Commentary

Not all agree with Augusta changes

Originally Published: April 6, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Nick Faldo is more than happy to be sitting in the CBS tower this week and describing the misery of those who traverse the hallowed ground that is Augusta National Golf Club.

As a three-time Masters winner, Faldo, 51, would be within his rights to join them between the ropes and enjoy one of the greatest perks in golf, an annual spot in the tournament.

No thanks, he said.

"It's a fear factor, that place," said Faldo, who won three Masters in seven years -- his only top-10s in the tournament. "Severity, you know. The slopes have kind of gotten bigger and bigger. They tinker with that golf course to the absolute nth degree. It's brutal now. It's a real nightmare, isn't it, between a good shot spinning back on the next one …''

Faldo is not alone in his alarm. The golf course made famous by Bobby Jones now stretches to more than 7,400 yards and would, in places, not be recognizable to the famous amateur who founded the club in the early 1930s.

Jack Nicklaus
AP Photo/Phil SandlinAt 46, Jack Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine Sunday afternoon in 1986 to clinch his sixth green jacket for what many consider to be the most dramatic final-round comeback in Masters history.

Rock-hard greens, extra trees, an added cut of rough -- these are features that are relatively new to Augusta National, and some say they deprive the tournament of the edge-of-your-seat theater that has made it so popular.

"I just hope the excitement comes back on the back nine; it's not what it used to be," said Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters champion who has finished third, second and second since his last victory, in 2005. "[Nos.] 13, 15 … good drives were automatic irons into greens, and that's not always the case now."

Asked whether he missed that, Woods said: "I miss guys being able to go out there and shoot 31 on that back nine and win a championship. Granted, we have had bad weather the last two years, and that's aided the high scoring.

"But hopefully we can get some good weather and the ball will be flying again, and guys will be a little bit more aggressive on that back nine and create a little bit more excitement on Sunday."

The roars have been replaced by moans, the birdies by bogeys, and -- at least the past two years -- the thrills by chills. Cool, damp weather has undoubtedly had an effect on scoring.

Last year, Trevor Immelman's 75 on Sunday matched the highest final round for a winner in tournament history, and he still increased his lead by a stroke. There were just four final rounds under par, only two in the 60s. (Immelman correctly points out, however, that he was 11 under par through 54 holes before Sunday's conditions worsened.)

It was the first time a Masters winner shot over par in the final round since 1982, and it matched Arnold Palmer's highest closing score for the champion, which came in 1962.

Even with decent scoring conditions during the third round, only seven players shot in the 60s. Of the top 16 finishers, only three broke par Sunday, and none was in the top seven.

And of the top 22 players on the leaderboard after 54 holes, none broke par, with the top 15 through three rounds averaging 75.07 on Sunday and only three players -- Woods, Phil Mickelson and Stewart Cink -- matching par.

In the past two Masters, there has been just a single round of 67 -- Steve Flesch shot 5-under during the second round last year. And since 2002, there have been just four scores of 65, the last two coming in 2005 -- by Immelman and Woods.

"You've stood up there and listened. You don't hear the roars. There's more action at a morgue," said Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters champion, who said he will play his last Masters this year. "They've lost that. It used to be players got on a roll on the back nine. If you were 4 back, you had a shot. You could be aggressive at 13. Aggressive at 14 and 15. Things would happen. As long as you got by 11 and 12 without too much damage, you could make runs.

"But there are no runs now. Such long shots into these holes. The greens aren't receiving the shots; you can't get it close unless you're very lucky. I'd like to see them shorten it up a little bit. Just bring the roars back.

"It used to be deafening. You'd stand up by that clubhouse and hear the roars from down there. It was shaking."

Greg Norman, who last played the tournament in 2002 and qualified this year by virtue of his tie for third at last summer's British Open, visited last month and was taken aback by the change since he had last competed.

Norman said he had been to the club socially since his last Masters, but he had never played it under tournament-like conditions. During chairman Hootie Johnson's reign, which lasted through the 2006 tournament, three separate renovations added nearly 500 yards, more than half of it after Norman last competed. The changes not only lengthened the course, but also made it play narrower.

"There is a dramatic difference to the golf course," Norman said. "I was absolutely shocked, to tell you the truth."

Among the holes that have received the most attention are the first, seventh, 11th and 17th. The first is an especially difficult opener, with a gaping bunker down the right side of the fairway that used to be routinely carried by the long hitters. Now the play is to the left, where players now often risk hitting into the woods.

The seventh was considered a classic short par 4, designed for short-iron approach shots. Now it measures 450 yards. The 11th, with a pond fronting the green, now has a forest planted on the right side and has been stretched to 505 yards. Trees were also added to the 17th.

Then there are tees that were pushed back at the risk-reward 13th and 15th, leaving both par-5s out of reach unless a drive is struck perfectly.

And that's not saying anything about the rough -- although not deep -- that has been added to the entire course.

Masters Best Ball Challenge

"You can't just stand up there and whale at it like you used to be able to do," said six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, who last played the Masters in 2005. "It's a different golf course, but it's still a terrific golf course. They've put more of a demand on playing more shots. Jones' philosophy was to give you more room off the tee, put it on the proper side of the fairway. You were playing a second-shot golf course and take advantage of it if you could.

"Now they're basically saying it's a first- and second-shot golf course. Equipment has forced that to happen. Not only the distance the ball goes, but the accuracy you can hit a golf [ball] and with the clubs you can hit it. I think they probably did the right thing in relation to what they changed. Do I like the philosophy? No. But do I like it as far as what the game asks for today? Yes."

Sunday's final round at the Shell Houston Open proved there could still be excitement despite high scores, as Mother Nature wreaked havoc on the field in the Masters tuneup. Seven players failed to break 80 on Sunday but a playoff won by Paul Casey kept the final outcome in doubt until the end.

Nicklaus also pointed out that scores have varied greatly over the years, depending on conditions.

No better example exists than his back-to-back victories in 1965 and 1966. In '65, Nicklaus won by 9 shots, shooting 271, 17 under par. The following year, he won a playoff over Tommy Jacobs and Gay Brewer. The winning total was 288, even par.

"They have those kind of days," Nicklaus said. "All of a sudden there's something wrong with the golf course because it takes away excitement? No, if you have an easy day or a little bit of rain, they'll shoot low scores again. That's just what will happen. They've stayed with the times and what's happened with the game probably better than anybody else."

Nicklaus is not alone in believing that change was necessary. In fact, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington -- who will be attempting to win his third straight major this week -- likes the new version better than when he first started playing the Masters, in 2000.

"They've made tremendous improvements," said the Irishman, who tied for fifth last year and tied for seventh in 2007. "When I first went, the golf course got short and the pin positions were tricky. I remember hitting sand wedge into the first and lob wedge into 18 and 9-iron into 11, and it wasn't what I had seen on TV in the '80s.

"Now it's back to being a big, strong golf course, and the pin positions are much fairer because of it. The golf course itself is protecting the scoring. Maybe in 2000 and 2001 they might have put a pin a yard over, and now it's 3 or 4 yards over the slope. So the golf course itself is just a stronger challenge but a much fairer challenge, where back then it really got to the stage where … to protect it, it got tricky."

Perhaps conditions combined with weather led to the lack of fireworks in recent years.

As recently as 2004, Mickelson rallied to defeat Ernie Els. Els, who at one point held a 3-shot lead, played the last five holes 1-under and was clipped by Mickelson, who birdied two of the last three and shot a back-nine 31. In 2005, Woods shot a third-round 65 -- and at one point made seven straight birdies -- and then Chris DiMarco shot a final-round 68 to tie him and force a playoff.

The last two years have been more about hanging on. Consider that Brandt Snedeker shot a final-round 77 and still tied for third last year. Steve Flesch shot 78 and tied for fifth. Did the weather conditions make it unavoidable? Can anything be done?

"We want this to be a fair test of golf," Masters chairman Billy Payne said in 2008. "That's the way we setup the golf course. We also want it to be exciting over the weekend; that's the way we set up the golf course. That's the way we've always done it and that's the way we're going to continue to do it.''

Several have suggested only a few minor changes: Move up the tees on the seventh and 11th holes. Make it so players can go for the green at 13 and 15.

"The new chairman, Mr. Payne, is a wise man," said 1998 champion Mark O'Meara. "We haven't heard the roars and excitement that we're used to. I think he's listening. I hope we'll see them bring classic holes like No. 7 back into play. And maybe a guy can shoot 31 on the back nine to try and win the Masters instead of trying to survive. I think they're listening and will make some changes."

Not this year, however. A few tees were moved, and the course might actually play a few yards shorter. But change, apparently, will come slowly.

And that's why Faldo is content to go to Tuesday night's Champions Dinner, don his green jacket, and then climb into the broadcast tower and describe the disasters rather than be part of them.

"They've made it unbelievably difficult," the six-time major winner said. "That's the bottom line. Obviously, it was freezing cold [last year], Augusta on ice. … The last one, I think I shot 77, which is like normal. If you don't practice enough, you're scared stiff."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com