2007 Masters: New course design evens the playing field at Augusta

The party’s over at Augusta. It’s obvious from the tournament setup this year that the powers-that-be along Washington Road have decided to make players work for pars and birdies.

They’ve been at it for years, actually, what with 500-plus yards added, tighter fairways, fairway bunkers pushed back so they can’t be carried, about 1,000 pine trees to squeeze landing areas, and marginal rough (anyone who calls it “second cut” is just pandering) where fairways used to preside.

It’s a shame, really, since tinkering with rough and playing widths is contrary to the risk/reward philosophy embodied by the club’s original designers, Alister MacKenzie and Robert “Bobby” Tyre Jones Jr.

There’s a strong temptation to lay all blame at the feet of Augusta National officials along with their renovation architect, Tom Fazio.

But that’s losing sight of the fundamental changes that have overtaken the game at the professional level – all while the U.S. Golf Association was supposed to be monitoring equipment. The body’s recent efforts to limit grooves on irons in order to restore the punitive nature of rough is way

too little, way too late. Credit the players today. Credit their equipment as well. Credit the manufacturers. And credit the launch-monitor nerds and spin-optimizers. The result is an incredible talent compression of extremely skilled, powerful golfers with only marginal differences among them.

Thus the temptation to outwit this new generation. And finally, with firm and fast conditions prevailing all week, we got to see the difficulty of the “new” Augusta National. There certainly were premonitions Thursday and Friday of a tough layout, but the true day of reckoning arrived Saturday.

With cool weather and stronger winds (15-20 mph most of the day) limiting driving distances and forcing players to hit longer clubs into firm, slick greens, the scoring average jumped to 77.35 and banished

all red from the leaderboard. It started to look like the final-round bloodletting of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

The problem is that to test the world’s best players, course conditions are being squeezed and micromanaged down to the very margins of playability. Credit here must go in part to superintendents such as Marsh Benson and Brad Owen at Augusta, who can fine-tune agronomic mowing heights, fertility levels and moisture content down to the barest minimum of agronomic sustainability. As long as the weather stays dry, they always can add water discretionally – as they did Sunday morning to make the course a bit more playable. And tournament officials can carefully select more accessible hole locations in gathering areas to produce the kind of “go/no-go” excitement that we finally got a glimpse of during the final round this year.

The U.S. Open began doing this decades ago. USGA championship officials like to pretend that they don’t dictate course changes, but they certainly mandated to Oakmont this year that the fairways be narrowed and the fairway bunkers moved in closer to play. If players squawked about the setup at Augusta National, wait until they see Oakmont’s combination of deepened bunkers, lateral drainage ditches, severe rough and rock-hard, lightning-quick putting surfaces.

The problem comes when the course setup has no latitude or flex. All it then takes is a bit of bad weather or stiff wind to tip the whole playing surface over into the realm of the unplayable. Which is what happened Saturday at the Masters and is always going to be a threat, given the precariousness of setups.

The one place this won’t happen in 2007 is at Carnoustie for the British Open. In marked contrast to the torture chamber there in 1999, this year’s event will see a course with rough that is far more mild and with a 6-foot-wide intermediate layer alongside the fairway to stop balls from rolling to the dense rough. It looks like players will be able to play golf shots this time.

So maybe the British are learning. Apparently, the Americans are not.

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