Augusta's Altered Course

John Feinstein shares his Masters knowledge.
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

AUGUSTA, Ga., April 9 -- Augusta National lengthened its course by nearly 500 yards in 2002, but it took another five years and what club chairman Billy Payne described here Wednesday as "the perfect storm of weather and very difficult conditions" to bring out the true beast in one of golf's most revered venues.

A year ago, wind and chill combined with firm fairways and treacherous pin placements on fast greens led to eventual champion Zach Johnson posting a 1-over-par 289, matching the highest winning score in tournament history. The field's 75.88 scoring average on a par 72 course statistically made it the fifth-hardest Masters.

"This has become more like a U.S. Open course every year," Steve Stricker said here earlier this week. "There have always been some decent scores here, but gradually the course has become very difficult. The same scores that win at the U.S. Open win here now."

Those words are hardly sweet music to the ears of the keepers of the game as they prepare the course for the 72nd Masters, which begins Thursday morning.

The sounds they prefer are the mighty roars that echoed through the tall pines on the back nine on Sunday. Seemingly year after year, contenders charged up the leader board, making birdies -- often in bunches -- to provide riveting reality show drama, one reason the tournament has always drawn the highest television ratings of any major golf championship.

Last year, silence -- broken by the occasional agonized groans from the gallery -- dominated the landscape.

Ten years ago, ostensibly to offset the space-age technology in modern equipment -- not to mention Tiger Woods's record-breaking 18-under 270 and 12-shot triumph in the '97 Masters -- the club had introduced a "second cut" of very short rough. Less than two inches high, it nevertheless marked a major change on a course that always had gone from generous short grass fairways right to pine straw.

The intent of the taller grass was to put some premium on driving and make approach shots more demanding. No longer were players able to lob short iron shots from the second cut onto the greens and watch them spin back toward tricky tucked pins. Instead, with no spin, balls bounced and kept on rolling, often far, far away into chipping territory.

"The second cut, that's all you need to change this golf course," Woods said. "On Number One, if you pull it [off the tee] up the left side, it used to run straight to the pine needles and you had no shot. Now it has a chance to get caught up [in the second cut]. It changes the speed of this golf course quite a bit."

The added length on a course that now plays at 7,445 yards was another defense mechanism. When Woods won his first Masters in 1997, he said that twice he had a wedge in his hands for his second shot at the then 490-yard 15th hole, now stretched to 530 yards.

"You used to say that par was 68 for the longer hitters," Woods said. "I remember roaming around here and hitting good drives off the par 5s and good irons to every green. That's no longer the case."

Still, Augusta National officials were not particularly pleased with the overall havoc inflicted on the often flailing field a year ago. Starting Thursday morning, players seem far more likely to encounter a slightly kinder, gentler course.

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