Commentary

'Tiger-proofing' Augusta took a toll on all

Updated: April 1, 2011, 10:53 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

A decade ago, the idea that you could make changes to a golf course specifically to thwart one player -- dubbed "Tiger-proofing" -- seemed silly, if not downright laughable.

Toughening a golf course, especially by lengthening it, would only benefit Tiger Woods, the theory went. You make it harder for him, you make it harder for everyone else.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods
Timothy A. Clary/Getty ImagesThe first significant changes to Augusta National weren't seen until 2002, but the impetus likely came from Tiger Woods' 12-stroke victory in 1997.

And who was going to be better equipped to handle that?

Nine Masters have passed since the first significant changes were made to Augusta National, and although Woods has won two green jackets since then he's on a streak of five in a row without winning the year's first major championship.

It is the longest such streak of his Masters career, and though Woods has had difficulty winning anywhere in the past year Augusta is the place he was expected to own in perpetuity.

But as Woods returns next week for his 17th Masters, it is clear the course has inflicted some pain on him, too.

Since defeating Chris DiMarco to win a sudden-death playoff in 2005, Woods has never been out of the top six, twice finishing runner-up.

But the days of overpowering the golf course, dominating the par-5s, are gone.

"It took away -- at the time when I was still one of the longest players out here -- it took away the par-5s," Woods said of how Augusta National has changed for him. "I used to hit driver and iron to every par-5. That's what Freddie [Couples] used to do. That's what I used to do. And back when Jack [Nicklaus] played in his day, that's what he used to do.

"That's not the case anymore. Good drives, you don't always have irons [for second shots]. I have not hit an iron yet -- maybe a couple of times when it was downwind. On No. 2., I used to hit driver, 8-iron there."

There was understandable alarm when Woods tore through Augusta National on his way to a 12-stroke victory in 1997. He routinely hit wedges to the par-5 15th for his second shot; he needed just a 9-iron to reach the par-5 second green during the third round.

"Obviously, the Masters committee has to be a little concerned," said 1997 runner-up Tom Kite at the time. "They've got a golf course that's pretty darn tough, and they've got somebody just ripping it up."

One of the most hallowed layouts in the game's history was deemed to be too easy, even though nobody else was finding it so kind. Kite, for example, finished 6 under par in 1997; Woods set a tournament scoring record at 18 under that still stands.

"It'll be interesting to see what they do to their golf course," Nick Price, who in 1986 had set the course record of 63 (later matched by Greg Norman), said in '97. "They have to do something. I'd like to be a fly on the wall at the next committee meeting."

It is interesting to reflect on those comments today, as many observers feel Augusta National went too far. It was after Woods won his second green jacket in 2001 -- completing the "Tiger Slam" -- that the major changes began.

Under the direction of designer Tom Fazio, the club added yardage to half the holes prior to the 2002 event. In subsequent years, trees were added alongside the fairways at the 11th and 15th holes, as well as other holes. Tees were moved back. Rough grown higher. Fairways narrowed.

More yardage was added before the 2006 tournament, and today the course measures 7,435 yards -- or some 500 yards longer than 10 years ago.

"Tiger-proofing was not the correct term to use," said Jim Furyk, who has made 12 cuts in 14 Masters appearances, twice finishing fourth. "When I first started playing that place ... it was just a fun golf course to play. You had short irons in your hand and these crazy greens going everywhere.

"You would go at a pin and knew the consequences if you missed.

"Quite honestly, it's not a fun golf course to play right now. It's hard. It's very demanding, both physically and mentally. It has a feel of more of a U.S. Open type of struggle, rather than going out there, blaze of glory, shooting at pins and making a birdie or bogey.

"I think guys are playing a lot more conservatively because there's no choice. That's the biggest difference to me. I still look forward to the Masters. I still get very excited about it. But it's a much different frame of mind than I used to have."

Starting in 2002, the winners of the Masters have been Woods, Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, Woods, Mickelson, Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Angel Cabrera and Mickelson.

So six of the green jackets have been won by those considered power players -- Woods, Mickelson and Cabrera. Weir and Johnson are clearly shorter hitters who managed to win despite their relative struggles off the tee. Immelman is not considered a long hitter, but he had a big driving week in 2008.

"They call it 'Tiger-proofing,' but they're just making it longer, making it tougher for everybody," said Bubba Watson, one of the game's longest drivers, who will make his third Masters appearance next week. "I think they're going the wrong way. I think they should grow the rough up and make the fairways narrower, not length.

[+] EnlargeCabrera
David Cannon/Getty ImagesMultiple wins by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are understandable in any context, but Angel Cabrera's 2009 Masters victory seemed to confirm that length now matters at Augusta.

"We're the only sport changing our fields. Basketball, football, baseball -- they're not changing their fields. Tennis. Hockey is not changing their rink. Make it tougher. Firmer greens, smaller fairways, higher rough. That's all you need to do.

"Why change history? Let history play out. When people jump higher, like LeBron James, they don't say, 'We need to LeBron James the basketball court.' They leave it the same. Fans want to see dunks, 3-pointers. They don't want to see us make bogeys all the time."

There has been considerable consternation over the "Tiger-proofing" in recent years, including complaints that the Masters lost some of its excitement.

That was certainly the case in 2007 and 2008, when cold weather was a factor. Immelman won with a final-round 75 in 2008.

The last two years have seen more excitement, with plenty of birdies on the weekend. Cabrera's victory came in a playoff, and Mickelson's weekend barrage of eagles and birdies last year made for a compelling tournament. That could be because of an emphasis on more accessible pins, for example.

If anything, the changes still favor the longer player ... with a caveat.

"Tiger Woods in 2001, when he was a machine tee to green ... making the course longer and narrow definitely played into his hands," Stewart Cink said. "Since then, especially the last three or four years, he's driven it more crooked. And then the course is harder."

Since winning the last of his four green jackets in 2005, Woods has been part of the Sunday conversation at the Masters every year, with his best chances coming in 2007 and 2008. Both years he tied for second.

Although he has cited putting for holding him back in several of those Masters, Woods has acknowledged that yes, "Tiger-proofing" has affected even him.

"As you saw in '97, I hit driver, wedge twice into 15," Woods said of the par-5 hole. "That year I hit wedge, wedge, 8-iron, 4-iron. That's a big change. Now you're hitting a wood or some kind of hybrid or long iron, maybe, into 15.

"And 13 [the other par-5 on the back], with the tee moved back and to the left, it's a little bit hard to get around the corner. I was hitting 3-wood and an 8-iron to that hole. I could hit 9-iron or wedge, which I have.

"So it's changed quite a bit."

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

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com