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Augusta National looks to protect itself

4/14/2004

Without the Masters, Augusta National would be Pine Valley, a great golf course with a powerful membership -- but no major championship. Lost would be the club's status as a quasi-governing body. It's the Masters that gives Augusta National its power base in the game, and the club is not about to let itself become Merion, a classic track made obsolete for major-championship play because it can't contain today's long hitters. Openly, the club has used bulldozers to protect its brilliant layout. Privately, sources tell Golf World, Augusta National is leaning on the USGA to cap distance at a place that will maintain the competitive integrity of the Alister Mackenzie/Bob Jones masterpiece.

"The club wants to identify a threshold for distance that, when reached, would trigger a rollback in how far the balls goes," said a source familiar with club thinking. "While the club would prefer that the USGA and the R&A take the lead, it would also not hesitate to act unilaterally to protect its course."

Before the 2002 renovation stretched Augusta National from 6,985 yards to 7,290 yards, club chairman Hootie Johnson floated the idea of adopting a "Masters ball" that would be used only in this tournament. Sources say the ball idea is still alive among those in the club's inner circle.

"The club will be proactive in protecting the course," said another source. The source also said that as early as next year the club would allow the PGA Tour to employ its ShotLink technology to measure driving distance and clubs used for approach shots on all the holes. "They [the club] are concerned not just with the fact that tee shots are going 320 yards but also that 7-irons are going 190 yards," said the source. "Flying the ball high into these greens neutralizes one of the course's main defenses."

The PGA Tour is already sharing ShotLink information with the USGA to help the governing body assess the impact of distance on the game. From the tour's standpoint, the concern is protecting the entertainment value of the professional game. The sources say ShotLink information will give the USGA evidence it needs to justify to the industry -- and to the courts, if it comes to that -- tougher limits on distance. A rolled-back ball for the Masters also might draw fire from the industry, but because Augusta National is a private club that might be a more difficult challenge. From a USGA perspective the tournament's requiring a Masters ball would be like adopting a local rule allowing lift, clean and place.

"We worry about it [how far the ball goes], but we are glad that the governing bodies do have a plan, and hopefully that will take care of it," Johnson said Wednesday in his annual chairman's news conference. "I have to say that it does concern me that we are starting at 320 yards, and that if we have any slippage and it takes any length of time to correct any violation of that, it will be at a point where I think it will be damaging to the game."

Johnson is referring to the plan being considered by the USGA and the R&A that would limit the distance a ball can travel when struck by a club swung at 120 mph to 320 yards. The current overall distance standard is 296.8 yards when struck by a club swung at 109 miles an hour. An average PGA Tour player swings at between 116 and 120 miles per hour.

The renovations to Augusta National, meanwhile, received their first real test since being completed three Masters ago. For the first time since the course was lengthened, it played fast and firm, the way it was designed to play. The result was a tournament that produced just 27 rounds in the 60s.

"It has been changed from what it was," Johnson said. "They would be driving 17 [now], and Tiger Woods almost drove 18 the last time he won. The changes were necessary and appropriate."

If the purpose of the changes was to protect the integrity of par, they worked brilliantly. In 1939, the first year for which the tournament provides scoring averages, Augusta National measured 6,925 yards and played to an average score of 74.59. In 2001, when the course measured 6,985 yards, the stroke average was 72.49 -- 2.1 strokes lower than in 1939. But last year, the course measured 7,290 yards and played to an average of 74.65 -- only .06 strokes lower than 1939. This year the scoring average was 73.97.

Distance is only one component in the changes made to Augusta National. Tees also were moved to change the angle to the landing areas, bunkers were extended and the rough was grown to a height that is short enough to allow the possibility of an approach to the green but long enough to take the spin off the ball. The overall renovation rewards distance but also puts a premium on accuracy. Unlike 2002 and 2003 when muddy conditions minimized the renovation's benefits, the course played truer to its new form last week.

"The course plays longer, to start," said Bernhard Langer, who played his first Masters in 1982. "Then you have the rough. Whenever you go in the rough, you cannot control the spin of the ball. Yesterday, I was in the left rough [on No. 17], and I had a pitching wedge but I couldn't stop the ball. I hit a perfect pitching wedge in the middle of the green, went over and made a bogey from 120 yards. That's the difference of having rough and not having rough."

The renovations at Augusta National, under the direction of architect Tom Fazio, are not just about length. Indeed newly crowned Masters champ Phil Mickelson made that point frequently last week when he, one of the game's longest hitters, used 3-wood on many occasions to keep the ball in play off the tee. The growing feeling is that Augusta National has done all it can to protect its course, short of tricking it up with ridiculous green speeds and silly pin positions.

Now, according to sources close to the club, it is willing to protect its jewel by limiting the weaponry of the players -- even if that means going to a Masters ball.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine

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