Insights: Sports

It's springtime in Augusta, and you can bet your solid-core balls the late great Bobby Jones is spinning in his grave. Tiger Woods and the "spring-like effect" of all the newfangled titanium driver faces arriving for this year's Masters have transformed golf into a game with which he and most mere mortals are not familiar. The golf course Jones laid out with Allister Mackenzie in the early 1930s has been radically transformed in response to the onslaught of modern equipment technology. For better or worse, it may already be too late to ask whether all this is for better or worse. The only questions that seem to remain are, when, not if, what has happened at Augusta National will happen to a traditional links near you -- and at what cost?

CBS television commentators fondly tout the Masters as "a tradition unlike any other." But apart from the green jacket awarded to the winner and the white bread sandwiches on sale at the refreshment stands, the one truly constant tradition at the Masters is the ever-changing golf course. Over the past seven decades, there have been 69 "official" alterations, including the switch to bent grass greens in 1981 and the introduction of a first cut of rough in 1999. The latest efforts to "Tigerproof" the tract by adding nearly 300 yards have made the 2002 version of Augusta National a golf course unlike any other -- including its artfully eccentric old self.

Nine of Augusta's 18 holes (Nos. 1, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14 and 18) have been lengthened, but you're likely to see the most telling effects of the extensions on the back nine, particularly on the 18th, where five past Masters have been decided by a final-round birdie. Formerly a 405-yard dogleg right par 4, the home hole is now a whopping 465 yards, most of it uphill. Tiger hit a sand wedge approach from 78 yards in the final round of the 2001 Masters. During a preview round last fall when the 18th was playing upwind, he needed a 6-iron to reach the green on his second shot, while his playing partner, Mark O'Meara, who birdied the hole to win in 1998, had to hit a fairway wood.

"Our objective is to keep this golf course current," Masters chairman Hootie Johnson declared in a press release detailing the changes to Augusta National. Johnson claims that objective also includes bringing long and middle irons back into the game. ("I think any of us probably hate to see people hitting sand wedges to 425-yard par 4s," he says.) But instead of "Tigerproofing" the course, the added length appears to play to Tiger's strength, while greatly reducing the number of potential contenders in the field. As Woods's coach, Butch Harmon, recently observed, "They've pretty much taken the average hitter out of the scenario."

Meanwhile, the currents of change at Augusta are coursing like electroshocks throughout the golfing world, sanctifying a trend in yardage extensions from coast to coast. Long Island, New York's Bethpage Black, an A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece, has added over 300 yards in total length for the 2002 U.S. Open. More than 400 yards have been tacked on to Torrey Pines in California, a William Bell original that annually hosts a PGA Tour event. Similar extension projects are also being considered or already completed at vintage courses like Winged Foot and Sleepy Hollow in New York and Merion in Pennsylvania.

"Certainly everyone in the whole country and around the world watches what they do at Augusta," notes two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, an accomplished golf architect, historian and unabashed traditionalist. "It's on the tip of everybody's tongue. Every greens committee seems to want to lengthen their course."

Some greens committees have long since determined to take the lead in the yardage extension race. Last summer, a Golf World writer speculated that Augusta's 10th and 11th holes might become the first 500-yard par 4s on a course hosting a major championship. He turned out to be wrong on both counts. The 10th and 11th now measure 495 yards and 490 yards, respectively. More to the point, the first 500-yard par 4 made a semi-surreptitious appearance at the 2001 PGA Championship. The scorecard listed the 18th at the Atlanta Athletic Club at 490 yards, but as officials later confirmed, the tee markers were actually set back at a full five bills.

Like the men who rule the Masters, members at other traditional courses are just starting to come to grips with the tangible and intangible costs of increasing length. In addition to spending still undisclosed millions on its recent redesign, Augusta National had to negotiate to annex a parcel of land from the adjacent Augusta Country Club to lengthen the 13th hole. Hefty membership assessments for moving tees and greens and acquiring more land (if available) are fast becoming the rule at clubs nationwide. If courses lengthened to over 7,000 yards are now commonplace, will the future demand that greens committees annex enough real estate to accommodate 8,000-yard tracts replete with 500-yard par 4s?

But money and land acquisitions aren't the only issues. Those who tamper with traditional layouts run the risk of compromising the integrity and interest of the original designs. Crenshaw worries that the drastic changes in length at Augusta National may drastically reduce the opportunities for risk-taking drama at Amen Corner and elsewhere on the back nine. Rather than gunning for birdies and eagles, players will be hard pressed to make pars on most of the lengthened holes. Crenshaw claims that the net effect will be "like going from offense to defense," and glumly predicts the Masters will become "a more methodical tournament."

According to fellow architect Rees Jones, the yardage extension race is also turning golf into a two-tiered game. Jones, the so-called "Open doctor" who has redesigned Bethpage and many other traditional courses for major championships, notes that more and more clubs around the country are effectively creating two golf courses on the same site -- one for "member class" play and one for "tournament class" play by pros and top amateurs. And the divide between the two classes is growing ever greater because better players can take better advantage of new technology. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour has soared from just under 270 yards to almost 280 yards in the past five years alone, and both male and female pros are breaking long-standing scoring records left and right. But the average U.S. Golf Association handicap (15.7 for men, 28.5 for women) has not changed in 30 years.

One obvious if still hotly debated way to slow what critics claim to be a runaway train of yardage extensions is to impose new limits on equipment like the USGA's ban on the Callaway ERC and other drivers with high "spring-like effect." There is also more talk of a mandatory reduction in golf ball performance. "The new solid-core balls are making the biggest difference," Jones insists. "The pros used to be willing to sacrifice a little distance by playing a Balata ball that they could spin better. With the new solid-core balls, they don't have to sacrifice distance or spin."

I personally believe that we should implement another approach advocated by Crenshaw and his design partner, Bill Coore -- that is, returning to tradition rather than abandoning it. I'm not suggesting a reactionary campaign to halt all yardage extensions, or, God forbid, a forced march back to hickory shafts and gutta perchas. But rather than simply making courses longer and longer, we might do better to focus on creating or re-creating intentionally imperfect playing conditions that force us to golf our balls in the traditional fashion. As Coore puts it, "Let's start from the greens and work backward to defend the hole. Make bunkers into true hazards again where the sand is not the same in every one of them. Leave the fairways in a more natural state so that you don't get perfect lies every time and the ball will run through the corner of a dogleg into the rough if you hit an errant drive."

As a scratch handicapper, I've been chagrined to find that most of my friends who belong to what Jones calls the member class favor making their traditional courses both longer and harder. Many of them actually seem to feel guilty about reaping the benefits of the new equipment technology. A pal with a double-digit handicap who plays at Sleepy Hollow recently complained that the par-5 15th hole is too short because even he was getting home in two shots most of last summer. Knowing that the 15th green is sunken and severely sloped, I asked if he made birdie or eagle most of those times.

"No," he replied. "I usually three-putted for par."

You can bet Bobby Jones would get a graphite-shafted kick out of that.


Harry Hurt III writes frequently about golf.