The Masters was once the most exciting golf event in the world,
but club members anxious to protect the reputation of their
course, as well as modern agronomy and Augusta National's
dreaded Cup and Tee Marker Placement Committee have turned the
tournament into a springtime version of the U.S. Open, sans
rough. Often Augusta National seems just a few short steps from
the point where windmills replace the flagsticks. When the
course is hard and dry, as in 1993 and '94 and this year's
weekend rounds, spectators giggle at the contestants and their
miniature golf escapades, and golfers grumble about Augusta the
way they used to about The Players Championship's stadium course
in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Chip shots trickle across greens and
into water hazards. Balls take funny Pete Dye bounces. Good
shots are not rewarded. All that's missing are some railroad
ties and an island green.
These days in dry conditions the Masters is seldom about
thrilling charges through the Georgia pines a la Palmer,
Nicklaus, Player, Snead and Ballesteros. It has become an annual
game of up-and-down, par-saving golf. The booming roars that
shake the ground and echo up through the valley to salute a
birdie or an eagle are giving way to collective silences or
moans of disappointment as players bogey hole after hole. The
excitement meter doesn't run in the red for long.
Last year the average score at the Masters was 74.19, nearly one
stroke higher than in 1993, and more than two higher than in
1992. After this year's practice round, players said they had
never seen the greens harder early in the week. But Thursday
rains softened the course, and players shooting in the 60s
flooded the interview room. The green jackets' worst fears were
being realized. The course, with its short par-5s and closely
cropped rough, became defenseless when the greens were not
rock-hard, which makes it clear why the tournament committee
feels compelled to trick up Augusta National. The average score
at last week's Masters was 72.59, proving it is nearly
impossible to trick up a wet golf course.
Masters officials claim that tricking up the course is not their
intention. ``Unless it rains, our greens are fast and firm,''
said tournament chairman Jack Stephens. ``I don't know what they
mean by `tricking up.' We don't do that.''
There are those who beg to differ. The outcry began in 1988,
when '79 Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller shot 66 in the second
round and then blasted the green jackets for turning the golf
course into a morgue. ``When I first came here, the greens were
the perfect speed,'' Zoeller said. ``If you had a downhill putt,
you had a chance. Now you tap it and just pray to God you get it
down to within eight or 10 feet of the hole. If that's golf, I'm
in the wrong damn league.''
That same year Charles Coody, the '71 champ, referred to putting
at Augusta as ``goony golf.'' ``It embarrasses you,'' he said.
``Sometimes you do stuff where you want to walk off and hide. I
try to look at it as I would if I stood behind the ropes
watching. If I want to see 75s and 76s and people three-putt
from six feet, I'll go to my club and watch members.''
``We have the highest respect for the players,'' retorted then
Masters chairman Hord Hardin. ``We would do nothing to embarrass
them.'' This from the man who once said he would provide ice
skates on the first tee to players who thought the greens were
The seeds of controversy were sown, literally, in 1981, when
Augusta's greens were converted from Bermuda to much faster bent
grass, commonly used in the Northeast. The consensus among the
players was that bent grass wasn't meant for steep, mounded,
elephant-grave-style greens. Augusta's ultrafirm greens became
very difficult to hold and even harder to putt.
Although there had been many changes to Augusta National over
the years, this was the first major adjustment to be greeted
with fervent disapproval. Most of the early modifications to the
original design of Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones were
considered good ideas. When the first Masters was played, in
1934, today's back nine and front nine were flip-flopped. In
1935, after tournament organizers realized that morning frost
took too long to thaw on the shaded, low-lying greens of what
were then the 1st, 2nd and 3rd holes, they switched the nines.
Robert Trent Jones totally redesigned the 16th hole in 1947,
moving the tee and green and damming Rae's Creek to create the
pond that makes this one of Augusta's postcard holes. Three
years later, Jones added the pond in front of the 11th green,
which Raymond Floyd found in his playoff loss to Nick Faldo in
The golf course has been lengthened considerably over the years,
with tees moved back at the 1st, 2nd, 10th, 11th, 13th and 15th
holes. But the extra yardage has not offset the increased
club-head speed of today's players or other technological
advances. ``These guys are hitting it miles farther,'' says Pete
Dye. ``It's a crime these older golf courses are outdated
because of modern equipment.''
Some players think that in that one instance the club went too
far in attempting to counter that trend. The hole that takes the
worst beating from big hitters at the Masters is the 465-yard,
par-5 13th. Long drives carrying the dogleg there leave just a
seven-iron into the green. To give the hole more muscle, in the
early '80s Hardin asked Jack Nicklaus to move the greens back 50
yards, into the azaleas.
``I said, `Hord, that is one of the great holes in the game of
golf,' '' Nicklaus recalls. ``He said, `Well, it's too easy.' ''
In a compromise, Nicklaus suggested that the club put a swale
left of the green that would eliminate the easy chip for birdie
from there. ``If you take that away, then everyone is forced to
play the hole the way it was meant to be played: to hit the ball
on the fairway and on the green,'' Nicklaus said. ``If anyone
bails out left, he'll have a tough time making 4.'' When he came
back the following year, Nicklaus was surprised to see that the
swale put in by the club was much deeper than he would have
liked. ``[Masters officials said] they put the swale in like
that for drainage,'' Nicklaus. ``It was a cop-out.''
In the past year Tom Fazio made minor changes to the 3rd, 4th
and 17th greens, softening some edges and removing some mounds
to create more pin placements. ``[What they asked me to do] goes
in contrast to the theory that they're trying to make the course
harder,'' says Fazio. Is the Masters committee caving in to
pressure? Hardly. Asked last week if he would be comfortable if
an even-par score of 288 won the tournament, Stephens smiled.
``Oh, yes,'' he said. ``Used to.''
Since 1993 the Lords of the Masters have mowed fairways back
toward tee boxes to make the course play longer, shaved down the
banks of the water hazards and put pins in spots never seen
before. And players' complaints have been almost as bad as they
were in 1988.
``Mickey Mouse, miniature golf,'' said then defending champion
Bernhard Langer last year.
``I find it hard to believe Bobby Jones wanted some of the holes
to play this way,'' Nick Price added.
``They took it over the edge,'' said Greg Norman.
Most of the criticism centered on the par-5 15th. In the opening
round last year, Tom Watson and Steve Elkington made 8s on the
hole, Payne Stewart and Costantino Rocca made 9s and Nolan Henke
a 10. Watson's triple bogey came when he ran a chip shot through
the green and down a bank shaved so close it was, in the words
of Norman, ``like a baby's bottom.''
``There are two schools of thought about a major
championship,'' Colin Montgomerie said last April after shooting
77-73 to miss the cut. ``One says it should be tough, another
says it should be fair. This is borderline. I don't want to say
any more because I might be fined.''
Montgomerie was joking about the fine, but he did have reason to
curtail his comments. Because the Masters is an invitational
tournament, players often fear criticizing it. The terror
reaches beyond players too. Knowing the club's history, one
prominent golf course designer, Rees Jones, refused to be
interviewed for this story. ``I get two badges a year,'' he
says, ``and I'd like to keep them.''
Change does come at autocratic Augusta, but from within.
Tournament chairman Clifford Roberts once scoffed when club
member Dwight Eisenhower volunteered that a pine tree, on the
17th fairway, now known as the Eisenhower Tree, could use some
pruning. ``Mr. President,'' Roberts said, ``you run the country.
We'll run this club.''
The green jackets will probably think we've had one too many
mint juleps on the veranda, but we hereby suggest six changes
that would make Augusta National a better course, and the
Masters a fairer test of golf:
1) Either plow up and redesign the greens or slow them down by
restoring the grass to Bermuda. Arnold Palmer is in our corner
on this one. ``I think when they put the bent grass on the
greens, they should have reconstructed all of them,'' Palmer
says. ``And I mean in total, rather than trying to keep the
undulations that were on them. The undulations are too severe
for the grass they're using.''
2) Let the grass grow back on the banks. There used to be enough
on them to prevent some balls from rolling into the water
hazards. In 1992 eventual champion Fred Couples's tee shot on 12
landed halfway up the bank, eight feet from the green, and
rolled back down toward the water but stopped just a foot from
Rae's Creek, providing one of the most suspenseful moments in
tournament history. At a news conference before the 1993
Masters, Stephens implied that such a shot would never stay up
3) Grow some rough. Maybe not U.S. Open-PGA Championship rough,
but rough that would demand accurate driving. As it is now, the
rough at Augusta is more playable than the fairways at most of
this country's municipal courses. ``You've got acres out there
to drive the ball,'' says Curtis Strange. ``Some of those
fairways are 50 yards wide.'' Indeed there's no such thing as a
flier or a buried lie at the Masters. Strange and fellow former
U.S. Open champions Hale Irwin and Johnny Miller all say that
the cultivation of rough would give more balance to the
Masters--or as Miller calls it, ``the Augusta Spring Putting
4) Reshape the 13th green, making it more receptive to long iron
shots and therefore more likely to yield an eagle. The green
used to be a backstop, tilting from back to front. Now it has
been built up, with three plateaus, descending toward the water
in front. The top plateau is so high above the swale that
getting the ball close to the pin from left of the green is all
but impossible. Too many players lay up, figuring they have a
better chance of making a birdie with a wedge. The risk- reward
factor has been minimized. Norman, Watson, Peter Jacobsen, Corey
Pavin and Mark McCumber all agree that the 13th green is out of
character with the rest of the course. ``I'd just take the green
down,'' says Norman. ``I'd take a cheese cutter--you know how
you take a cheese cutter and slice cheese?--and take about nine
inches off the top.''
5) Put a water hazard in front of the 2nd green, the longest
par-5, at 555 yards, but the second-easiest hole on the course
last year with a stroke average of 4.77. There's no water on the
front side at Augusta, and players regularly lay up into the
front bunkers on number 2 rather than hit a 90-yard wedge shot
from the fairway. Crazy idea, you say? Clifford Roberts once
asked Palmer to put a lake in front of the par-3 4th green,
despite the fact that it wouldn't have affected tournament play.
Now that was a crazy idea. ``I said I didn't think it was
necessary,'' Palmer recalls. ``It wasn't going to make a big
change on the hole, and it was going to be difficult for the
gallery to get around, so we didn't do it.''
6) Lower the water level in front of the 13th green. Remember
when Strange donned his rain suit and climbed down into the
stream to play a shot from the hazard in 1985? You can't do that
now because the water has been too deep since the Rae's Creek
tributary was dammed in 1989. ``I think during Hord Hardin's
reign as chairman [1979-91], they took a lot of luck out of the
golf course,'' says Tom Kite. ``That's no longer a creek at 13,
that's a pond. I played numerous shots down there. Gary Player
was down there the last time he won [in 1978]. Curtis went down
there. Now, it's cut and dried. You're reloading.''
Being outsiders, we don't expect Jack Stephens to take us up on
any of this. ``Frankly, I think the policy of this club has
always been that we'd rather see birdies than bogeys,'' Stephens
says. ``That pleases the golfer and it pleases the fans.
It pleased them this year. Let's hope the green jackets are
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PAUL CORIOPalmer would love to plow under the bent-grass greens. [Arnold Palmer in a tractor plowing a golf course.]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PAUL CORIO Suspense like that generated in 1992 by Couples' ball on 12 has gone the way of grassier banks. [Fred Couples looking at his ball which is stuck in the green near a pond with a fish in it.]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PAUL CORIO If Norman could have his way, he would take nine inches off the top of the now cheesy 13th green. [Greg Norman slicing golf green with a large garden tool.]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PAUL CORIO Player played out of Rae's Creek in his '78 win, but you're out of luck if you go in the water at 13 today. [Golfer standing in water while swinging club.]