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Reaction mostly positive to 'new' Augusta National

Citing the need to stay current, the club alters nine holes and adds 300 yards.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They didn't lengthen Magnolia Lane, nor did they rename Amen Corner. Some things, after all, are sacred. But this no longer is Bobby Jones' Augusta National. Not that he would be opposed to change at his storied course, where his revered Masters tournament promises to have a different look.

The azaleas and dogwoods still will be in all their glory, and the hallowed grounds will reek of history when the 66th Masters begins Thursday. To the untrained eye, hardly a blade of grass will appear out of place.

Yet Augusta National Golf Club is fresh off the most extensive facelift in its 70-year history.

Since Tiger Woods won the tournament a year ago, nine holes were altered, some significantly. Almost 300 yards were added, bunkers were enhanced, landing areas shaved, trees planted, tee boxes moved.

The result is a leaner, meaner Augusta National, one meant to withstand the onslaught of powerful golfers playing with thin-faced drivers and explosive solid-core balls. Last year Woods won his fourth consecutive major championship, playing the 72 holes in 16-under 272. In 1997 he set a tournament scoring record when he won at 270.

While many believe the course is being toughened because of Woods, the alterations are likely a move to stay ahead of the equipment arms race. Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said the club's desire was to keep the course "current" and "complement the changing stage of the game."

Woods, who said the changes are more likely to help than hinder him, thinks added length and more strategy are meant to test golfers who are not yet known.

"They are for the kids coming up in the future," said Woods, 26, who joked about his big-bombing reputation. "I'm not that long anymore. I kind of dink it around. There are a lot of kids out there who hit the ball farther than I do. They're getting bigger and stronger. There is new technology. They're looking to prevent players in the future from shooting incredibly low scores to take advantage of the golf course."

"It's quite obvious to me," said six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus, now an Augusta member who visited the course last fall but won't play because of a bad back. "Augusta decided to get ahead of the curve and not keep making changes year after year after what's happened with the golf ball.

"I thought they did a really nice job. What I saw is going to be a heck of a test, two or three shots harder for sure."

The club, which annually closes for the summer, started the renovation June 2 under the direction of noted course architect Tom Fazio. On some days, 156 workers participated. It was completed Oct. 5, in time for the club's fall opening.

Since then a slew of players have visited, hoping to get a feel for the new Augusta.

"The course still looks like it's been there forever," Greg Norman said. "They did a wonderful job of adjusting the fairways and moving the right amount of dirt to make it look like it's never been touched."

"I thought it was tremendous," Phil Mickelson said. "Had I not played last year and known the changes, I would not even have known anything had happened. It looks fantastic, like it's been there forever."

Making changes to Augusta National is nothing new. Every hole has been altered since the tournament's inception in 1934. But never so much at one time.

"I talked to Tom Fazio, and he was hired to do one thing, and he did it right," two-time Masters champion Tom Watson said. "He told me that they want to recreate the same shot values into the greens that they used to have 30 years ago, the same club selections.

"They have to be very judicious with setting the tees, depending on course conditions. That golf course, when it is soft, plays very long, even at the old yardage."

Something new hits the players at the first hole, where the tee box has been moved back 25 yards, which also required relocation of the putting green.

"You walk out the door of the locker room and you're used to going to the putting green," Billy Andrade said. "Now that's the first tee. It's a little strange. Now you've got to go to the left. And after 17, you really have to go back to the right to get to the 18th tee."

The finishing hole offers the most dramatic change. Don't expect to see Woods hitting a sand wedge approach as he did in last year's final -- unless it's his third shot. With 65 yards added to the hole, mid irons will be required into the green at a 465-yard hole that is uphill.

"It's going to be a driver's golf course," Ernie Els said. "It is a long hitter's dream. You have to hit your driver a long way to attack the par 5s and some of the par 4s. Like the first and 18th, you will be hitting mid irons rather than wedges."

The changes have led to speculation about who can win. Are short hitters doomed? Will there be more emphasis on the short game? Do big hitters have the advantage, or will they be required to be more accurate?

"It makes the premium on the driver," two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer said. "Whoever can hit it 300 yards is going to go in with short irons or medium irons. Whoever hits it 270, he's going to go in with a long iron.

Langer thinks changing the course was unnecessary. "I think we've had years when it was very hard," he said. "But it doesn't matter if you shoot 12 or 15 under. People want to see good scores. Not every major has to be like a U.S. Open where par is a good score. If the wind blows at Augusta and the greens are firm, it's always a good test."

"All they've done at Augusta is cater more to the long hitter," Fuzzy Zoeller said. "They've taken a guy like Corey Pavin -- I use him as an example because he's a ball striker. They take guys of his length out where he can't be competitive. The greens are not suited for the shot he has to play into them. It's a long-ball hitter's paradise. I think they should have left it the same and put more obstacles out there for the long guys to have to maneuver around."

Another view: "All anyone is talking about is the length, but the bottom line is it still comes down to putting," Andrade said. "The guy who is making putts is going to win."

And: "It's hard to know what to do when guys are hitting wedges to par 5s (in two)," Paul Azinger said. "They had to do it. I don't have a problem with it. But they also have to be really careful because if it gets wind and the greens are hard, someone's going to shoot 7 or 10 over."

Five of the nine holes changed are on the back nine, including the risk-reward par-5 13th. The tee was pushed back 25 yards, and though the green will be reachable in two, players face a more treacherous second shot.

That has been the beauty of the tournament, especially the back nine. There are many chances to make birdie or bogey.

"I hope it won't change the excitement of playing that golf course," two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw said. "That's what it has always been. It's very daring. It's very tempting. It always has been. I hope that never changes.

"It seems to me like the champion will come from a fewer number of players. But you want people to try everything they possibly can. You want to bring off the daring shot. I hope it hasn't become so much that a lot of people will start to play defensive."

Whatever the case, they'll play from new spots in the fairways with expanded hazards in their path. And it figures to make a fascinating tournament more so.

"A few years ago, before they had the second cut (of rough), you could drive the ball anywhere, and the golf course was 500 yards shorter," Els said. "So it really just played into the hands of anybody that can hit the ball far. Now, you've got to still drive the ball a long distance if you want to score well, but you've really got to shape the ball a lot better now than you used to. It's really a different golf course. Totally different golf course."

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