Now that everybody’s heartbeat has returned to normal after the thrill-me, Phil-me Masters, it’s clear that a new trend is emerging in major championship golf.
It’s called entertainment.
I have seen two major championships in 2004, and they were remarkably similar. Both the Kraft Nabisco and the Masters showcased the same Sunday antidote for par-me-to-sleep golf.
The prescription: an easier, more birdieable course setup in the final round.
Where did this notion come from? It came from officials who really believed the old adage that “the tournament doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday.” They moved up a few tee markers and selected a few vulnerable pin positions.
The strategy worked. Each major produced birdies and eagles in the final round. It made for dramatic, nail-biting finishes.
Both events were won, not lost. Neither turned into a survival contest. Par wasn’t good enough. Both winners birdied a path into the golf history books.
Grace Park birdied Nos. 9, 10 and 11 to take the lead in the final round of the women’s major. On the last hole, after Aree Song made a stunning eagle, Park sank a 6-foot birdie putt for a one-stroke victory.
Like Park, Mickelson birdied the last hole to win the Masters by one. Down the stretch, he birdied five of the final seven holes to edge Ernie Els.
It was great theater. It was riveting. It was the kind of entertainment that draws and keeps new fans.
What we saw at the Masters was this: Sunday pin positions on Thursday and practice-round pin positions on Sunday.
Look at the par-4 11th, for example. The traditional back left pin position on Sunday – forcing players to cut across the corner of the pond to get close to the hole – was replaced by a wide-open, back-right target. In the final round, K.J. Choi drilled a 5-iron shot into the hole for an eagle.
The par-3 16th surrendered aces in back-to-back groups Sunday. The normal Sunday pin position in the back left was used Thursday.
Sure, there was a mix every day of easy and tough pin placements, but the toughest days by far were Thursday and Friday.
On Sunday, golfers birdied their brains out. The fans loved it. So did the players. Els, 2 over par in the early going, made two eagles and finished 5 under.
With the back nine severely lengthened, some Augusta National members became alarmed that the great closing scores of the past would never be repeated. The remedy, as discovered this year, is shorter tees and easier pins on Sunday. Welcome back, back nine.
Augusta National is a very difficult golf course. But today’s players are immensely skilled. They can take apart any course with short rough and accessible pin positions. They found both in the final round of the Masters.
At the Kraft Nabisco, one smart decision transformed the tournament into a spellbinder. The par-5 18th was shortened by about 40 yards, allowing players to go for the island green with their second shots.
This had been suggested for years. Finally it was done, and Song’s 72nd-hole eagle was the result. After Song successfully launched her second shot onto the green, Park laid up short of the water. Ultimately she had to get up-and-down from 100 yards for birdie and victory.
Two majors, two winners who birdied the final hole. Welcome to 2004, the year that golf and show business merged their assets.
Tournament golf is governed by two basic philosophies:
4The survival test, in which the last player standing is the winner. This is best exemplified by the U.S. Open. Par is a good score on any hole, and consistency is heavily rewarded. There are plenty of bogeys.
4Something we might call “that’s entertainment,” in which the principle idea is to promote birdies and eagles. Par is tolerated but not sought. Bogey is a dirty word.
The Champions Tour, with little rough and a few exaggerated yardages, clearly is in the entertainment camp. How low can they go?
What we saw at the Kraft Nabisco and the Masters could be the future of golf. When the red light flashes and live television is on the air, par breakers are the order of the day. Everybody loves low scores.
We live in a nonstop, action-packed, video-game society. Golf is not immune to these influences. Young golf fans want spectacular results. This year, so far, they’ve received them.
Even the Masters, where men in green jackets continually recall the spirit of Bobby Jones, showed that modern golf can teach an old tournament new tricks.
Golf can be very, very exciting, and the 2004 Masters helped advance that conclusion.
In the public eye, the popular Mickelson is no longer just a cute family man and a golfer who hits flop shots. He hardly executed a flop shot all week, and he won the tournament in a measured, confident fashion. He did not go crunch when it came to crunch time. He grew stronger and less assailable by bogey.
This is good. Golf is good. It’s a new Phil. It’s a new year. Be still, my beating heart.