The Masters has always made time stop. From the ageless visage of
Gene Sarazen to the perpetual paradise of Amen Corner, Augusta
offers a comforting coalescence with the past. At next week's
62nd edition of the tournament, though, the clock will be
ticking. In the offing is a collision between the old and the
new--an immovable object and an irresistible force. Something
has got to give, and when the final putt drops, we'll know
better what gives in golf.
The immovable object is the Augusta National Golf Club, the
longest-standing tournament site in the game. Actually, the
course has undergone constant revision since the inaugural
Masters in 1934. There have been 76 alterations since the first
change, in 1937, when the 10th green was moved back 50 yards,
turning a patsy of a par-4 into the toughest hole on the course.
Most of the changes, though, have been more fine-tuning than
But last year, an irresistible force was launched by Tiger
Woods, and for the first time there's a real sense that the
minimalist design principles of Bobby Jones and Alister
Mackenzie may not hold. More than Woods's score of 18-under-par
270, which broke the record held by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond
Floyd by a stroke, or Woods's 12-stroke margin of victory, it
was the manner in which the 21-year-old ran roughshod over the
sacred ground that created a belief that big changes are
imminent. Whereas Nicklaus in his record year was reaching the
par-5s in two with mostly long irons and Floyd employed a
magical five-wood, Woods emasculated the holes by punching in
short irons. He used his driver on the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and
18th holes to effortlessly fly yawning but irrelevant fairway
bunkers intended to thwart long hitters. With the amount of red
he splashed on the scoreboard and the way he made mincemeat out
of the par-5s, which he played in 13 under, Woods turned last
year's Masters into golf's version of a splatter movie.
The scary thing is, he may do it again this year. More
important, though, is this point: Woods is not the only man
capable of cutting Augusta National to ribbons. Suddenly, an
elite group of players has risen to match him in style and
substance. These long-hitting, pin-seeking, physically imposing,
lob-wedging aggressors are the purveyors of the Extreme Game.
Besides Woods, they are Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, David
Duval, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Jesper Parnevik, all
of whom, with the exception of Love, have a victory this year.
The group sometimes includes a resurgent John Daly, and to a
lesser extent, because of their slightly toned-down approach,
Ernie Els, Greg Norman and Tom Watson.
What Extremers do is use tremendous length off the tee to reach
ideal positions from which to attack the flag with high,
soft-landing approaches. It's a style of play that leads to a
lot of birdies, especially on par-5s. The downside of the
Extreme Game is that it's extremely risky. Also, the style works
better in regular PGA Tour events than in majors, in which there
is less margin for error. However, the Masters is an exception.
Yes, Augusta National punishes mistakes such as overcooked
approaches or less-than-surgical putting, but no course better
rewards the Extreme Game.
The course's wide, tightly mown fairways and lack of rough allow
for a bombs-away mentality off most tees. The length of the
Extremers' drives makes placement far less important. Getting a
four-iron second shot to stop near the hole requires all of a
player's skill, but putting the brakes on a nine-iron hit from
50 yards closer to the target isn't nearly as tough. If a player
can consistently hit his approaches below the pins, as Woods did
with well-controlled short irons, Augusta's greens become less
fearsome. Woods's lack of a three-putt was as much the result of
an awesome 323-yard driving average as it was of a sensitive
"Augusta has always rewarded length more than any other course,
and the reward is increasing as the players get longer," says
Nicklaus, the only six-time winner of the Masters. "The places
where 10 percent of the players can now drive the ball gives
them a disproportionate advantage over the other 90 percent. The
challenge of the course is being watered down."
Plenty of short hitters have won at Augusta. Since 1984 Nick
Faldo has won three times, while Bernhard Langer and Ben
Crenshaw have each won twice. Their performances were marked by
impeccable course management, shot-making and sterling putting.
Woods provided a new blueprint for victory. Like Roger
Bannister, he seems to have broken a psychological as well as a
physical barrier, and the floodgates may open for other
Extremers. "In the past I've gone in and shown the course too
much respect," says Els, whose best finish in the Masters is a
tie for eighth. "You've got to freewheel, let it fly and go for
every pin. That's what Tiger did last year, and that's what I'm
going to do."
In the wake of Woods's victory some predicted that the Lords of
Augusta might react with drastic alterations, but they stayed in
character by only gently tweaking the course. Small corners of
the 6th, 8th and 14th greens have been extended to provide new
pin positions, while the 11th tee has been moved a few yards to
the right to produce an angle that makes it harder to hit a
distance-gobbling draw. Some trees have also been added on the
right sides of the 13th and 18th holes to make escapes more
difficult. Overall, though, the club essentially has said to
Woods, Let's see you do it again.
We believe Woods, or someone playing like him, will prove that
1997 was no fluke. Given another year of good weather, Woods's
record will be approached and perhaps broken, and the leader
board will be loaded with Extremers. The view that Augusta
National is being rendered defenseless will gain currency.
Dramatic changes in the course will ensue, and the '98 Masters
will be remembered as a landmark year in the tournament's
history. What might some of those changes be? The club has five
Make the pin positions more difficult. This has always been
Augusta's ace in the hole, but the club is running out of
options. Players have long felt that the pin placements have
bordered on unfair, and were occasionally ridiculous. Last year,
for example, the hole on the 2nd green was cut on such a
precipitous spot in the first round that Jeff Sluman hit a
five-footer that did a power lip out and rolled back behind him
for about 50 feet before finally stopping on the front fringe.
Such placements would seem to violate one of Jones's tenets: "It
is not our intention to rig the golf course so as to make it
Grow some rough. Rough is antithetical to Jones's philosophy. He
loved strategic design that gave players options. The clean
lies, even after errant shots, allow for some of the most
exciting recoveries in golf. "Because of high rough the recovery
shot has been lost in the other majors, and it's one of the most
beautiful parts of the game," says Nicklaus.
Nevertheless, the time for longer grass has come. "I'm not
talking about lining the fairway with it or even growing it more
than an inch or so," says Johnny Miller. "I'd just like to see
it on one side of the fairway on some holes, where guys like to
bail out. Make it just long enough so that a flyer becomes a
"With rough," says Mickelson, "Augusta might be the hardest golf
course in the world."
Add or move some fairway bunkers. This has been tried before.
The installation of new fairway bunkers was the chief response
to Nicklaus's 271 in '65, a score that broke the old record by
three strokes and was just as shocking as Woods's performance
last year. Before the '66 tournament, the club installed a
bunker on the right side of the fairway on the 2nd hole, a
dogleg left par-5 on which Nicklaus had driven far down the hill
with impunity. The double bunker on the left side of the 18th
fairway was also added to prevent players from intentionally
blasting their drives away from the trees on the right and into
a large open area only a short iron from the green.
Of course Daly, Love and Woods can fly the bunker on the 2nd
hole, and several others can carry the bunkers on 18. Jay Haas,
a short hitter with an excellent record at the Masters, has an
idea--move the bunkers farther from the tee. In their current
position of 250 to 270 yards out, they actually punish the short
hitter. "If they just moved them into the long-hitters' range,"
says Haas, "they would be able to keep up with the modern game
and not have the golf course lose its character."
Redesign some holes. Overall, Augusta National doesn't have the
real estate to significantly lengthen any holes, but several
could be toughened, especially the 2nd, 15th and 17th.
Some club members would like to see a pond installed in front of
the 2nd green to make an attempt to get home in two more
dangerous. No one quite knows what to do with the 15th, a par-5
of 500 yards that statistically has been the easiest hole on the
course since 1942. One idea is to put a shallow bunker on the
right side of the fairway to tighten the driving area while
still allowing players the option of going for the green.
The par-4 17th also lacks distinction. The fairway is wide-open,
and most pros are left with no more than a nine-iron approach.
The green has severe undulations, but shorter, and therefore
more accurate, second shots neutralize that defense.
Do nothing. The club usually resorts to this, and with good
reason. There is no hard evidence that Woods has started a
trend. The record he broke--in ideal weather--had stood for 32
years, and the fact that he won by 12 strokes argues against the
notion that a pack of players is ready to do the same thing. The
field's average score of 74.3 in '97 was the highest at Augusta
in eight years, and higher than in Nicklaus's and Floyd's
"We should give a great athlete his due and not panic," says
Floyd. Haas agrees. "I'm against a big change," he says. "If
someone came into the NBA who was 7'5", could handle the ball
like a guard and had a great outside shot, would raising the
basket make any difference?" Miller likes the idea of an
unchanging arena as a standard against which players and eras
can be measured. Finally, why throw a wrench into the Masters
star-making mechanism? Most fans loved seeing Woods tear up the
place. "If you want to have Tiger win all the time, leave the
course alone," says Nicklaus.
We will find out next week if the essential challenge of a
classic tournament is being lost to an irresistible force.
Another of Jones's tenets--"We are quite willing to have low
scores made during the tournament"--will be tested. The guess
here is that this will be the year that persuades the club to
make some big changes.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER/CBS DEFENSELESS? The way Woods (in red) attacked in '97 was a blueprint for the future. [Gallery watching Tiger Woods putting]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND SEEING RED Hitting short-iron second shots, Woods was 13 under on the par-5s. [Tiger Woods playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Bomb squad Mickelson (left), Parnevik (middle) and Daly can all overpower Augusta. [Phil Mickelson playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER [See caption above--Jesper Parnevik exultant]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--John Daly playing golf]
A SIMPLE SOLUTION
For all his ideas about what can be done at Augusta National for
it to remain a great test, Jack Nicklaus prefers that the course
not be touched. He wants to change the golf ball.
A growing number of insiders believe the game is facing a
crisis, and a revised ball is the simplest way to combat the
effects of stronger athletes playing with superior equipment on
better conditioned courses. "It does appear that the gap between
the distance superstars and the average player hit the ball is
widening," concedes Frank Thomas, technical director of the
USGA, who in the past had maintained that existing restrictions
on the ball were sufficient. "There is certainly a perceived
problem, and it might be a real one."
Golf's elders are still opposed to Nicklaus's remedy--the
establishment of a tournament ball used only by pros. The USGA
doesn't like that idea because golf has never had different
equipment regulations for different classes of players. Among
other reasons, manufacturers don't like the idea because
consumers have shown a desire to play what the pros play.
There is, however, a simpler solution: make all balls slightly
lighter. For a Tour player, a ball that weighs less than the
regulation 1.62 ounces doesn't carry as far on full shots, would
roll less and would be harder to control in the wind. In 1931
the USGA first regulated ball weight, settling on 1.55 ounces.
The pros, who had grown accustomed to playing heavier balls,
found the new one difficult to play and dubbed it the Floater.
The weight was adjusted to 1.62 ounces the following year.
There's more. According to Thomas, for an average player whose
drives are in the 185- to 200-yard range, the lighter ball might
even go farther. "The lighter ball might be a very tidy way of
increasing the demands on professionals and not hurting the
other 99 percent of golfers," says Thomas.
That might appease manufacturers. "It's a very intriguing idea,"
says Wally Uihlein, CEO of Titleist. If Augusta National gets
massacred again next week, a lighter ball might also be an idea
whose time has come. --J.D.
"If you want to have Tiger win all the time, leave the course
alone," says Nicklaus.