Major changes for Augusta National

After doing anything almost 70 times, it's normal to wish for at least one do-over. But in that many years of preparing its course for the Masters, the tournament has never ended with the Augusta National Golf Club in clear need of the imaginary mulligan. When it comes to setting up the game's ultimate competitive arena, Augusta always seems to get things right.

Because the course is a shrine, the club's major projects -- like converting the greens from Bermuda to bent grass 25 years ago, creating a second cut in 1999 and adding 285 yards in 2002 -- have all provoked much hand-wringing. So it was not altogether surprising after the club lengthened six holes by a total of 155 yards for this year's Masters that old heads would decry the defilement and current players would assert that fewer of them had a chance to win.

But with each overhaul, the Masters has proved it runs the best laboratory in golf. Chairman Hootie Johnson might have the final say on course decisions, but a very thoughtful, if publicly silent, brain trust -- conspicuously devoid of ex-champions -- painstakingly guides the process. When it comes to the world's best golfers, Augusta knows them better than they know themselves.

Of course, it's possible the club has gone too far by perpetrating the two longest expansions in its history within five years. Tiger Woods thinks the latest changes will be fair if conditions are dry. "But if it's soaked again," he warns, alluding to the rain that has plagued the tournament the past four years, "I think that eliminates a lot of guys who have the skill to play but just don't hit the ball far enough."

Two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal says the only way for a medium-length hitter to win again would be to have the kind of otherworldly putting week Mike Weir and Len Mattiace enjoyed in 2003 and Chris DiMarco had last year. Adds Augusta native Charles Howell III: "I wish that before they changed it again they had gotten to see how the course played in firm and fast conditions over four rounds. Maybe they would have found that the course was fine the way it was."

Indeed, during the early-week practice rounds over an extremely dry course in 2004, players were predicting a winning score of over par before Phil Mickelson won at eight under.

The club is confident it knows how to test the highest golf skill so that the best players are identified and rewarded. Its decision-makers believe that in a game changing rapidly because of advances in equipment technology, the components of that test have become a moving target. According to data the club has gathered over more than 20 years, today's golf ball is being hit farther, straighter and higher than ever, and stopping more quickly. In response, the club has become the most actively resistant entity in golf to the driver-wedge attack that has become so prevalent among the game's elite. As Johnson said in a terse statement announcing the latest changes, "We will keep the golf course current with the times."

That's a big statement, because without ever saying so, Augusta demands a higher level of pure golf skill than the other three majors. It's as if the Masters lives by the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. More than the other majors, it is skewed toward the player with the gifts of the classic athlete: the body speed and strength to produce the length and the approach-shot height and spin that have always been an advantage at Augusta, the eye-hand coordination to achieve the cleanest contact off its ultra-tight fairways, the creativity and clubhead sensitivity to fashion dramatic escapes from the relatively forgiving trees and short grass off the fairway, and the nerve and feel to pull off the most delicate short-game challenges in the game.

In short, the Masters is about inspiring the most exciting golf talent, and it's the specific demands of the course that are most responsible for its gaudy list of winners and scintillating Sunday leader boards. Point-to-point grinders have not had the collective success at Augusta they have enjoyed at the U.S. Open, because skill sets built on steady repetition tend to lack more arresting tools. Better than any other major, the Masters shows that the best golfers are indeed athletes.

Accordingly, the club made the latest changes with the purpose of ensuring that players will be hitting longer and more challenging shots into the greens on the six altered holes.

The tee shot on the par-3 fourth hole, now 240 yards, will change from a 4- or 5-iron for most players to a hybrid iron or even a fairway wood. On the par-4 first, seventh, 11th and 17th holes, and the par-5 15th, the lengthening was predicated on bringing originally intended landing areas into play. Rather than seeing drives jump forward after carrying onto plateaus and downhill slopes, shortening holes exponentially, club officials want tee shots on the altered holes in normal conditions to stay within subtly saddled areas that will leave middle and even long-iron approaches.

Rather than bombing away knowing that a crooked tee shot will still leave a short-iron or wedge approach that allows recoveries from longer grass and trees, this year's competitors will put more value on straight driving. And with the tees moved back and trees added along the fairway borders, the intended targets have been narrowed and the bailout areas reduced. The intent is to produce a more challenging variety of approach shots, more greens missed, and a greater dependence on short-game skills.

The danger of going overboard
Necessary though it might be, tweaking conditions to completely test golf's best is a dangerous game. Carnoustie clumsily grew too much rough at the 1999 British Open. Shinnecock Hills' greens were taken over the edge at the 2004 U.S. Open. Conversely, the PGA of America was overly cautious with a potential monster at Whistling Straits in 2004. In preparing the ultimate shrine, the Old Course at St. Andrews, for last year's British Open, the R&A was criticized for drastic lengthening and growing too much rough. But when the championship produced reasonable scores on a course with four drivable par 4s (and the best player in the world was the winner), the results indirectly gave credence to Augusta's aggressive approach.

At the same time, it's undeniable that traditional parts of Augusta are being lost, perhaps forever. Jack Nicklaus (see "A crack in the code") and other past champions have bemoaned the way the second cut, denser trees and added length essentially eliminate the multiple approach angles available from the wider fairways and more option-rich trouble areas that Bobby Jones favored in the original design.

Johnson left himself open for this criticism by asserting that "our objective is to maintain the integrity and shot values of the golf course as envisioned by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie."

But the fact is, the tenets of the course as designed in 1934 are no longer relevant in terms of fully testing the modern professional. For the first few decades of the Masters, most approaches to par 4s were hit with middle to long irons with lower ball flights than those clubs produce today. As such, it was beneficial to come in to the then-firm Bermuda greens from an angle that provided the length of the green to work the ball toward the pin.

But in today's aerial game, approach shots even with longer irons are launched higher and have more stopping power, making the proper angle of approach much less essential to keeping a shot around the pin. And modern large-headed drivers are much easier to hit straight than their wooden predecessors.

Giving today's player a fairway as wide as Augusta's old ones would be an invitation to bomb with impunity, which would produce even longer drives and further marginalize the course. If Jones had been able to see the way the tournament was played the past few years, his first reaction wouldn't be, "What happened to my angles?" but rather, "What happened to my landing areas?"

The most subjective objection to the way Augusta has evolved is perhaps the most legitimate: that it has lost some charm. It's a view understandably shared by Arnold Palmer, a competitor in 50 Masters, and articulated most candidly by Tom Weiskopf commenting six years ago.

"It's like hacking away on a cadaver," Weiskopf said at the time. "You bring in the medical-school students, and they take out a lung here, a heart there, and before you know it the cadaver is almost unrecognizable as a human body."

Several contemporary players, including Ernie Els, have quietly expressed regret that the altered course, undoubtedly more challenging, will play too much like other modern courses. But under Johnson, the club has made a choice. It is not a museum, but a living test in an evolving game. With the game at its highest levels undergoing dramatic change in the way it is played, Augusta believes it is duty-bound to change as well.