Golf: Woods hopes shorter Masters test will lead to more risk-taking
WHEN Bobby Jones, in the midst of the Great Depression, went to inspect the abandoned plot which was once home to a commercial nursery on the outskirts of Augusta, he regarded the moment as an epiphany. From the first time the founder of the Masters set eyes on the verdant terrain, he knew he'd found something special.
In his book, Golf Is My Game, published half a lifetime later, Jones wrote: "It seemed that this land had been lying here for years just waiting for someone to lay a golf course upon it. Indeed, it even looked as though it were already a golf course, and I'm sure that one standing today where I stood on that first visit, on the terrace overlooking the practice putting green, sees the property almost exactly as I saw it then."
What was true in 1960, however, can no longer be argued in the 21st century. Look at an old photograph of Augusta National and then picture the holes today; the changes are so radical as to render the original design principles of Jones and Alister Mackenzie almost redundant.
It isn't just that the course is so much longer at over 7,400 yards – new technology means every professional nowadays hits the ball further –but the addition of rough and the planting of trees to narrow the fairways has reduced the number of choices players can make to plot their way round. "It's too tight," laments Sergio Garcia, arguably golf's best driver of the ball.
Once the ultimate risk and reward lay-out, which became America's favourite golf tournament because of the excitement generated on Sunday afternoons, the gathering place of the Masters in recent years has been as hushed as a cold church during a dreary sermon.
In their quest to ask harder questions of the big guns with the heavy artillery – the re- design was partly a reaction to Tiger Woods' 18-under-par tally of 270 in 1997 – Augusta National's tournament committee not only made the exam paper for the season's first major more testing but also more monotonous.
The lack of excitement – Woods frets there are "no roars out there any more" – has forced a re-think. For the first time since the early Eighties, Augusta will play a few yards shorter over the next four days than it did in 2008. The change in emphasis is noticeable from the first tee, which has been moved up seven yards.
Whether or not the subtlety of the retreat will encourage more adventurous play remains to be seen. "Hopefully we'll see a little bit of a difference," added Tiger, who has won 30 per cent of all the majors he's entered. "It's only ten yards here and there, but that ten yards, such as on No1, is a lot; a ball hitting into the hill versus a ball carrying on to the crest and releasing, that's two totally different scenarios."
According to Ben Crenshaw, twice a winner at Augusta as well as a noted champion of American golf course design, the shift in emphasis away from the gambler's heart has been hurtful. "The old Augusta was a tightrope, where risks were encouraged but a fall could hurt," he said. "There's no question it has become more of a defensive proposition.
"The thing that sets Augusta apart is that it's exciting and theatrical. People would pull off shots but the flip side of that is that, if you failed, it would tax you mentally."
Although Augusta is supposed to be a paradise for big hitters, the number of golfers prepared to try and find the greens of the par-5 13th and 15th holes in two blows has shrunk to the point where the expert wedge player now has an advantage over the long driver.
It's not a coincidence since the course was re-designed that three relatively short to medium hitters – Mike Weir, Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman – have gone home with green jackets. All three took advantage of conservative game plans. When Johnson won, he laid up on the par 5s every time and was 11 under par for the long holes.
"With the lengthening of the par 5s, it's made it more difficult for the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson," reasoned Colin Montgomerie. "Believe it or not, the lengthening of the course brought the shorter hitters back into it."
While there's everything to commend about the fairness of a test which embraces golfers with different sets of skills, the riddle for the Masters to solve is that in searching for greater respect it all but eliminated aggressive shot-making. A tournament which made its reputation on the back of Gene Sarazen's albatross, the shot heard around the world, now suffers from a dearth of jeopardy.
Not that everyone disapproves. Padraig Harrington, seeking to join Woods and Ben Hogan in the elite club of professionals who have won three consecutive major titles, reckons Augusta National is the most complete test in championship golf.
"When I first went to Augusta in 2000, the golf course was short and the pin positions were tricky," he said. "I remember hitting sand wedge into the first and lob wedge into the 18th and 9-iron into the 11th. It wasn't what I had seen on TV in the Eighties. Now it's back to being a big, strong golf course, and the pin positions are much fairer because of it."
Phil Mickelson agrees and reckons the weather can play almost as influential a role in the scoring at the Masters as it does on the seaside links which host the Open championship. "The forecast is to be warm and sunny and, in that case, the course will play, I don't want to say short, but it will play much shorter than we saw over the last couple of years," predicted the left-hander. "We will see some reasonably low scoring, I believe."
The arrival of gamblers at the summit of the game such as Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas, as well as the debuts of fearless teenagers of the calibre of Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa, could also tilt the pendulum back towards risk-taking over the weekend.
If the weather is decent, the greens are watered and the tee boxes are moved up on the par 5s, perhaps an air of commotion will whistle through the dogwoods again. With seven Englishmen, two golfers from Northern Ireland as well as a veteran Welshman and a lone Scot in the field of 96, could there also be half a chance of a first British winner emerging since Nick Faldo in 1996?
TEE OFF TIMES
Today and tomorrow
(USA unless stated, all times BST)
Arnold Palmer (honorary starter, today only)
1300 & 1607
Ian Woosnam (GB), Chez Reavie, Bring Baird
1311 & 1618
Sandy Lyle (GB), Billy Mayfair, Tim Clark (SA)
1322 & 1629
Kevin Sutherland, Ross Fisher (GB), Prayad Marksaeng (Thai)
1333 & 1640
Louis Oosthuizen (SA), Carl Pettersson (Swe), Dudley Hart
1344 & 1651
Raymond Floyd, Justin Leonard, *Reinier Saxton (Ned)
1355 & 1702
Fuzzy Zoeller, Michael Campbell (NZ), Ken Duke
1406 & 1724
Ben Curtis, Nick Watney, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa)
1417 & 1735
Craig Stadler, Rory Sabbatini (SA), Dustin Johnson
1428 & 1746
Gary Player (SA), Luke Donald (GB), Stephen Ames (Can)
1439 & 1757
Retief Goosen (SA), Soren Hansen (Den), Shingo Katayama (Jpn)
1450 & 1808
Bernhard Langer (Ger), Greg Norman (Aus), Lee Westwood (GB)
1512 & 1819
Justin Rose (GB), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Angel Cabrera (Arg)
1523 & 1830
Vijay Singh (Fij), Geoff Ogilvy (Aus), Ernie Els (SA)
1534 & 1841
Mike Weir (Can), Padraig Harrington (Ire), Ryuji Imada (Jpn)
1545 & 1852
Phil Mickelson, Camilo Villegas (Col), Jim Furyk
1556 & 1903
Stuart Appleby (Aus), Oliver Wilson, Sergio Garcia (Spa)
1607 & 1300
Larry Mize, John Merrick, *Drew Kittleson
1618 & 1311
Todd Hamilton, Steve Flesch, Mathew Goggin (Aus)
1629 & 1322
Tom Watson, Ian Poulter (GB), *Steve Wilson
1640 & 1333
Aaron Baddeley (Aus), Bubba Watson, Graeme McDowell (GB)
1651 & 1344
Mark O'Meara, Pat Perez, DJ Trahan
1702 & 1355
Fred Couples, Rocco Mediate, *Jack Newman
1724 & 1406
Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Sean O'Hair, Richard Sterne (SA)
1735 & 1417
Andres Romero (Arg), Boo Weekley, Chad Campbell
1746 & 1428
Ben Crenshaw, Paul Casey (GB), Steve Stricker
1757 & 1439
Yang Yong-eun (Kor), Robert Allenby (Aus), Hunter Mahan
1808 & 1450
Zach Johnson, Lin Wen-tang (Tai), Robert Karlsson (Swe)
1819 & 1512
Jose Maria Olazabal (Spa), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Brandt Snedeker
1830 & 1523
KJ Choi (Kor), Alvaro Quiros (Spa), Kenny Perry
1841 & 1534
Trevor Immelman (SA), Adam Scott (Aus), *Danny Lee (Nzl)
1852 & 1545
Tiger Woods, Stewart Cink, Jeev Milkha Singh (Ind)
1903 & 1556
Anthony Kim, Rory McIlroy (GB), Ryo Ishikawa (Jpn)
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Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
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