The tinkering seems to be working. The famed quartet of par 5s at Augusta National Golf Club, scrutinized each spring like no other set of par 5s in the world, have managed to keep their strategic character, despite the onslaught of technology, improved playing skill and increased driving distances.
As fashionable as it is among traditional circles to lambaste Masters officials for altering a classic masterpiece, the fact remains that recent alterations to the par 5s have achieved exactly what club and tournament officials have sought – preservation of the original strategy of the holes while adjusting to new conditions of championship play.
Augusta National, opened in 1933 and designed by Alister MacKenzie and Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones, virtually invented the strategic par 5 that was readily reachable in two bold shots – what was termed at the time the “par 41⁄2.”
Augusta’s par 5s, especially the water-bound 13th and 15th, quickly became the cornerstone of the Masters, the turning points where the fate of the winner (and losers) would be decided.
The defining moment for the 5s occurred in 1935, when Gene Sarazen holed out a 4-wood from 235 yards for a double-eagle 2 on No. 15 to tie Craig Wood, whom he beat the next day in a playoff.
As late as 1976, Masters winner Ray Floyd needed 5-woods for his second shots to reach the par 5s in two. The advent of the Tiger Woods era put short irons in the hands of pro golfers for second shots on the par 5s, thereby relegating these strategic holes to little more than par 4s.
Starting in 1998, club officials, working with architect Tom Fazio, took steps to strengthen the par 5s while preserving their original strategic character. In 1999, the par-5 second hole was lengthened 20 yards, just enough to keep drives on the top of the hill rather than have them bound way down. That same year, “forward kick mounds” in the 15th fairway were removed, making it more difficult for players to reach the crucial point from which they could confidently reach the green in two. For the 2002 Masters, the 13th hole was lengthened and its fairway made more demanding; the same basic changes to the eighth hole that year made the uphill par 5 marginally tougher to reach in two.
Augusta National chairman William “Hootie” Johnson, explains the changes from a historical perspective: “As Bob Jones used to say, one of the guiding principles at Augusta National is that our par 5s should be reachable by two excellent shots. We still adhere to that today.”
The changes have not been drastic, but they have helped the par 5s become a little less of a pushover – certainly when compared to average PGA Tour par 5s (see chart below). In 1995, for example, three of Augusta National’s par 5s played easier than the average par 5 on the PGA Tour. For the last two years, as average PGA Tour par 5s have played easier than a decade ago, Augusta National’s play a little tougher than average. They’re still reachable in two, but the drive has to be better, and the risk/reward ratio roughly has been restored closer to the original design intent.
Not that Augusta National officials are satisfied or confident that they’ve reached an optimal outcome. As Johnson explains, “We monitor all of our holes. Club selection and distance to the pin for a player’s second shot is the type of information that we pay close attention to.”
While “the course is the way we want it to be this year,” said Johnson, “we will continue to study possible improvements. With our changes, we wanted to remain true to the concepts that Bobby Jones, (club co-founder) Cliff Roberts and Alister MacKenzie had envisioned. While the days of players hitting 2- and 3-irons to par 4s may be over, we do not want this to become a driver-wedge course.”
As the only layout that is home each year to a major championship, Augusta National showcases changes in playing character and technology like no other golf course in the world.
“We are, of course, concerned about the impact that technology is having on the game,” Johnson said. “We still believe we have some options, but they are not unlimited.”
One simple way to deal with the problem would be to follow the trend on Tour away from par-72 championship venues and to offer fewer par 5s. However, when asked if there would ever be any consideration given to making one or more of the par 5s into par 4s for The Masters, Johnson had a succinct answer.