Augusta National: Little Room Left for Drama in Golf’s Theater of Dreams

I can’t prove it. It is a gut feeling, but due to the significant course changes that were made to Augusta National at the turn of the century, little room is now left for drama in what used to be golf’s theater of dreams.

After The Masters in 1998, one year after Tiger Woods’s spectacular 12-shot victory, a fundamental change was made to the course setup at Augusta National. A second cut was introduced, forming fairway outlines on a course that had been rough free for decades. Before the change, unveiled at the 1999 Masters, all grass was mowed at fairway height, right up against the pine straw. The course has also been lengthened substantially to counter the increased distances that today’s players are now hitting the ball. But how has this affected the only major championship in golf that annually takes place on the same course – our beloved Augusta National?

The way I see it, length is one thing, and the other setup changes are another – mostly the rough and the tree-planting. The main goal regarding length is to create a situation where the player is asked to hit as many different types of shots, with as many clubs in the bag as possible. The course should really reveal the weaknesses of your game, so that you will see that to score better, you will need to add a dimension to your game. The course is still a little too long, but ok, I would be happy if they at least got rid of the rough and presented the course in the same way the did up to 1999.

An Augusta chain-saw massacre wouldn’t hurt either. I can’t see much of the recent tree-planting contributing to a course improvement.

Augusta National is a brilliant design. The routing has produced quite a complex, strategic course almost entirely by using topography as a hazard. There were only 22 bunkers on the course first when it opened, and still now they are somewhere near 45, which I think is too many.

I think that the course works best, and is most enjoyable for us the viewers when they simply mow all grass as fairway, right up against the pine straw like they used to do for a long time, up until 2009.

Augusta used to be all about angles. It still is, of course, but to a lesser degree. Before they introduced the rough, you had to figure out the best line of play for yourself. The targets were undefined, a bit like in links golf, and if you look closely you will find that there is, or at least there was, a great resemblance between Augusta and The Old Course at St Andrews. As it turns out, Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie, who designed Augusta together, both admired the Old Course and the strategic elements that were found there.

Now, with the rough in place, you are simply told to “hit it here”, and “hit it there”. It becomes a repetition and endurance contest. The thinkers no longer have the same advantage, and the long hitters have an even greater advantage. That rough doesn’t hurt you so much when you have a short iron in hand, and if you are long hitter, you can afford hitting 3-wood or less if you emphasize staying in the fairway. The other guys can’t.

An effect that all this has, although I can’t prove it, is that there are fewer players normally in contention down the stretch. We don’t get the same risk-taking and drama that used to unfold.

Today, some of the best spots to play for, the way the course played before the introduction of the rough, are now off the fairway. I simply don’t understand it – they have wiped out many of the core things that made Augusta so great. The way it is presented now, if we try and overlook how sentimental we are about the place, it is mostly great simply because of the aesthetical element – its beauty.

This is the home course syndrome. When you are brought in to recommend changes to a course, everybody starts being very protective of what is already there, because they have good memories attached to almost every hole and feature. It is the same for us and Augusta. We have memories from watching the Masters year after year, but if you try to dis-associate yourself from that element – try hard and think – what really good holes are there out there … holes that can’t be found in similar form on many other courses in the U.S.? I repeat, there is of course the element of beauty at Augusta National that is unparalleled.

I name holes no. 3, 13, 14 and 16. Now, thirteen is in a category all by itself. It may well be the best golf hole in the world.

So, that’s what I would like to do with the course, cut the grass and remove some of the trees. Perhaps that’s not a very good sustainability example for the industry as a whole, but this is Augusta National and they have the budget, so why not allow the course and the event to maintain its uniqueness. I don’t want The Masters to resemble the U.S. Open or the PGA Championship, the latter already establishing a course-setup tendency somewhere between the other two.

These significant course changes happened after Tiger Woods’s victory in 1997. It looks like there was a degree of panic at the time, and we need to relax a bit with this fear of low scoring. What is wrong with low scores if the course demands a good variety of shots? That should be the one goal when you look at the length. The par-fives already test the players with their long irons or hybrids. I don’t want the eleventh hole to be so long that the decision is made really easy for the players. For many of them it is a no-brainer. They simply play for the apron to the right of the green. The changes, in general, reduce risk-taking and therefore the dramatic element that we – or at least I – enjoyed so much in the eighties and nineties. It is a different tournament now.

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One Response to “Augusta National: Little Room Left for Drama in Golf’s Theater of Dreams”

  1. Gary Slatter

    Good article Edwin. I have to disagree, but as you wrote your piece BEFORE this year’s MASTERs, you could not have anticipated the brilliant 2011 tourney. It was great TV and the event certainly did not resemble anything other than the Masters.

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