What’s behind the roars

Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that people were complaining the roars were gone from the Masters?

What happened? Two things.

First, the complaints were an over-reaction to course changes that involved both lengthening and narrowing that took place over the years 1999 to 2006, combined with an extremely harsh weather year in 2007 and a dull final round in 2008.

Second, Augusta National officials saw the developments and heard the complaints and made some tweaks. They knew themselves that birdie and eagle roars were a big part of the fabric of the Masters, and they didn’t want to lose that. But tweaking (combined with favorable weather conditions) was all that was necessary.

The tweaks started with the receptiveness of the greens. Everyone, traditionalists and Augusta officials alike, have always said the course should play firm and fast. But that doesn’t mean the firmer the better. There is a tipping point when greens become rock hard and it becomes so difficult to control approach shots that low scoring is impossible. In 2009 and 2010, the greens were soft enough to allow players to shoot at the flags with the knowledge that the ball would stop fairly close to where it landed.

Next is hole locations. Perhaps no course is more affected by the pin positions selected by the committee. Some spots are positively brutal, but others allow for birdies, and in some cases even encourage them by being located at the bottom of a bowl. Augusta has made sure not to go over the line in difficulty, and has even eased up on certain days. (This isn’t an entirely new development. At Augusta, the term “Sunday pins” often means hole locations that are more player friendly rather than less so, like the one at 16 where the ball feeds down the slope to the hole.)

Another tweak is tee flexibility. For a while, the mantra was not only to build new tee boxes to lengthen the course, but also to put the markers at the back of the tee box every day. But Augusta has seen the success of the new USGA philosophy (under course setup man Mike Davis) of moving tees around from day to day. By moving tees up on different holes on different days, the course rarely plays to its maximum yardage, birdie opportunities are afforded on various holes each day, and the course becomes more interesting to play and watch. But the maximum yardage of each hole is maintained (save for moving the tee location on the first hole up 10 yards).

There have also been small tweaks like changing the contours of the 15th green to allow a new pin position that will encourage going for the green in two, and removing some of the new trees that were planted to the right of the 11th fairway. The narrowness factor doesn’t have much of an effect on the “not enough roars” issue, though, because a player who hits a good drive has the same chance for a birdie whether the trees are there or not. The additional trees on a number of holes actually increase the birdie/bogey volatility that can make the Masters so entertaining (we’re leaving design philosophies aside here).

Just as much as the tweaks, though, it was a matter of allowing time for the course to play in various weather conditions. Sure, the winning score was 1-over 289 in 2007, but the first three rounds were played in howling, frigid winds on dried-out greens. With conditions a bit more benign on Sunday, there actually were a lot of roars, though people seem to have willfully forgotten them (Zach Johnson birdied three of four holes on the back nine to hold off Tiger Woods, who made an eagle during that same stretch.)

In 2008, scoring was very low for the first three rounds, so low that a record was tied for the lowest 36-hole cut. But the winds picked up on Sunday, there happened to be a relatively undistinguished group of contenders who mostly struggled in the final round, and Trevor Immelman had a big enough lead that there wasn’t a lot of drama. Still, only a cold putter kept Woods from making what might have been a scintillating charge. Besides, runaways and uninspiring finishes have happened periodically throughout Masters history, it’s just that we remember the great ones and have the perception that it was always like that.

Perhaps Augusta National has had exactly the right chairmen over the last decade or so. When the course was getting too small for the distance players were hitting the ball due to advances in technology, Hootie Johnson came along to lengthen and toughen things up. When the lengthening and toughening threatened to tip the balance too much toward defensive golf (but not as much as people feared), Billy Payne has come along and dialed things back just enough—without making wholesale changes—to restore the proper balance.

Along with the cooperation of the weather and the rise to the top of some of the biggest names in golf, that’s helped us to enjoy three spectacular rounds. (The best first round in Masters history and also the best third round.) So, praise the golf gods and Billy Payne, but let’s not expect this kind of show every year.

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