AUGUSTA Ga. – A walk along the elegant, tree-lined fairway corridors of Augusta National Golf Club makes me realize that in a few key ways, this isn’t quite the same layout where in 1997 Tiger Woods won the first of his four Masters titles. The real question for anyone who cares about major-championship golf is whether there’s some sort of correlation between the changes here and the fact that Woods has not won here since 2005.
For someone who cares as I do about golf course architecture and setup, I’m still enough of a student of the pro game to know most of the guys on Tour are so good and of such quality in shot-making and scoring that they can win just about anywhere. The best piece of evidence is that short-hitting Zach Johnson won on a recently lengthened Augusta National in 2007 under cold, wet conditions in which the ball basically went nowhere. Instead of it being a handicap for Johnson, the plodding style of play needed to win proved less of an adjustment to him than to “bomb and gouge” players accustomed to flying the ball vast distances, getting a lot of roll and having a go at the par 5s. Johnson, of course, won in legendary fashion – by laying up on every par 5 and wedging his way to a green jacket.
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For sure, Augusta National is a whole lot longer now than it was in 1997. The lords of Washington Avenue have stretched the holes and finagled placements for back tees to have stretched the par-72 layout from 6,925 yards to 7,435. Lest anyone think that the 9.3 percent increase in overall length has been significant, it’s hard not to observe that the distance uptick corresponds almost exactly to the increase in average driving length on the PGA Tour – which has gone up by 9.2 percent over the same time – from 267.2 yards in 1997 to 289.8 last year.
If the intent has been to reduce the advantage enjoyed by long hitters, there’s no reason to think it has mattered. Longer hitters always have a big advantage, though at Augusta National, given the design and terrain, those golfers who carry their drives “only” 260 yards in the air and depend on roll now have less of a chance than ever. The lengthened tees (most of them completed in time for the 2006 Masters) orient players into upslopes that deaden shots that don’t carry and that forward-kick drives that do surpass the carry point on the fairway where the downslope starts.
Woods easily can reach those new carry points at Augusta National. The difference is that although Woods is a little longer than he used to be, many other players are even longer. In 1997, his average drive of 294.8 yards ranked No. 2 on Tour. Last year his 297.4 yard average ranked No. 32 on Tour.
Fifteen years ago, Woods seemingly could scramble from anywhere. At Augusta, that’s harder than ever because a number of holes have been girdled with pine trees, dramatically reducing the landing-area width on holes 7, 9, 11, 13, 15 and 17. In fact, the introduction of pine trees to narrow landing areas – and in the process, to impede the ability of spectators to follow the action – has changed the original architectural intent of what course co-designers Bobby Jones and Alistair Mackenzie had intended as kind of inland links, with many of the greens modeled on those at St. Andrews.
So much of the freedom and imagination required to score well at Augusta National have been replaced by an emphasis upon point-to-point target golf. It remains to be seen how well Woods can adapt to that style of play. One thing is certain: If he continues to putt this week the way he has putted in winning so impressively at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill, he’ll be able to overcome his tendency toward waywardness. And he’ll more than compensate for his relative – relative, only – decline in advantage when it comes to length.