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Though Golf & Woods are at a Crossroads, the Masters Endures
An irreverent wag on an internet bulletin board summed it up best: This weekend should we cure cancer, catch Osama Bin Laden, and find intelligent life on Mars, it'll make a nice sidebar to what happens at Augusta National.
Has there been a more frenetic run-up to the Masters in the tournament's history? Last year, every golf writer shrieked like the Banshee of Tralee about the architectural changes at Augusta National: they suppressed scoring. "The tournament resembled a pre-Mike Davis U.S. Open," they wailed. The entire pre-tournament hype was focused on the course set-up - and, of course, whether Tiger Woods could win the Grand Slam.
What a difference a year makes.
This year, our once-sterling national economy is in tatters, the American golf industry is suffering through its own economic downturn, course building has ground to a halt, sponsorship money is evaporating, pro tournaments are fleeing abroad, and an avalanche of painted Jezebels have turned the game's greatest active player into chew toy and a punch line, temporarily chasing Woods away from golf and devaluing the fiscal benefit his presence brings to the PGA Tour and sponsors.
That's enough to make anybody feel nostalgic for last year.
Finally emerging from the flotsam and jetsam of the greatest scandal in golf history, Woods attempts his comeback - having not played a single competitive round in over four months - at the world's most exacting golf tournament. That's the question on the casual fan's lips: How will he perform in that crucible?
"Unquestionably, Woods's collapse rather makes Icarus's fall look like a mere stumble," said one prominent television broadcaster, who spoke under condition of anonymity. Or as author Frank Herbert would have put it, "Here lies a toppled God. His fall was not a small one. We did but build his pedestal, a narrow and a tall one." I guess the old adage is true: you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.
Nevertheless, even though Woods's life is in flames like Tara, his epic flameout will not and should not burn like a proprietary torch over the Masters. "The game and the Masters are bigger than any one player," explained golf architect Tom Fazio, who has overseen the playing refinements to Augusta National for close to a decade. "Tiger is a great player, but he's just a part of the Masters. There are plenty of other great stories coming in, and there will be even more as the tournament progresses."
Fazio is exactly right. There are plenty of positive story lines waiting to be told, we just have to know where to look. And to start, look no further than Fazio and his changes to Augusta National. Happily, dialing a few of them back has added more intrigue to the tournament. More birdies and more eagles mean more players in the mix come Sunday.
The Course Changes
Most pundits and players agreed; Fazio's changes in 2002 and 2006 - which lengthened the course nearly 500 yards and added rough and trees - were subtraction by addition. The changes suppressed scoring and, by extension, excitement, turning Championship Sunday from a day when the game's greats would skyrocket up the leaderboard like fireworks, to a grueling march to outlast the field. Trevor Immelman won in 2008 with a final round 75, the highest Sunday round by any winner at Augusta, yet he managed to increase the lead he held after three rounds by a stroke. In fact, the average score of the top-15 players on the leaderboard through three rounds was a whopping 75.1. It prompted Woods to tell reporters after the tournament, "You don't shoot low rounds here any more. You've just got to plod along. "It's more like playing in a U.S. Open than a Masters." Players weren't tempted to go for the eagle anymore. Look at Zach Johnson: he won in 2007 by playing safe and laying up on every par-5.
The changes also turned some easy holes into much harder holes, though harder is not better. The U.S. Open has shown that. "It used to be that you tried to survive 1-6, then scored on 7-9 and use that as a springboard to build on the back nine. Now seven is one of the hardest holes on the course," explained Phil Mickelson. "It's a completely different hole right now."
Mickelson was absolutely right. The hole was originally designed to loosely resemble No. 18 at St. Andrews: short but sexy. At 350 yards - meant to play drive-pitch - it could survive being the narrowest hole at Augusta, and the smallest green surrounded by some of the deepest bunkers. It's Golf Architecture 101: defend the short hole with the most peril.
However, Fazio added 100 yards of length. Now 450 yards, the hole is criminally narrow, and pros play mid-irons severely uphill to a green designed to accept a wedge. Fazio's changes didn't fit the green; he erased the original playing strategy, turning the hole into exactly what Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts, and Alister MacKenzie wanted to avoid - a center-line grind, a line-of-scrimmage battle of attrition rather than fireworks, almost impossible to play without luck, not skill. Since 1942, it has played as the 12th-hardest hole at Augusta, a 4.14 stroke average. In 2007 and 2008, it was the third-toughest hole, averaging 4.325.
Another example is the first hole. It was once 265 yards to carry the fairway bunker guarding the inside of the dogleg and reach the downslope for a much shorter approach into the green. Now it's 315-320 yards, so no one takes the risk: everyone hits the same safe center-line shot.
Moreover, with the addition of rough and trees at 13 and 15, the two back-side par-5s where so many roars originate, eagles are suppressed as well. Even though the four par-5s play as the four easiest holes on the course, many writers believe the addition of rough and trees at 13 and 15 takes away the temptation for players that hit a less than perfect drive. While there were 30 eagles recorded at the 2004 Masters (won by Mickelson's epic 31 on the back nine, where he made five birdies in the last seven holes), the entire field has made an average of only 19 eagles each year since. Consider these numbers:
Low back nines at the Masters since 2002-08:
2002: 30 - V. Singh, Rd 2
2003: 31 - Els, Rd 2
2004: 31 - Mickelson, Choi, Garcia, Wittenberg (all final round)
2005: 31 - Immelman (Rd 3), D. Howell (Rd 2)
2006: 32 - V. Singh, Mediate (Rd 1), Duval (Rd 2)
2007: 34 - (nine different players, four in the final round, including Zach Johnson)
2008: 33 - (12 players, including Immelman and Padraig Harrington, but only once in the final round: M.A. Jimenez, who needed a 68 to finish seven shots back)
The 2009 & 2010 Augusta
Happily, the Masters Tournament Committee listened to the criticism and, in 2009, for the first time in 28 years, they shortened the course. Ten yards were trimmed from one hole, and several tees were extended forward to make holes play up to 20 combined yards shorter should the wind and weather dictate.
This year the trend continues, slowly and incrementally, but inexorably. Tees were extended forward on Nos. 5 and 13, so that the playing strategies of the hole won't be as affected by adverse weather like we saw in 2007 and '08. The second green had its front widened.
"We also cleared some trees on number 11; not much, but a few," added Fazio. That should solve some of the unfairness the players complained about in the last few years, but most importantly, the pendulum has begin to swing back on No. 7.
"Number 7 green approach was widened ands some new pin placements accommodated," said Fazio. "They might play tee up a bit another 10-15 yards one day. Remember, when the weather is bad, they'll need some flexibility."
The changes - especially at 11 and 13 - are encouraging. Never forget that Augusta National had most of its playing strategies and design tenets imported from the great courses of the United Kingdom. MacKenzie took ideas from not only the Old Course, but Muirfield, North Berwick, Stoke Pages, and Alwoody. He also nodded to Cypress Point at times. As such, the heart and soul of Augusta is temptation and options, and that means more players will be competitive since the course will be egalitarian - the smartest player will win.
With the all-star cast of winners on the PGA Tour so far this season, how could any golf fan lack for drama and intrigue? Former major champions Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk, and Ernie Els have won a total of four times, including back-to-back wins for Ernie in the last two tournaments before we went to press. Colorful fan favorites Anthony Kim, Camilo Villegas and Ian Poulter also won this year, as did newcomer Ryan Palmer and veteran Steve Stricker, two soft-spoken but popular rising stars. Mickelson's game is steadily rounding into shape, and he plays well at Augusta, as does three-time major-winner Padraig Harrington. Of course, someone who is playing poorly will find his game just in time, so watch out for newcomers Charl Schwartzel and Rory McIlroy. They've been turning heads quickly and often.
The Masters Perspective
So who needs the excess baggage of undignified floozies soaking up the 15 minutes some entertainment rag throws their way in exchange for dishing on Tiger? We won't be sorry to see the back of them and the whole sordid affair. Let them have their media circus: the Masters will just shrug it off.
Martha Burk underestimated the Masters. So apparently do Gloria Allred and her little cottage industry of people who want a piece of Tiger. But the Masters survived a depression - and near bankruptcy. Born in the teeth of the Great Depression, Augusta survived financial crises so dire Roberts wrote to Jones in 1934, just before the inaugural "Augusta National Invitational Tournament," the club was "One jump ahead of the sheriff." It will survive another wave of media hyperbole with nary a snap, snipe or sour note.
The golf world looks to the Masters as a panacea, an elixir to restore the faith of sports fans disillusioned by to a sports world gone mad. The Masters was iconic long before Tiger Woods was a gleam in his father Earl's eye, and it will continue to be a paragon of sports virtue long after Woods sails of into the sunset on a yacht called Privacy.
In the end, even Tiger has limits, as we saw. The Masters has no limits. When Tiger finally fades, golf will still endure.
While Tiger shows how far someone can fall once they abandon dignity, the Masters shows what heights one can reach once they embrace it. Indeed, in an age where society has capitulated to the reckless indifference of a libertine disposition, allowing greed to pervert the sports industry almost beyond recognition, only the Masters stands apart in quiet dignity: a stoic sentinel amidst the chaos and traffic of the world, wisely stewarding and promoting the game's altruistic virtues.
The genteel, restrained, and dignified way in which the Masters Tournament is run is an integral part of its allure with casual and fervent fan. For one week, golf shows the sports world how to put aside egos and greed and focus on the purity of the sport. Despite modern society's efforts to dumb down the rest of the sports world to the lowest common denominator, we still have something pure, inspiring. That will continue for decades, no matter what the winning score or how many distractions line up like cheap tin-penny sideshows. And, as they have every year for decades, the pines will ring with the cheering.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.