"Mitsubishi At The Masters?"

Thanks to reader Nick for this unbylined Sports Business Journal note on Augusta National polling fans last month about their interest in LED video displays being erected on the course.

Glenn Greenspan, Augusta’s spokesman, said last week that the private club is compiling the data and has made no decision as to whether to set up video boards for 2009.
The inquiry was among several questions fans answered at 30 kiosks set up throughout the course, where they were asked about the event experience.

“It’s a question that needed to be asked,” Greenspan said. “We’ve seen them evident at other tournaments.”

Mitsubishi Electric signed a three-year marketing deal with the PGA Tour in 2007 that allows the vendor to install 11 high-definition video screens at several tournaments. (The Masters is not part of the PGA Tour.) Thirty-seven PGA Tour events have used them since the boards made their debut at last year’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. At that event in May, 90 percent of the fans polled by the PGA approved of the boards’ content, said tour spokesman Chris Smith.
I know. I just loved seeing the FedEx Cup points list. Made my Northern Trust Open week one to remember.
“Otherwise, primary feedback has been more anecdotal,” Smith said. In addition to action highlights, the screens show up-to-date information on players and their individual scores, and are a tremendous upgrade over previous video boards the PGA Tour deployed, Smith said.

 

"The changes to the course have been horrendous on a number of levels."

Dean Barnett on The Weekly Standard blog compares The Players with the Masters, and says the TPC is better thanks to far less dreadful course changes.
Where The Players actually belongs to the players, the Masters and Augusta National belong to a bunch of weird guys who are prone to despotism. Additionally, the Masters has looked a bit long in the tooth in recent years. In a misguided effort to modernize the course, Augusta National unleashed a supremely mediocre architect to modify one of the best and most original golf designs ever.

The changes to the course have been horrendous on a number of levels. The most damaging has been the fact that the changes sucked the drama out of the tournament in the name of “defending par.” Augusta is now so long and difficult, there are few birdie opportunities and the players take over five hours to make their way around the course in twosomes. If the lords of Augusta National were capable of embarrassment (which they almost surely are not), this last fact would shame them no end. The course is now harder (and more boring), but is it a better and fairer test of golf? Does it effectively identify the world’s best golfers? Leader boards the last couple of years populated almost exclusively by no-names and an angry Tiger Woods suggest otherwise.

"I hear the club might be making some changes next year to give us a break."

Thanks to reader Chris for noting Tiger Woods' newsletter comments where he reiterates what he said to a D.C. radio station about his belief that Augusta National will be undoing some of the course changes:

The course was very difficult. I didn't hear as many roars as I usually hear, especially on the weekend. It did play like a U.S. Open course, which is fine. But I think the galleries are used to seeing birdies and eagles. On Sunday, the way the wind was blowing, it was tough to make pars. I hear the club might be making some changes next year to give us a break. We'll see what happens.

Challenging The "Conventional Wisdom"

augusta15trees.jpgBob Carney summarizes and supports two stories suggesting that nothing is wrong with Augusta National and that those who feel the course changes have radically altered the soul of the Masters are just not getting it.

Interestingly, Carney notes the "conventional wisdom" that the course has become a U.S. Open style, defensive test. The notion that the majority of views have turned on the course changes is telling considering that the renovation has been praised, even passionately defended by media folks like this one who like many, has changed his mind after seeing how it plays.

There is no doubt that the latest accounts noted by Carney make great cases using statistics while noting select highlights from the last few years to seemingly write off the criticism.

However, two areas remain problematic for those trying to claim all is well at the revamped Augusta.

First, the people actually playing the course are telling us that something intangible has been lost. Touring professionals aren't always the best judges of architecture, but the critics have played the course many times and remember the unique tension of the old Masters. They are consistently telling us things are not the same.  Keep in mind too that there is one tournament that players are reluctant to criticize, it's the Masters.  A celebration of golf, as Ben Crenshaw once said.

We are no longer hearing many (any?) players defending the direction it has headed.  So you can bet that if we are hearing critical statements publicly, imagine the nature of the comments made over corn fed beef at the Champions dinner.

The other issue going against the remaining course change supporters is the pace of play disaster. We can argue all day long about roars, birdies and what's exciting, but there is overwhelming evidence that course now takes way too long to play. This speaks to the excessive difficulty of the design, which is now unplayable in any significant wind. But more than anything, the once perfect ebb and flow of the routing has been lost. The segments of the course that once provided some let up have all been altered, eliminating the catch-your-breath nature of holes such as 7 and 8 or 15 and 17.

More intriguing will be the steps they take to address the dismay of patrons, players and (probably) members? The actual task to fix the course is remarkably simple (tree removal, installing alternate tee options, restoration of width). However, politics and other sensitivities involved will make it one tough job for Billy Payne.

But he does have conventional wisdom on his side.

The 72 Club

Thanks to reader Al for passing along Alistair Tait's Golfweek.com rant on slow play, which includes a description of his home club's 72 Club getting in 72 holes in a day thanks to 3 hour rounds.

Then he turns his attention to the Masters pace of play.

Immelman and Brandt Snedeker teed off at 2:25 p.m. in the final round, and I clocked them completing the 18th hole at 7:26 p.m. Five hours for a round of golf? Are you kidding me?

I know conditions were tough at Augusta. I know both players were chasing their first major, but five hours for a two-ball is unacceptable. It’s so unacceptable that many people on my side of the pond didn’t see Immelman slip on the green jacket.

I conducted a quick straw poll of members of my club and found many of them turned off the television and went to bed. With the five-hour time difference, it meant staying up past midnight to watch the drama unfold.

There was a common refrain from everyone I spoke to: Play was too slow.

Yet neither Immelman nor Snedeker was penalized for slow play. That’s not surprising. It’s been 16 years since a player on the PGA Tour was handed a one-shot penalty for slow play. Dillard Pruitt holds that distinction. He’s now a PGA Tour rules official, with responsibility for making sure players get in a round in good time.

You couldn’t make that up, could you?

"We need to concentrate on getting more affordable golf for people to play.”

I'll pass on Doug Ferguson's numbers-heavy case that the Masters is pretty much the same because he didn't even acknowledge the avalanche of negative player feedback. So instead, let's focus on the positive from this week's column.

From Tom Watson:

FINAL WORD: “We have our Olympics – we have our major championships. And to add another layer in the Olympics, I think is the wrong thing to do. We need to concentrate on getting more affordable golf for people to play.”

"In this new era of maudlin Masters, the players look so glum and the crowds are so quiet."

Great minds continue to think alike, though in today's installment of the what-have-they-done-to-Augusta, one is much better looking than the other. But neither is a fan of "defensive" golf.

John Huggan chimes in with this on the state of the Masters:

Where once there was excitement and drama, now there is only tedium. Where once the virtues of imagination and flair were rewarded, more prosaic and pedestrian values now prosper to a point where the end result is less interesting to watch and to play. Gone are the strategic angles once available to those good enough and inventive enough to come up with them. Instead, the tournament committee – US Open-style – apparently decides how each player should play each hole.

Given all of the above, it is no wonder that, in this new era of maudlin Masters, the players look so glum and the crowds are so quiet. There is little or nothing to get energised about. Defensive golf and damage control is boring, a fact obvious to everyone except those running the show at Augusta National.

It used to be said that the Masters didn't start until the back nine on Sunday. Nowadays it is a bonus if it gets going at all. Nowadays a leader with any kind of edge knows he can plod along, safe in the knowledge that no-one is going to embark on the sort of charge Jack Nicklaus made when he so memorably won his sixth and last green jacket in 1986.

I mean, the winner this year shot a 75 in the final round and still won by three strokes. A 75!

Meanwhile over at Yahoo, former USC golfer and current LPGA rookie Anna Rawson shares her weekly thoughts and besides being highly entertaining, she takes some time to weigh in on The Masters.

Time permits me to only watch the last nine holes, and I think I saw the worst golf of the tournament!

Actually, unless you saw the last hour Saturday, the rest was just as ugly.

Rawson also notes that "defensive golf is not my favorite to watch at all."

See how much we have in common?

"The golf course is just set up too hard."

Thanks to reader Mark for transcribing and providing a link to Tiger Woods' radio interview with a Washington D.C. radio show to following his surgery and this year's Masters. The comments are his most revealing yet regarding the state of Augusta National.

"The golf course is just set up too hard. I've heard a lot of people say that the Masters has kind of lost its identity...it used to be on the back nine Sunday you'd hear the roars and have things happen...it's evolving into more of the US Open type fo mentality as a player. You have to grind it out, try to make more pars, then sprinkle a birdie here and there instead of being more aggressive. I think the last year where we've seen guys go low was the year [2004] we saw Phil come from behind to shoot 32 or 31 on the back nine. Other than that, the golf course has just gotten too hard."

Q: "Would you dare ever go to someone in a green jacket and say, 'You know, maybe you ought to try this--"

Tiger: "All players have, a lot of the past champions have. Augusta makes their own policies, they do what they want to do and a lot of times that's great for the game of golf and I think they might have just made the course just a little bit more difficult. I heard they're making some changes for next year so maybe that might facilitate some lower scores."

 

Final Masters Question: Will Growing The Game Initiatives Expose The Club To Unwanted Scrutiny?

masterslogo.gifOkay we've chewed on this rag enough, but one last topic related to the Masters worth considering: the club's global golf initiative.

Ron Sirak writes that it's "all of it is good" when talk turns to the job Billy Payne is doing.

Whether it's allowing children in for free, switching the cable coverage to ESPN or permitting TV audiences to see the Wednesday Par 3 Contest, Payne has made it clear he wants Augusta National, already a quasi-governing body of the game, to play a more active role in growing the game. Which brings us to Payne's biggest challenge: carrying out the balancing act between progress and tradition.

We saw signs last week that their desire to grow the game, while no doubt well-intentioned, may open up the club to unwanted scrutiny.

The most obvious example came during last week's press conference, where Chairman Payne was soaking up the love for letting in children of patrons free. It opened the door for a somewhat embarrassing question about the club's policy toward female members.

Now, I can sympathize with the side insisting that Augusta National is a private club and can do as they please. But if you are out touting your desire to help inspire the youth to take up golf, don't you have to set a certain example?

The same questions will apply to the golf course and tournament as well. How can you grow the game when you are giving us 5:37 threesomes and five hour twosomes on Sunday, thanks to course changes that have eliminated options and put a stranglehold on the world's best?

I suspect this is only the beginning. The harder the club pushes its global growth initiative, the tougher the questions will get about the U.S. Open style setup, the tree planting, the second cut, the pace of play, and even the idea of letting kids run around on the Par 3 course damaging greens.

But probably more alarming for members, I suspect Payne's initiative will only increase the questions about the club's finances and membership policies.

So is this growing the game initiative really "all good"?

Seems to me it's a high risk endeavor with little reward for the club.

Thoughts? 

"It was a reminder of another era at the Masters"

gwar04_080418mastersgreens.jpgAfter working my way through this week's Golfweek, Golf World and SI Golf Plus along with a few online sites, the Augusta National course change gripes just keep on coming.

First, online and the lone bit of good news for the club.

Steve Elling goes all T.J. Simers on us and answers reader email, most of it revolving around his criticism of the course changes. The club can find solace in the sprinkling of frustrated readers who like the new and improved Augusta because, Heaven Forbid, someone should shoot low scores in a major.

And mercifully, someone else agrees that the Par 3 Contest was a television nightmare. It's Dena Davis at GolfChannel.com, offering her entertaining weekly roundup of notes.

Toddlers in cute caddy outfits pal-ing around with their dads is indeed awfully precious, but THREE HOURS gets old real fast. On the other hand, imagine being a fly on the wall at the Champions dinner! It would be golf’s version of “Big Brother” for CBS. That might grow the game.The kids sure seem to be fond of that show for some reason.

In Golfweek they included Augusta National in their weekly "Up and "Down" quick hits:

Up - Augusta National as a U.S. Open venue. It's the definition of hard par, easy bogey.

Down -Augusta National as a Masters venue. Bring back the back nine birdies and eagles, and the roaring crowds.

Meanwhile, Golfweek's Scott Hamilton quoted first time Masters contestant J.B. Holmes on how the course plays for a long hitter:

"It's not made for big hitters. They've got the bunkers placed to where you can only hit it 290-300 max, and if you go much more than that it really pinches it up. I think it really favors (shorter hitters). The real long hitters, it makes them have to back off and play where everybody else is. It takes their advantage away a little bit."

In SI Golf Plus, the gang featured their weekly Golf Magazine Top 100 Teachers poll. Question:

Have the Lords of Augusta taken the fun out of the Masters?

Yes...63%
No...37%

And included was this from instructor Gary Wiren: Now we have two U.S. Opens--a traveling version and one that resides in Augusta, Ga."

This week's SI "Trust Me" blurb is from Jim Gorant: "Sadly, the Masters now ends with the back nine Saturday."

In Golf World, Bill Fields penned an outstanding essay on Augusta National's greens, and noted this about the hole locations:

In each of the first three rounds last week, 10 cups were located five yards or less from the edge of a green; on Sunday eight were situated that tight. Watson thought the hole location at the par-4 third Friday was too severe, although his criticism was much milder than Nicklaus' was during the 1982 Masters. "The cup at 18 must have been cut at midnight," the Golden Bear said after five three-putts and a second-round 77. "These pin positions are asking you to make an ass of yourself."

The most shocking statement may have been from Golf World editor Geoff Russell, who reviewed the 1978 Masters rebroadcast and came to the conclusion that something is seriously wrong with the state of Augusta National's architecture and setup.

It was a reminder of another era at the Masters, before the extensive renovations to Augusta National robbed the tournament of the low-scoring fireworks -- particularly the tension-choked final rounds fraught with birdies and eagles -- that set it apart from the other major championships. If you are in the camp that hated the new Augusta National course setup before you watched Sunday's 1978 replay, reliving Player's win brought tears to your eyes. If you aren't, watching the show probably made you a convert. That's what happened to me...

 

"Augusta National had suddenly become Dodger Stadium."

Add SI's Alan Shipnuck to the list suggesting the changes at Augusta National have impacted the aura of the Masters:

"Interesting" is a generous way to describe Sunday's action, as for the second straight year the Masters devolved into a U.S. Open-style war of attrition, and this edition was especially lacking in drama.

Augusta's normally die-hard fans didn't even pretend to be enjoying the spectacle. When the leaders' scores were posted for the 13th hole — showing Immelman's birdie that pushed his lead back to four — the massive bleachers around the 15th and 16th holes began clearing. Augusta National had suddenly become Dodger Stadium.

In only his second year Augusta National chairman Billy Payne has proven himself to be a forward thinker, but he may need to consider revisiting the course's old setups, which almost every year produced memorable Sunday pyrotechnics.

Augusta National has grown brutally long and increasingly narrow, and it still boasts the most frightening greens in championship golf. Unless Payne chops down a bunch of trees and shaves away the second cut, the course will continue to humiliate the game's best players, especially on days when the weather is less than perfect.

 

Fourth Masters Question: When Can We Assess Augusta National's Renovation?

masterslogo.gifCountering the claims that Augusta National has been altered beyond repair are several pointing to the wind as the sole source of Sunday's dull Masters affair.

Now, I seem to recall that since 2000 or so we've had to wait several years to judge the tree planting, rough and lengthening because the course was usually too wet to evaluate the impact. Then last year it was finally firm and fast but the spin said it was too cold to make a call.

This year we saw ideal weather for the first two days and pretty scoring conditions for the first three days (yet was there ever a sense anyone could get hot and post a 65?).  The tough winds on Sunday made the course incredibly difficult, and therefore, we apparently still can't evaluate the state of ANGC.

Now, that assumes that the course can only be setup to be interesting and exciting on Sunday. A most contrived approach. However, let's not debate that and instead consider a few more reviews of Sunday's round.

David Feherty has no choice but to do some serious brown-nosing when it comes to the club, so here's what he says about Sunday's dull affair:

— We saw the perfect storm of conditions at Augusta on Sunday. The course couldn't have played harder, with the speed of the greens, the softness of the fairways and the howling wind. It's too bad the gusts were so great. A calmer day could have produced some back-nine fireworks. But the wind took an already difficult course right to the edge.
Again, wasn't it pretty calm the first three days and pretty clear that a birdie run was out of the question?

His golf.com/SI counterpart Alan Shipnuck Jim Gorant was less forgiving
A phrase that had come to symbolize anything-can-happen excitement could now be sponsored by Sominex. Sunday's climax was all denouement.

Meanwhile over at ESPN.com they did their "Fact of Fiction" deal, asking if ANGC should be set up to encourage low numbers...assuming that's even possible.

Bob Harig, who reviewed the recent changes and the disappearance of a sense of vulnerability in a Monday column, says that "for the second straight year, the weekend was a survival contest, rather than the drama-filled back nine Masters fans have come to expect."

Jason Sobel, who apparently didn't notice the weather the first two days, asks "what would happen on a perfectly calm, 80-degree day?"

While Ron Sirak laments

There are no more 30s to be shot on the back nine of Augusta National Golf Club. It's way too long and difficult now. I miss the roars triggered by eagles echoing through the Georgia pines. Now, you are more likely to hear groans triggered by double bogeys. I miss seeing a player in contention pondering over whether to go for the green in two on that pair of great par-5 holes , No. 13 and No. 15. It makes me sad to see players opting for an automatic lay-up on those holes.

So here's the fourth Masters question: is there something wrong with a design when it can only resemble its former self under a very select set of idea weather conditions?

To put it another way, is it simply not possible for an architect and committee to consider these weather extremes by offering alternate tee locations and enough width to maintain its integrity in unusual conditions?

How are those for two rhetorical questions?

Teeing It Up From The Members Tees

Jay Coffin of Golfweek and Tom Cunneff of Links were plucked from the media lottery and got to play Augusta Monday after the Masters. Coffin filed a report here and Cunneff here. Noted Cunneff about the bizarre disparity between Augusta's two sets of tees:
 The Member Tees measure just 6,365 yards, almost eleven hundred yards less than the Masters Tees. On some holes, like 16, the disparity was negligible, but on others, like 11, the difference was more than 100 yards. It was a lot easier coming into the treacherous 11th green with a wedge instead of a 3-iron, that's for sure.

Third Masters Question: Has The Telecast Style Altered Our Perspective?

There were so many great posts on the first two Masters "questions" posed (here and here), including Mark B's "rant" about changes to the presentation of the event and the impact the coverage window expansion has had.

And while there is clearly disagreement about whether the last two events are an aberration or the inevitable result of letting golf architecture's Jackson Pollock restore one of its Monet's, I wonder if we underestimate how much the lack of excitement for television viewers has been impacted by the pace of play and director Lance Barrow's different approach to the telecast.

Some of you noted that the high water mark for Masters telecasts came in 1986, which was followed by several more great finishes. Having grown up a student of that great stretch (and still owning them on VHS), I remember that the shorter telecast window and Frank Chirkinian's preference to show as many shots as possible lent a sense of urgency to the proceedings that seems to be missing today. There was also a sense of extreme control over the entire telecast back then, something noted in this Richard Sandomir piece from 1995 that's worth reading.

In Barrow's defense, the broadcast window has expanded, play has slowed, fans expect a graphic for each player's shot and the opportunity for a birdie run three or four in a row has disappeared.

But I'm wondering if we are unfairly judging the event based on a presentation style that went out with Chirkinian's retirement?

Has the length and pacing of the telecast exaggerated the negative reaction to the last two events? 

"This tournament has become all about playing defensively and minimizing damage."

They're not throwing snowballs anymore. This is an avalanche.

From John Hawkins' Golf World game story on the 2008 Masters:

Those who have begun comparing the Masters to the U.S. Open in terms of punitive nature aren't thinking clearly,

We'll let you tell that to Tiger and Phil's face...

...since the outrageous homestretch produced by the top of the leader board in 2004, this tournament has become all about playing defensively and minimizing damage. The addition of the second cut (rough), a billion trees and 500-plus yards, all of which occurred during the tenure of former Masters chairman Hootie Johnson, has resulted in a conspicuous subtraction of charm and suspense.

It's easy to blame Hootie and the Blowtorch for the growing pile of late-Sunday snoozers, but the game's sharpest minds failed to foresee the most obvious effect of the changes.

Oh do tell us why you see what the rest of us only saw five years ago...

A competition once weighted heavily to favor power players and good putters has fallen into the hands of the control freaks. You have to hit fairways to even think about winning. Scoring angles have been reduced to direct lines. Certain sections of the course have gotten alarmingly tight, but it's the congestion framing those alleys that has nullified the shotmaking and recovery skills that helped brand the Masters from its inception.

The Seve Ballesteros of the early 1980s couldn't make a cut at Augusta National nowadays.

Okay, that's a bit silly, but we'll let it slide because the point is well-intentioned.

Immelman hit 48 of 56 fairways and won. Zach Johnson averaged 265 yards per measured drive but hit 45 fairways and won. Heck, those guys made a cottage industry out of laying up on par 5s once routinely attacked by anyone with a little pop in his bat and designs on a seat at the Champions Dinner.

Not to indict the last two green jacketeers -- they only did what they could and had to do -- but things have really changed. Good strategy is now conservative strategy at a place where all hell used to break loose on a regular basis. "It usually doesn't turn out too well if you try to be aggressive," said Geoff Ogilvy, who shot six over on the weekend and finished T-39. Not that he needed to finish the thought, but Ogilvy did: "Aggression doesn't work, but the guys four or five back have to be aggressive because you're not going to win parring every hole."

After years of dealing with disadvantages one could trace to his lack of supreme power, a top-tier control player such as Jim Furyk might figure to factor, but even he speaks in somewhat jaded tones. "It's a pretty good test of golf," Furyk said. "I mean, it used to be a lot of fun to play. It's not fun anymore, but it definitely got a lot more difficult." Addressing the notion that people don't hoot and holler over solid pars, Furyk added, "I don't think we have [heard roars] for the last few years. It's obviously a decision they [tournament officials] made. It's their event, a different golf course, and there's a different way to approach it now."

All over a silly little golf ball that no one wanted to roll back. Such a shame.

Meanwhile, even one of the old guard proudly declares its continued love for using course setup ploys to put the flatbellies in their place -- except at the Masters. 

John Hopkins writes of the course changes in The Times:

Some of the unique appeal of the Masters has gone as a result.

"Whatever happened to subtlety?"

Richard Sandomir in the New York Times isn't a fan of the Masters theme music (I love it!). He also offers several telecast notes, including this about the maudlin father-son themed opening.

...the script was fattened with phrases — “imbued with a towering source of inspiration,” “simply the circle of life at Augusta” and “walking in the green jacket footsteps of his hero” — that made my blood sugar spike. Whatever happened to subtlety?

Nantz ended the 2-minute-50-second piece by saying, “Bobby Jones built the foundation, a journey borne at the heart, from a father to a son, always by their side.” (It’s TV English, not Webster’s.) The final four words sounded like a subliminal nod to his new memoir, “Always By My Side: A Father’s Grace and A Sports Journey Unlike Any Other,” about his relationship with his father, who has Alzheimer’s disease.