Why defending the design of Augusta National matters

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 07: Patrick Reed of the United States chips in for eagle on the 15th green during the third round of the 2018 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2018 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Why defending the design of Augusta National matters

Golf

Why defending the design of Augusta National matters

New Masters chairman Fred Ridley did something none of his six predecessors would have considered: He mentioned Dr. Alister MacKenzie twice in his pre-Masters press conference and never uttered the name Clifford Roberts.

Rarely is the great golf architect and co-designer of Augusta National acknowledged by a chairman. The Good Doctor does, however, have a pub named after him at Berckmans Place, the club’s high-end social experience near MacKenzie’s beautifully sculpted fifth green. As the Depression took hold, the club ran out of money to pay its architect and over the years have focused on the role of Bobby Jones as the primary figurehead along with co-founder Roberts. This, even though MacKenzie spent more time on site here than at just about any course he built.

Ridley’s acknowledgment of the great MacKenzie signaled to architecture aficionados that the new chairman believes the club’s ties to the Good Doctor are to be embraced.

“Our golf course has evolved throughout Augusta National’s history,” Ridley said. “Bobby Jones was intent on keeping the course in step with the ongoing developments of the game. So considerate, incremental improvements have taken place over the years because we remain committed to protecting the shot values Mr. Jones and Alister MacKenzie devised.”

The chairman then proceeded to gently admonish golf’s various organizations to “work together in the best interest of the game as this important issue evolves.”

Later, responding to a question on the club’s stance, Ridley made clear how serious he is about restoring some of the lost “shot values” of the course’s co-architects.

“There’s a great quote from Bobby Jones dealing specifically with the 13th hole, which has been lengthened over time, and he said that the decision to go for the green in two should be a momentous one,” Ridley said. “And I would have to say that our observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision. And so we think there is an issue, not only there, but in the game generally, that needs to be addressed.”

With those words, the new chairman made clear his main focus will be on defending Augusta National. After all, not much needs refining in the overall operation. The revised patron entrance and merchandise building opened to positive reviews and, outside the usual grumbling about cell phones, the tournament has never been in a stronger place.

Ridley’s comments suggest that after 11 years setting up the course before handing over those duties to a committee headed by Jim Hyler this year, he might be tired of seeing the club having to go to great lengths to deal with the
great length of today’s players.

Take, for instance, the fairways. It’s been well known the club grows them a tad longer and mows toward the tee boxes. But one former champion was explaining that he has noticed a decrease in playing quality due to what looks like a light ryegrass overseed. The tactics slow down drives and might even impact spin control into the greens. But compared to the turf quality of most fairways players see each week on the PGA Tour, Augusta National’s have begun to stand below the rest.

If the club could abandon the roll-stopping ploys, the ground game so loved by MacKenzie and Jones could be restored. There could be an expansion of lost width, because a faster-running course would actually play the same or narrower. Tight fairway turf reaching all the way to the pine needles would look better, play better and align the course with the links-inspired values of the architects.

Ridley can only make that change if driving distances are somehow throttled back a bit. Otherwise, most of the elite young players would turn a hole such as the par-5 15th into a drive and a sand wedge.

Until something is done on the distance front, the chairman might have to turn his attention to restoring lost MacKenzie design elements. Not many would be sad to see the trees planted on the club’s famous 11th hole in 2002 turned into furniture. Similar swarms planted at the seventh, 15th and 17th are not getting any smaller and would not be missed if made into bedroom sets.

Should Ridley want to tackle a more sophisticated restoration, he could pull out old photos and put the third-hole fairway bunkers back to the original lone hazard that existed until 1982. Consulting his friend Ben Crenshaw about how to widen out that fun, short par 4 and recapturing lost options envisioned by the architects would not be controversial.

Further speculation on course changes is moot if Augusta National has to devote more time and money to adding more tees that keep strategy relevant. Ridley could easily rest on the laurels of 2018’s great weekend, where the rain-softened course played so dramatically. But having overseen course setup for so many years, Ridley has the gravitas that comes with a U.S. Amateur title on his résumé to delicately balance the needs of the tournament and member play, and to keep a historical perspective often not fully grasped by some previous chairmen. 

Ridley also is uniquely qualified to explain how 2018’s incredible weekend scoring is both a wonderful statement about the skill of today’s players and a sign that some of Augusta National’s creative tension is gone. Those momentous decisions so cherished through the years are slowly disappearing and likely to further erode under the weight of a changing game.

That’s a tricky case to make coming off another satisfying Masters. But Ridley knows Augusta National will gladly do as it pleases and everyone will return next year eager for more. Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the April 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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