Some, but not all, of the pre-tournament talk about course lengthening proved to be right.
When Augusta National officials added 155 yards to the course this year and narrowed several landing areas in the range of 300-plus yards off the tee, everyone knew the layout would play harder. In explaining the changes, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson emphasized requiring players to hit longer clubs into greens. He also was keen to punish long hitters who hit their tee shots off line.
In some cases, the changes worked. The biggest difference, as everyone noted during early-week practice rounds, came at the par-4 seventh hole, which had been stretched 40 yards to play 450 from the back tees. As late as 2001, it played as a 365-yard hole where everyone hit to the base of the hill, then hit a wedge to the shallow, plateau green. This year, it played like a long two-shotter, with short hitters such as eventual runner-up Tim Clark having to hit 5-iron into the green in Round 3.
The best index of how much harder that hole and others played this year comes in comparison to 2003-2005, a period when the holes at Augusta National remained unchanged in terms of distance. Overall, the average 18-hole score this year was 73.95, marginally lower than the three-year average of 74.17. While overall scoring dropped slightly, five holes saw higher scoring averages, four of them among those that had been lengthened the most. The leader among the harder holes, not surprisingly, was the seventh, which saw average scores jump from 4.086 the past three years to 4.215.
The second-highest increase on any one hole came at the newly toughened 11th, which perennially has been the hardest at Augusta National. The combined effect of an additional 15 yards and a much tighter fairway contributed to a scoring jump there from 4.354 to 4.475 in 2006. The hole yielded only six birdies all week, including a paltry two (by Larry Mize and Adam Scott) on the weekend.
The addition of a new tee 30 yards back and to the left on the now 530-yard, par-5 15th eliminated the ability of even the longest hitters to drive down the hill and hit short-iron second shots. Instead, players were regularly going at the green with fairway metals, hybrid clubs and long irons, with average scoring up slightly from 2003-2005.
Interestingly enough, two lengthened holes actually played easier. Adding 20 yards to the
first hole backfired because it took the fairway bunker all but out of reach and made the hole less risky. And the much-discussed par-3 fourth sported an extra 35 yards but also played easier, perhaps because tournament officials never fully stretched it out and on Friday used the forward tee.
For all the tinkering, the evidence is clear that Augusta National still is very much a bomber’s paradise. Clark’s second-place finish only proves that good ball striking and fine putting can overcome relatively short drives. Meanwhile, hitting it long pays off at the Masters.
The five longest drivers all week – Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples, Vijay Singh, Rod Pampling and Angel Cabrera (average drive: 294.8 yards) – had an average finish of seventh. The five shortest drivers for the week (among those who made the cut) – Ben Crenshaw, Nick O’Hern, Scott Verplank, Ben Curtis and Justin Leonard – (average drive: 270.1 yards), had an average finish of 32nd.