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Short sighted

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Seems the mid-range distance hitters have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders.

The lengthening of Augusta National the past several years has turned the Masters into what many dub a bomber’s paradise. Despite recent victories by Mike Weir (2003) and Zach Johnson (2007) – both below average distance hitters – the motto remains the same: Those who hit the ball miles have a better chance to contend.

The concept grew more attention this year when, walking the Augusta grounds earlier in the week, the first thing that stood out was how soggy and spongy the fairways feel. The wetter the grounds, the less the ball will roll, the bigger the advantage to a power hitter. This is not rocket science.

“If you get a long hitter that is hitting it solid and straight and putting it well, shooting a 2-under round is probably going to be a little easier for them than it is for me,” said Johnson, who is tied for seventh after an opening round 70 here Thursday. “I think all of the media-types would say, ‘You’ve got to hit it long, it’s beneficial to have a long game at Augusta.’ I would agree with that.”

Yet, somehow, it isn’t the case. There isn’t a player on the top 10 of the leaderboard that you’d immediately recognize as a power player. Sure, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker and Lee Westwood can poke the ball out there a good bit but they don’t command large galleries because of the long ball like Bubba Watson or J.B. Holmes.

Dissect the PGA Tour’s driving distance statistics – realize they’re not always a true indication of a player’s length – and tournament co-leader Trevor Immelman is ranked highest among all players in the top 10 after Day 1 in a tie for 38th at 290.1 yards per rip. Immelman doesn’t ooze distance. Perhaps it’s because he’s smaller in stature, but, nevertheless, he’s not a noted bomber.

“It’s one of those courses that, it’s become so long now that I don’t think anyone can really overpower it so much.” said Luke Donald, an average-distance hitter who shot 73 and is tied for 33rd. “You might be hitting 7-irons instead of 4-irons, but you’re not hitting wedges into greens like you were a few years ago. You still have to really manage your game around here and have a very good short game.”

That’s why the tournament is more wide open Thursday night after Round 1 than it was Wednesday night before it. Last week, many prognosticators believed as many as 20-25 players had a chance at victory. By Monday morning, when seeing the condition of the course, the number was whittled down to 8-10. Now, it’s arguably as high as 43 players, which is everyone within five shots of leaders Rose and Immelman.

“I think Zach (Johnson) really just proves there is a different strategy to play on this golf course,” Rose said. “I think that sometimes being a shorter hitter, you can take a lot of the trouble out of play if you accept that the par 5s are three-shot holes.”

That’s how Johnson landed the green jacket last year and that’s how he’s doing it in search of his second consecutive coat this week.

“I do have a gameplan,” Johnson said. “Based on where I hit it, I know what I need to do. There’s only going to be so many options I can have because I can’t overpower it. I know where I need to miss it if I miss it and I know where I need to hit it if I have the opportunity.”

Seems like that secret finally is out.

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