2002 Masters: Augusta renovations and weather increased difficulty

Augusta, Ga. | Augusta National played longer, slower and tougher than a year ago, thanks in large part to extensive renovations. Wet weather also was a factor, so in some sense the jury is still out on the success of the course changes.

Club officials are not going to sit out a season, however, waiting for next year’s tournament, as plans are under way for renovations to one more hole at least.

The statistical evidence for greater difficulty at the 66th Masters is clear. Tiger Woods’ winning score of 276 was four shots higher than his victorious total of 272 in 2001. Tenth place this year was 3-under-par 285; last year it took 8 under to tie for 10th. The overall field score this year was 73.44, almost a full shot higher than last year’s 72.49 and all but identical to the all-time cumulative score of 73.47. This year’s cut (147) was two strokes higher than a year ago. As for the back of the field, there were 12 scores of 80 or higher this year compared with 11 a year ago. But at the top of the leaderboard, the difference was astonishing: Only 19 scores in the 60s this year, compared with 50 last year.

Part of the explanation for the generally higher scoring is a much changed course: 285 yards longer, with tougher carries over fairway bunkers and narrow landing areas to play. But the scores also are attributable to sloppier weather, reduced roll in the fairways and a course whose playing character was totally different for the tournament than it was during the practice rounds.

Ben Crenshaw, two-time Masters champion and a distinguished designer in his own right, said it best after an inch of rain soaked the course during the second round. “We aren’t seeing how the distances are in dry conditions. It is now playing as tough as it can play.”

As the course dried up for the fourth round, conditions became even more varied, with some fairways mowed and relatively dry and others wet enough that they couldn’t be mowed, presenting golfers with dreaded “mud balls.”

All week, every player had to deal with more demanding tee shots and longer approach shots into greens. A year ago, Phil Mickelson hit a drive to within 94 yards of the 11th hole. This year, his approach Sunday was from exactly twice that distance. More decisive in the final round was lengthening the tee shot on the dogleg-left, par-5 13th by 25 yards. Ernie Els came to the hole Sunday within shouting distance of Tiger Woods, only to try hitting a 3-wood off the tee when, as he later admitted, he knew it was probably the wrong shot given the longer, tougher drive. “I got greedy,” he said. The result was a triple-bogey 8 that took him out of the tournament.

Risk and reward – and punishment, too. That’s more or less what tournament chairman William “Hootie” Johnson had in mind a year ago when he called upon architect Tom Fazio to restore some of the shot-making demands to a course that had been playing easier – or at least shorter – in recent years thanks to steady equipment advances and stronger, more disciplined golfers.

Seven of the altered holes played tougher this year than they did on average over the past five years, none more so than the par-4 18th (see chart). The addition of 60 yards to the tee shot, plus expansion of the fairway bunkers, made the hole .21 shots harder in 2002 than over 1997-2001 and moved it from a relatively weak finishing hole ranked 11th in degree of difficulty to the hardest hole last week.

If there was a sleeper out there, it was the par-4 seventh hole. At 360 yards, it was a lay-up off the tee and flip wedge uphill to a tightly bunkered, turtle-backed green. Fazio’s team added 45 yards, pinched the fairways and created a little more left-to-right tilt to the landing area. All of a sudden, the best players in the world found themselves having to hit driver, knowing if they missed the fairway, they had little chance of holding the green with their approach shot – and they were hitting longer clubs with lower trajectories that made it tougher to hold the putting surface.

The wet conditions made the course play extremely long, but also took the kick out of the ground game, which to professional golfers is a more frightening prospect. There was general agreement among the players that if conditions next year are dry and the ground game is firm and fast, the scores will be even higher than they were in 2002.

Not that the gentlemen in green jackets will rest on their laurels. Plans already are afoot to renovate the 435-yard, par-4 fifth hole in time for next year’s Masters. The hole is no pushover, having played to an average score of 4.16, making it No. 7 on the difficulty list, with almost all of the hole’s trouble concentrated at the severely sloped green.

One much-discussed possibility is to swing the fourth green to the right and create room for a dramatically lengthened tee shot on No. 5. But Johnson scotched such rumors in his pre-tournament news conference, leaving Fazio to work with a hole that’s severely constrained, including a boundary road down the right side. The tee can be moved back only about 10 yards. Two fairway bunkers of little consequence on the left side easily can be moved deeper into the landing area to pose more of a challenge on the tee shot. There also might be room for a completely new green behind the present putting surface, but it’s unlikely the club will be that aggressive.

As part of the renovation work, Fazio’s team continues to chart shots on every par 4 and par 5. The data bank is a valuable source of information. The planning process also includes extensive consultation with club and tournament officials, but not, interestingly enough, with the professional golfers.

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