe their blazers to aspects devoid of rocket fuel – Weir’s uncanny putting, Johnson’s precision wedges, Immelman’s crisp irons.
All of which means what?
“I think at the end of the day,” Immelman said, “the golf course is out there, and every player is going to have to find a way to unlock success.”
In 2005, Woods pounded tee balls so far that he went 7 under on the par 5s the last three days to overcome an opening 74 and win for the fourth time. With Augusta stretched to 7,445, Mickelson one year later made 13 birdies on the par 5s in a week when he would win at just 7 under. For their parts, Johnson and Immelman didn’t attack the par 5s. Johnson, in fact, didn’t try even once to reach in two.
“I had my limitations,” Johnson said. “I know how to approach every pin, and I think that’s what’s most important on the par 5s.”
Yet, Johnson played those par 5s in 11 under, as flawless a display of wedge play as the old fruitlands has ever seen. Ditto Immelman’s mid-to-short-iron pay in 2008, because he went a record-setting 10 under on the par 4s to more than offset his cautious par-5 strategy.
“I had to have 4-iron or less into the (par-5) greens to go for it,” Immelman said. “I decided I was going to try to make a score that way.”
Immelman made only four birdies (against one bogey) on the par 5s. What carried him was accuracy (48 of 56 fairways, tops for the week), which enabled him to hit 51 greens, second-best in the field.
If that resembles a U.S. Open recipe, Masters officials make no apologies. It remains part of tournament folklore that day in 2001 when then-chairman Hootie Johnson stepped off a Phil Mickelson drive on No. 11 at 361 yards.
“I was stunned,” Johnson said.
That same year, Woods closed out his victory with a massive drive that left him only 74 yards. Club officials shook their heads and harkened back to years when players had to hit 5- or 6-iron into the 18th, so they had seen enough. In 2002, players discovered longer holes at 11 and 18 and a course that had grown by 285 yards. In 2006, it grew another 175.
Players pouted and purists preached, but Johnson said it was the only way to make sure the course played similar to past eras. Given that recent winners such as Woods, Mickelson and Vijay Singh had boldly exploited the “shortness” of Augusta, club officials wanted a premium on accuracy and course management.
Bravo, said none other than Gary Player. “Players are hitting the same clubs into the first hole, the 11th hole, the 13th and 15th that we used to hit,” the three-time champion said.
That’s not rhetoric, because though Johnson and Immelman talked of needing more than 4-iron into the 15th, it’s duly noted that Sarazen used a 4-wood there to strike his famed double-eagle. Arnold Palmer, in a failed attempt to defend his title in 1959, hit 4-iron into 13. Forty-four years later, Weir hit 4-iron into 13 to set up a birdie that helped him win. Players during the past few years have needed 5- or 6-iron into the 18th and something even bigger into the opening hole.
So, have officials somehow brought the shot value back in line with past eras? Certainly, the days of Woods hitting wedge or 9-iron into 13 are over. But Immelman suggests his victory on top of Johnson’s reinforces the notion that ballstriking, wedge play and great putting are now, and always have been, the Augusta keys.
“(Jose Maria) Olazabal has won there twice. I wouldn’t say he was regarded as a long hitter,” Immelman said. “Ben Crenshaw won twice. I wouldn’t think he was regarded as long hitter. Gary Player (a three-time Masters champion) wasn’t regarded as a long hitter.
“People don’t look far enough down the history books to get an accurate reflection of what style of player can win at Augusta National.”
Consider 1934, for example, when the Masters debuted in modest fashion. Paul Runyan, a man of small size but enormous ballstriking skills, was favored. So, who won? Horton Smith, as deft a chipper as the game has ever seen.