Shackelford: Slower greens at Augusta beat storms, but Ridley faces tough decision

Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Shackelford: Slower greens at Augusta beat storms, but Ridley faces tough decision

Masters

Shackelford: Slower greens at Augusta beat storms, but Ridley faces tough decision

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Fred Ridley could drop the mic and leave Augusta National alone for another year. After all, Tiger Woods won the Masters for a fifth time. The 2019 Masters will join 1960, 1986 and 1997 in the iconic year department.

All is right with the world.

History reminds us though that the Lords of Augusta do not always like the way someone wins, even a Tiger classic. Clifford Roberts never shied away from making changes to the course no matter whom from golf’s Mount Rushmore had recently visited Butler Cabin. The late former chairman Hootie Johnson famously reacted to a few key shots during his tenure, leaving Augusta National with today’s over-forested 11th hole and issues developing at the 17th hole, where good drives in the fairway leave players shaping second shots around Johnson-era pines. 

But Fred Ridley is no Hootie Johnson. Just as Woods cautiously approached the course, so will Ridley in assessing the 2019 week given so many variables.

For starters, the course was unusually soft and slow, something telegraphed in Ridley’s early-week remarks.

Fred Ridley (center) watches Tiger Woods get his green jacket from Patrick Reed in Butler Cabin after Woods won the 2019 Masters. (Rusty Jarrett/Augusta National/via USA TODAY Sports)

“During our overseed period we saw four times the amount of normal rainfall,” he said. “To say that growing conditions were a challenge would definitely be an understatement.  And given the recent rainfall, the course will not play as firm and as fast as we would like it.”

Fairway speed is rarely an ingredient here because the club has presented longer fairways with the mowers pushing grain toward the tees. The ball rolled minuscule amounts, and all but 12 players still averaged over 290 yards. But having players openly note the lack of green speed and hearing Tiger Woods say words like “fuzzy” to describe them might be enough to make some chairmen panic.

Yet when Ridley, the former competition committee head, sits down and reviews the numbers, he will notice that slower greens helped the tournament finish Sunday.

Saturday’s third round was the lowest ever by scoring average (70.69) even as the Masters saw its largest field to make the cut (65). Three 64s on Saturday was a first, too. 

Yet with Sunday’s tee times moved up and the field paired as threesomes to beat thunderstorms, this year’s slower greens meant “only” a five-hour round Sunday. That’s much faster than recent years when Round 1 groups of three have pushed 5:30 in faster conditions.

Impact on pace of play

The numbers from the two back-nine par 5s most likely will not sit as well in Augusta. While both holes created moments of drama, the former icons of risk and reward now rely on the golf architectural equivalents of smoke and mirrors to retain traces of danger. At the 13th, the field recorded 17 eagles and averaged an all-time low of 4.474 in scoring since the hole was lengthened in 2002 or any year before that. Players had created a muddy, worn area on the tee by Sunday, all teeing up in the same right-side post due to a conspicuous overhanging limb. Tied at the time, Woods and Francesco Molinari had 161 and 180 yards left, respectively, for their approaches.
The momentous decision Ridley longs to restore was not part of the equation.

The par-5 15th, which appeared wider this year due to lost limbs on a once meddlesome left-hand pine, was lengthened in 2006 and yet has never played easier than it did in 2019, with its 4.532 average and 15 eagles.

By contrast, the revamped par-4 fifth hole played as the course’s most difficult with a 4.336 scoring average and just 13 birdies.

“While this hole now measures 40 yards longer, we believe this change maintains the original design philosophy of Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie, and not only continues our commitment to keep the course in step with the changing state of the game, but we believe it will have a positive impact on pace of play,” Ridley said.

He was correct about the pace, as players moved seamlessly to the new tee and never waited for shots to land on the fourth green. The club received praise for making the hole look like it had been there forever and returning a driver tee shot for most. As for channeling Jones and MacKenzie’s strategy, the fifth’s safe tee shot increased the length of the second shot and worsened the view of the softened green. But attempts to recapture the temptation to carry the repositioned fairway bunkers for a grand reward were not as successful, with a sloping fairway not reassuring players that a 320-yard carry would find legitimate reward. 

Woods might have lapped the field by more than one stroke had he managed just a single par at the fifth, having registered four bogeys this year and upping his career total there to 15 over, which ranks only behind his play at the first and fourth holes (17 over on each).

Wait and see

Augusta National’s next major move will be dictated by the results of distance-survey work by the USGA and the R&A, which are expected later this year. Even after the club bought property behind the tee, Ridley made clear he will not order a costly and risky extension of the 13th until he hears the distance verdict.

“Although we now have options to increase the length of this hole, we intend to wait to see how distance may be addressed by the governing bodies before we take any action,” he said. “In doing so, we fully recognize that the issue of distance presents difficult questions with no easy answers. But please know this: The USGA and the R&A do have the best interests of the game at heart. They recognize the importance of their future actions.”

If there is a vote from Augusta National, the chairman’s repeated disdain at the loss of a momentous decision at the world’s most strategic hole makes clear where he stands on distance.

Even after a momentous tournament.

(Note: This column appears in the April 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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