Augusta National open to changes

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Masters chairman Hootie Johnson, whose monarchy is in its eighth year, met the media Wednesday morning. He was seated behind a small table on the dais, his tie knotted just so, his eyes nearly squeezed shut because of the glare from nearby klieg lights. A lone fly buzzed the table, circling lazily around Johnson's head. This being the Masters, it was probably a green fly.

Johnson, as well as Augusta National's membership policies, have been questioned and mocked nationwide in years past. Martha Burk can provide you with the details. In fact, when respected Washington Post writer Len Shapiro broached the subject of the club one day admitting a woman member, Johnson's expression turned as rigid as a steel flagstick.

"Well," said Johnson in his Georgia drawl, "we've adopted a new policy. We don't talk about club matters. Period."

When Shapiro persisted, Johnson simply repeated the new code, which wasn't lost on about 70 Augusta National members who lined the back and side walls of the conference room. In short: One Hootie, one voice.

So, sure, you can roll your eyes in exasperation over Augusta National's antiquated policies, giggle at the members' green bowl rep jackets and smirk at Johnson's occasionally self-important ways. But if you care about tournament golf, about these 7,290 yards of near perfection – and other championship courses like it – then your new best friend might be a 74-year-old hard ass named Hootie.

Johnson is stubborn, which is why there isn't one female attired in one of those Masters-green jackets. It is this stubborness – and the power of his position as Augusta National chairman – that also could return tournament golf to saner days. That's because Johnson has just about had it with golf ball technology that often removes the molars from his beloved course. He's peeved at these Star Trek balls that go where no ball has ever gone before.

"We are hopeful and we're encouraged that the governing bodies and the [PGA] Tour ... are addressing this problem," Johnson said. "It is a problem for the game, not just for Augusta National and the Masters Tournament. We are hopeful and encouraged that progress is being made."

This is Hootie-speak for: Y'all better fix this thing, or I will.

Johnson already has tried conventional means. Three years ago, the course yardage was lengthened to 7,270 yards. Fairway bunkers were extended. Tees were moved back. Since then, trees have been added.

But technology continues to defy Johnson and his changes. Lengthening the course again remains a serious option, but for how long will that work? Not very, said six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus.

"You remember what Hootie did to this golf course two years ago?" Nicklaus said earlier in the week. "We played it and he was ahead of the curve. In one year, he got behind the curve again. He doesn't know where to go. ... The first question he asked me [was], 'Jack, what are we going to do about the golf ball?' "

Johnson recently played a round at Augusta National with a 17-year-old guest. The kid was about 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. "He hit pitching wedges into No. 17 and No. 7," said Johnson, who didn't smile when recalling the day. "A lot had been written some years back that we were trying to Tiger-proof our golf course. We are not worried about Tiger. We are worried about these 17-year-olds."

By the way, No. 17 is 425 yards from tips, and No. 7 is 410.

Bobby Jones just ralphed.

There is talk, in its infancy now, of a "universal" ball. Instead of manufacturers all but customizing their balls for Tour players – Nike has engineered a Tiger Woods-only model – a standardized, lower-distance ball would be used. Chicks might dig the long ball, but Hootie and Nicklaus dig shot-making and the un-neutering of championship tracks.

"I've said that many times, there's only one place that could do that to start it – and that would be [Augusta National]," Nicklaus said. "[It's] the only tournament that could get away with saying, 'Hey, do you want to come play in the Masters? Here's the ball, go play it.' "

I'm rooting for The Hootster on this one. There are wonderful courses that essentially have been excluded from the majors mix because technology has mini-sized them. Merion and Cherry Hills come immediately to mind.

"If the ball has the same characteristics to it, then we bring thousands of golf courses back into play as championship golf courses without [layout] change," Nicklaus said.

But Jack isn't holding his breath about a universal ball. Even Johnson says no prototype ball is in the works, nor has he even decided when "enough is enough" in the technology versus course length debate. Knowing Johnson's history, he won't be afraid to make a stand. After all, there are legacies to protect, such as those of Masters patriarch Bobby Jones, Augusta National itself and the great Nicklaus.

"It's a different game than I played," said Nicklaus. "It's a different game than most anybody in my era played. Of course, maybe I'm an old fuddy-duddy, I suppose."

Fuddy-duddy is good. Fuddy-duddy is the Hootie way. In this case, the right way.

Gene Wojciechowski is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His book "Cubs Nation: 162 Games. 162 Stories. 1 Addiction." will be released by Doubleday on April 12, but can be preordered now by clicking here.