As play began today at Augusta National Golf Club for the 77th annual Masters Golf Invitational, I think about the many great years past and of the drama that is virtually guaranteed to ensue this week.
However, I am also wondering if we will see quite as much drama in future years as we have in the past. You might ask why. The answer: the course itself.
Hardest course in the world
I went down to Augusta last year to follow an old friend, Randy Lewis, who qualified as the US Mid-Amateur Champion. My first impression while walking around the course was simply: This has to be the hardest golf course in the world!
Earlier this week Luke Donald was asked what a 10-handicap golfer would probably shoot at Augusta. His answer: 120. That's roughly 40 shots above his handicap. As outrageous as this might seem, I agree with his assessment.
At 7,445 yards the course has become so long that it takes Bubba-like drives to get around it. Most amateur golfers couldn't reach the par-4s in regulation. The grass around the greens is cut so tight that an expert level is needed to hit even the simplest chip shot. In addition, there are no simple chip shots around those greens. The greens are all slightly raised with false fronts and run-off areas. The greens, of course, are so fast and have so much slope to them that 4 and 5-putts would be commonplace for amateurs.
This might seem even more extreme than Donald's comment, but I don't think that a 10-handicapper would break 100 playing from just 150 yards out on every hole.
Tiger-proofing and the challenge of keeping up with the times
The reason for the extreme difficulty of the course is because the tour players are that good. Indeed, there are no 10-handicappers playing this week. "Tiger-proofing" the course began in the late '90s. Since then, the course has been lengthened by more than 500 yards.
Most of the additional yards are due to the modern equipment, and this is where it is a challenge for golf courses to keep up with the tour players. The problem becomes how to make the course challenging enough without losing its playing characteristics. This is particularly important for a course like Augusta, because it has always had a unique playability when compared to other major championship venues. This playability has always led to the greatest drama in golf.
It's not that it played easy in the past, but the layout traditionally lent itself to a lot of birdies. Augusta may be losing this characteristic with the modern setup.
Augusta and the four majors
The four golf majors are important historically because of the way each tournament is played. Each tournament tests a different aspect of a player's game. Winning one major is huge for a golfer. Winning multiple majors is rare. The ultimate testament to a golfer's skill is to win each of the majors.
The U.S Open tests a player's patience and grinding skills. The greens are always hard and fast and the rough is thick. It set the standard for championship golf as a 72-hole marathon where the weak of mind will collapse in the end.
It is no surprise that Ben Hogan came the closest to winning the most U.S. Open titles. In 1955 he walked off the 18th green on the last day and tossed his ball to a USGA official and said "this is for the golf house," referring to the museum at the USGA headquarters. Unfortunately for Hogan, his ball lost historical importance as his legs -- and his putting -- could not handle a fifth day of grinding and he lost in a playoff the next day.
The British Open tests a player's ability to manage the elements and to improvise shots. In golf you have to be ready for the unexpected. It is a game of skill and cunning, but also a game where chance comes into play. You have to be patient and accept good and bad luck if you want to win The Open.
The penultimate Open Champion in the modern game is no doubt a man from the cold, wind-swept state of Kansas. What better place in America to learn the skills needed to win 5 Open Championships! With a profound love for the history and traditions of the game and a short game that redefined scoring (the Watson-par), Tom Watson came one “wee” shot away from holding the Claret Jug for a 6th time at the age of 59.
The PGA Championship was initially unique in its match-play format. Reflecting the origins of the game more than any other professional major in this respect, winning The PGA demonstrated one's ability to master the art of match-play. The modern PGA is a tour event on steroids. It boasts the strongest field of any of the majors, as there are no amateur golfers in the tournament.
In the match play era, there was no one who could contend with Walter Hagen. Driving up to the first tee in a tuxedo and smelling of a well-watered evening, he would demoralize his opponents before the match even started. In the modern PGA, there is no surprise that Jack Nicklaus' power game and nerves of steel allowed him to win more than any other since going to the 72-hole stroke play format.
It doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday
The Masters tests a player's nerves in a different way. The particular genius of its course layout offers more drama and sudden shifts on the leader board than the other majors. This is so much the case, that the rule for making the cut is "anyone within 10 shots of the leader." If you are 10 shots after two days in the other majors, you are basically playing for the check and not the title.
Not at Augusta! The rule for winning at Augusta is to stay in contention until the back nine on Sunday, then it is game on.
August is known for drama. As I mentioned before, it is not that it plays easy. The genius of Bobby Jones and Alistair McKenzie was to create a course that exploits a fundamental rule in golf: risk vs. reward. Golfers of all levels are faced with the risk/reward decision on virtually every shot. That is why all golfers like to watch The Masters. Everyone can relate to the decisions that the pros have to make. "I would have gone for it" is what you will hear in every golf-loving living room in the country on Sunday afternoon.
At Augusta, the risk/reward decision is magnified 1,000 fold because of the design of the course, because of the greens and because every other player remaining in the field is capable of making a move. In addition, wherever you are on the back nine, you are going to HEAR it when someone does make his move!
Is Augusta becoming too hard?
It is expressly written in the Masters spectator guide that "the chief objective of the Masters is to stage a golf show [my emphasis] that is enjoyable to all."
My fear is that the course might be becoming too difficult, even for the best players in the world. I am not worried about their egos or their ability to shoot low scores. The winning scores have not necessarily increased since the changes have been made.
I'm worried about losing the drama. I am worried that there won’t be as many birdies and eagles on Sunday. I want to know that someone may come back from 6 shots and walk away with the green jacket. I want to know that I can sit back Sunday afternoon and get ready for the best golf show of the year.