2004: The Masters - Craving Masterpiece theater

So what do you do when somebody sneaks in and paints a mustache on the Mona Lisa? Sorry, but that’s what we as golf fans have been left with now that the 2-year-old changes at Augusta National have settled in. OK, so she’s not exactly a tired hag, but she ain’t the prom queen we once knew, either.

Basically, a vintage oil masterpiece has been torn up and colored in with crayon. You think baseball has a problem with steroids? Have you taken a good look at the back nine at Augusta National lately?

Two years after the layout’s dramatic facelift that lengthened nine holes, we’re left with an aging beauty that’s becoming less recognizable by the year, scarred by bulldozers and ugly stretch marks even the best Hollywood plastic surgeon couldn’t repair.

For this year’s Masters, the 11th hole has been made tougher, with three dozen trees added to the right side of the fairway on a par-4 hole that measures 490 yards. Let’s see, already No. 10 (which most believe is longer than the 495 it claims to be) is a much harder hole, as are Nos. 14, 17 and 18, the latter playing 60-65 yards longer than it did a couple years ago. Frankly, 18 now is a much better and more demanding finishing hole for a major. But players aren’t sold on all the other alterations.

When did the friendly little ol’ Masters turn into a U.S. Open?

“We don’t have any more short irons there,” said Ernie Els. “We used to have a little bit of fun.”

The par-3 12th, as always, is protected by mysterious swirling winds a modern-day Magellan could not calculate, standing tall as the toughest 155-yard shot in golf, and the slick putting surface at the par-3 16th rolls oh, about 55 on the Stimp.

Then we have Augusta National’s back-nine par-5 holes, 13 and 15. They were once a place for the supernatural. It was an eagle-3 at the then-475-yard 13th (and not a fortuitous ruling a hole earlier) that propelled Arnold Palmer to his first green jacket in 1958. Bobby Jones watched Palmer’s approach shot settle 18 feet from the flagstick, and later said he felt the same exhilaration as he had watching Gene Sarazen make double eagle at 15 more than two decades earlier.

By making the 13th hole longer (up 30 yards from ’58), club officials removed the likelihood of “extreme” scores. “You won’t see as many 7s on the hole and you won’t see as many 3s,” said Tiger Woods. “You’ll see a lot more 4s and 5s because you don’t have that risk of taking the ball around the corner...You don’t see too many guys playing out from the trees anymore trying to knock it on.”

The 15th is where 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus, his putter raised to the heavens, made eagle in 1986 to spark a back-nine 30 that made every middle-aged man in America feel as if he could go out and run a marathon. Or at least through a brick wall. Now 13 and 15 play like par 5s again. You know: driver, lay up, wedge, yaaaaaaaawn. Pass the No Doz. No risk, no reward.

There is an old proverb that to change and to change for the better are two very different things. At the Masters, home of the greenest grass you’ve never seen, a bunch of guys with gobs of money tried to protect their golf course against technology and the greatest golfers on the planet. You know what? Give them an “A” for effort, but something was lost in translation.

The eagles have dwindled and hence, so have the echoes from Amen Corner and on through 15. If you remember the Golden Sunday the Golden Bear came from nowhere with 30 to shoot 65, or recall Tiger shooting 40-30 to open the ’97 Masters, hope you took a picture. You’re not going to see that anymore.

Sure, Len Mattiace closed with 32 last year despite a bogey at 18, but the course conditions in Augusta’s newly lengthened state have been wet and soft. Wait until things get dry and firm. Guys are going to look like they’re headed to the electric chair.

With apologies to B.B. King, the thrill is gone.

“It has been (lost), no question,” said former Masters champion Tom Watson. “On 13 the magic has been lost, because a lot of people lay up. Thirteen should be played where the old tee was. Let ’em go around the corner and let ’em hit short irons in there if they can get there. But getting there is a problem. There are a lot of hazards there, and that green is not too receptive to any iron, much less a long iron.”

Two years ago, when Woods captured his third green jacket, the back nine on Sunday looked more like a nine-car pileup at Talladega. Knowing he wouldn’t be caught, Woods conservatively ho-hummed his way to 37 over his final nine. His closest pursuers (Retief Goosen, Phil Mickelson) managed no better than 35s.

For those of you who haven’t been there, the final holes at Augusta are played through a unique natural amphitheater in the hollows of an old indigo plantation. Last April, there were only eight combined eagles all week at Nos. 13 and 15. Pat Boone concerts are louder.

“I used to love that,” former Masters champion Fred Couples said of the crowd thunder from yesteryear. “You’d be on the 12th hole and you would hear a roar on 15 that would knock your socks off. Now you hear a roar when a guy birdies the hole.”

Don’t get the wrong message. The players cannot wait to get to Augusta National. The tournament is run incredibly. The setting is truly one of the most breathtaking spots on Earth. Most consider it the best event of the year.

“I love that tournament,” says Rocco Mediate. “I just wish they’d leave all these great courses alone. If Tiger or someone is going to shoot 20 under, so what? Who cares? When Jack shot all those low scores, they didn’t care. Just leave these courses alone. They’re already masterpieces.

“Why would you mess with a masterpiece?”

Good question.

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