2004: Masters course remains true

If there were any doubts about the Masters’ status as the premier tournament in golf, they were erased by the time Phil Mickelson’s birdie putt dropped on this year’s 72nd hole.

The first men’s major of the season delivered a moving tribute to Arnold Palmer, who played in his 50th consecutive – and final – Masters. It paused while the game mourned the death of a friend, caddie Bruce Edwards. It introduced an outstanding amateur, Casey Wittenberg, to the world stage. And when the smoke of a grand finale of shotmaking fireworks had cleared, the Masters had produced an enormously popular champion in Mickelson.

The Masters Tournament Committee couldn’t have scripted a better answer to critics of its recent efforts to fortify the storied handiwork of Robert Tyre Jones and Alister Mackenzie.

It’s no secret that the new-look Augusta National can play brutally hard. The opening-round scoring average last week – on a day when the usually lively winds were quite gentle – was 75.17. This was the first time since the course was significantly lengthened for the 2002 tournament that Mother Nature cooperated with dry weather before and during the event.

In addition, the tournament committee took a new tact in course setup, deciding to use more difficult hole locations in the first three rounds, apparently hoping to separate the wheat from the chaff early.

This year Augusta National was a particularly relentless test of concentration, thanks to the combination of recontoured and lengthened holes; firm, fast conditions; and some diabolical pin placements on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

In past years, said 19-time contestant Nick Price, “it would get progressively tougher as the week went on. It seems like now they’re going to give you some hard (hole locations) right from the get-go.”

Hole after hole, players were confronted with pins that are cut 7 to 12 feet from the edge of the greens. The cups were nestled next to bunkers or on the precipices of severe slopes.

Although there is no rule that stipulates a minimum distance a hole must be cut from the edge of the green, officials from the PGA Tour, the U.S. Golf Association, the PGA European Tour and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews use 9 feet as their guideline.

The Masters is a different animal. Augusta National officials say they, too, stick to a 9-foot standard, but that’s open to interpretation.

“It depends on what you call the edge,” said Price. “The point of no return or the edge of the green?”

On Sunday, the men in green jackets loosened the screws. A few tees were moved forward, and some usually brutal Sunday pins were passed over in favor of more accessible hole locations.

The payoff was one of the most entertaining afternoons in major championship history. It was a Sunday for the ages, with four players, including Mickelson, shooting 5-under 31 on the inward nine. Skilled shotmaking and nerve were rewarded. Luck was less of a factor.

Kudos to the Masters Tournament Committee for trusting their instincts and for their willingness to surprise. They had a Masters plan, one that couldn’t have worked better.

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