Hootie defends changes made to Augusta National

4/5/2006 - Golf

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Club chairman Hootie Johnson was again left to defend Augusta National on Wednesday, as he came under intense questioning over controversial changes to the course for this week's U.S. Masters.

While the interrogation was not as charged as the one Johnson faced three years ago when he was publicly challenged by activist Martha Burk to open the the all-male bastion's doors to women, he was equally unflinching in the face of criticism from the world's best golfers and media.

Tweaked and stretched to an imposing 7,445 yards, the Augusta National layout that will test golfers this week is the second-longest in major championship history.

Six of the holes have been lengthened with the addition of new tees, and some of the fairways have been narrowed with extra bunkering, trees and rough.

Torrential rains over the last four years have diluted the impact of the alterations but with sunny, dry conditions forecast for the week, Augusta National has finally started to bear its teeth and many players are not happy.

Johnson, however, made no apologies and would not rule out more changes.

"We are comfortable with what we are doing with the golf course for The Masters tournament," Johnson stated.

"I said, we are comfortable," he fired back when pressed on the criticism from top players. "They are entitled to their opinion."

Some of the most outspoken critics have been Augusta's greatest champions, including world No. 1 Tiger Woods and Augusta members Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, who between them own 14 green jackets.

Nicklaus, who played his final competitive round at Augusta last year, has been uncharacteristically outspoken about the changes.

"From a tournament standpoint, I didn't think it was a good thing to do," he said. "But my feeling is exactly what I've been saying at every press conference.

"I think their [Augusta National's] intention is to try to end up having the players play similar clubs to what they were playing 20 years ago in the same places. Their intentions are correct," he said.

Some players have complained that playing Augusta is no longer as much fun as it once was, to which Johnson responded that championship courses were not supposed to be fun.

In an attempt to keep pace with the high-tech advances in modern golf technology, Augusta's guardians insist the facelift is part of an ongoing effort to maintain the course's integrity and ensure it will be played the way it was originally designed.

"I didn't know a tough golf course was supposed to be a lot of fun," Johnson said. "I don't know that hitting a six-iron on one would be any more fun than it was 20 years ago.

"There's been a lot of talk about 11," he continued. "The hole was intended to be played with, according to Bobby Jones, a three-iron or stronger club. I think it was in the '98 tournament I was out there and Phil Mickelson hit a big driver and had a pitching wedge to the green. The hole was not intended to play like that.

"You can say it's a bomber's course but if he's going to really bomb it, if he's going to swing from the heels, if he doesn't execute perfectly, he's going to pay the price," he said.