Golf Digest's Ron Whitten criticized recent changes to Augusta National in the same story featuring the comments of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. His criticism is not that astonishing to most given that the same remarks have been uttered by big mouths like me since 1998.
However, when you see where Whitten stands now compared to where he stood just four years ago, the contrast is pretty amazing.
Here's what he wrote this year:
But sheer yardage is not what has gotten Jack, Arnie and others of the Old Guard riled up. They're mostly upset about the tightening of many holes, through the use of expanded bunkering, transplanted trees and the introduction of rough, what Augusta National calls, in delusional parlance, "a second cut of fairway."
This is where Jack and Arnie are absolutely right. Far from maintaining the integrity of the design that Jones and Mackenzie envisioned, the changes undertaken since 1998 have abandoned their philosophy of multiple options and different lines of attack.
Gone are Augusta's wide corridors that allowed every competitor to play his own game off the tee, to pick the spot he thought provided the best angle of approach for his trajectory and shot shape. Squeezed-in fairways now dictate the manner of play on every hole. It's as if the Masters Committee thinks it's now running the U.S. Open.
Which makes one wonder just how much research Augusta National has really done regarding the original Mackenzie-Jones design. Mackenzie believed that if a good player hitting good shots couldn't post a good score on one of his courses, then there was something wrong with his design. Jones once wrote that he never intended Augusta National to be a punishing golf course.
Jones and Mackenzie believed in rewarding risk on the golf course. Most of that is gone now.
The best course designs challenge different golfers on different holes. Augusta National used to do that. It no longer does.
The club planted many mature loblolly pines along the left of No. 7, too, just because it can, I guess.
The irony, of course, is that Augusta National used to be the trendsetter in matters of course design. But now it's well behind the curve.
The older pines at Augusta traditionally had a bed of pine needles beneath them, which allowed players to attempt all sorts of recovery shots. The newer pines have rough underneath, deeper than the "second cut," and are planted so close together that the only recovery available is usually a pitch out. It's one more example of how Augusta has stifled some playing options.
Now, here's Whitten in a 2001 Golf Digest preview:
The new look of Augusta National--the one with a buzz-cut of rough around each fairway and most greens--was first introduced in 1999, but few noticed a big difference. Last year, however, it had players playing defensively, pundits writing offensively and TV viewers adjusting their contrast. Few cared for it, and many blamed it for the lack of drama.
Wrong. Cold weather and high winds were responsible for the conservative play in 2000. Augusta National's grooming is just another attempt to Tigerproof the course, although club officials will never admit it. They won't even call it rough, preferring to label it a "second cut" of fairway.
Rarely has so much fuss been made about so little. The rough is just 1 3/8 inches deep, not the sort that causes anyone to pitch out sideways. Sure, it's enough to cause a knuckleball that has no chance of stopping on a rock-hards green. But Masters competitors are smart, talented and well equipped. They can pick a ball cleanly out oflight rough, use the grooves on their irons--or avoid the rough in the first place.
What Augusta's rough has done is make the Masters more of a test of drives and second shots, and less of a putting contest. Last year's winner, Vijay Singh, had three three-putts, more than the combined total of the previous seven Masters champions. But he lead the field in greens in regulation, and won by three shots. For the 2001 Masters, the strategy will be the same: fairways and greens.
And in the 2002 preview story for Golf Digest he wrote about the sweeping changes being made, including the tree planting and narrowing that he's currently criticizing...
What impressed me was the thought process that came up with new strategies for the course, a thought process that started right after Tiger Woods' record-setting first Masters victory back in 1997. Since then, Augusta National officials, working with consulting architect Tom Fazio and his team of associates, have tracked shots on selected holes during every Masters. The resulting data convinced them that they shouldn't simply push tees back to gain length, they should also move tees left or right to force players to hit certain shots on certain holes.
So last summer, using four separate construction crews, the club added nine new back tees. They also regraded some fairways into new sweet spots. They pushed some fairway bunkers farther out, so they can't easily be carried.
Augusta National will be much more of a shotmaker's golf course from now on. It won't automatically favor the long hook as it did in the past. The first, eighth, 11th and 18th holes now require fades off the tee, then draws into the greens. The ninth, 10th, 13th and 14th still reward draws from the tee, but on 13 and 14, fades are the preferred approach shots (though it's hard to hit a fade on 13, because the fairway provides mostly hook lies).
I was pleased to see the 18th has been stretched to 465 yards, adding 60 yards to the uphill finishing hole. As a major-championship finish, it finally measures up.It is great to see someone like Whitten change his mind and use his position in Golf Digest to voice those views. It's just unfortunate that he did not recognize the damage when it was first inflicted on Jones and MacKenzie's national treasure.
Have all these changes "Tigerproofed" Augusta National? Not at all. But they may have Hal Sutton-proofed the course. Long hitters will continue to have the advantage on holes like nine, 10 and 14, where, even with new back tees, big bombers will still be hitting no more than 9-iron approach shots into greens where Arnie and Jack used to routinely hit 6-irons.
Long hitters at Augusta will work harder to hit fairways from now on, especially on the tight, tree-lined seventh and ninth, where, as one Augusta National employee put it, "It's like trying to hit through the neck of a Coke bottle."
What club officials wanted to do at the seventh, now 45 yards longer, was take the 3-wood out of players' hands and force them to hit a driver down the narrowest fairway. (It's just 35 yards wide from tree line to tree line, with the fairway a scant 28 yards wide.) The club also leveled the fairway to eliminate a slingshot effect offered by old ripples in the center, and added a few more pines left of the fairway.
It's not likely many players will take the bait. Most will continue to thread the needle with something less than driver and hit an 8- or 9-iron (instead of sand wedge) onto the perched green.
The real additions to the ninth are newly transplanted pines to the right and a mat of fluffy pine needles beneath them. A loose lie in pine needles may be the worst lie you can find at Augusta National. There's already a lot of that "pine straw" to the right of the 14th hole, where the fairway slopes from left to right. I was told that for this year's Masters, there won't be any cut of rough along that right side of either nine or 14. They don't want anything saving errant drives from rolling into pines and needles.
Mark it down. Augusta National is no longer just a hooker's paradise, or a second-shot course or a putting contest. It's now a complete test of golf, from tee to green. It's now a shotmaker's course.