Payne, Masters got it just about right

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Among the misconceptions about Augusta National Golf Club, and there are many, is that it never changes. Nothing could be further from the truth. This place evolves with a clearly intelligent design. We saw proof of that Sunday in a highly entertaining finish to a magnificent Masters.

Perhaps Augusta National doesn't change in the way some would like, or according to the time schedule others would impose, but there may be no event in all of sports that adapts as well to climatic convulsions as the Masters. In fact, it seems to anticipate them.

All the proof you need of this compelling example of durability and malleability was splashed across the immaculate fairways on a brilliant Easter Sunday as the men in the green jackets staged one of the best editions in the 75-year history of this tradition-laden tournament. Simply and accurately put: They got it right. That couldn't always be said in recent years.

That the two-hole playoff with Chad Campbell, Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera was won by Cabrera was almost beside the point. And how often in a major championship can you say that a sudden-death playoff was the second most-exciting thing to happen on Sunday -- if not the third?

But that was pretty much the case. What we had Sunday on an Augusta National course set up to allow scoring but punish poor shots was three distinct tournaments. There was the Tiger-Phil Show; there was Kenny Perry's determined defiance of age before crumbling at the end; and then there was the Cabrera victory in the playoff, giving him a green jacket to go with his 2007 U.S. Open trophy.

Most compelling were Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who are always interesting theater. Playing in the same twosome seven groups from the end, they nearly stole the tournament, and certainly walked off with the bulk of the attention.

At times, it seemed as if the crowds on the holes Cabrera and Perry were playing were more engrossed watching the leaderboard for changes in the Woods-Mickelson group five holes ahead than they were in watching live golf. The biggest cheers came when a birdie was recorded for Tiger or Lefty.

With Mickelson playing brilliantly -- a 30 on the front nine -- and Woods making some gritty pars as he labored with his B-minus game, they played some of the most entertaining golf in recent majors.

The duo nearly erased a 7-stroke deficit, Woods closing with a 68 to finish 4 strokes out of the playoff and Mickelson shooting a 67 to be 3 back. The fact is, after Woods birdied No. 16, he and Lefty were tied and just 1 stroke out of the lead.

But both ran out of gas. Woods made bogeys on the last two holes and Mickelson gave a stroke back at the last. Still, anyone who has missed the roars at Augusta National the past few years had a happy reunion with that familiar sound in this final round.

And you get the feeling that is exactly what chairman Billy Payne and his staff had in mind. One of the dominant storylines coming into this Masters was that the renovations to the course since 2002 had taken the fun out of the tournament.

The most asked question, beyond how much will Tiger win by, was where are the roars? Critics said the back nine had been converted from a thrilling risk/reward closing stretch in which eagles flew with the birdies to a brutal U.S. Open-like survival test. The guys in green were listening.

Where are the roars, you ask? Here are your roars, Sparky, tournament organizers seemed to say at this Masters. The green jackets shouted this message loud and clear: We can make the course play any way we want it to play. You want rounds in the 60s, we can do that. You want a grueling test, no problem.

Payne, the only Augusta National chairman who did not know club founders Bobby Jones or Cliff Roberts, has in fewer than three years established himself as the most innovative person to hold that position. And it is just beginning.

Wanting to reach a younger, broader audience, he switched the early-round cable TV coverage from USA Network to ESPN. He also put the Wednesday Par 3 Contest on TV, instituted a policy to allow children 8 to 16 in free if accompanied by a ticket holder, and has joined with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club to develop grow-the-game programs in Asia.

Next year, when the players return to Augusta National, they will find a state-of-the-art practice facility occupying what is now a massive parking lot. And next year there will be an amateur in the field who has qualified via a tournament in Asia co-sponsored by Augusta National.

But the most cleverly finessed changes have been to the golf course. Shortly after the turn of the century, when players started routinely hitting 345-yard drives, Augusta National got longer, added rough and trees sprung up fully grown all over the place. It changed the experience of the course for the patrons as well as for the players.

Augusta National noticed. Some tees were extended forward this year, allowing greater flexibility in the course setup and letting it play significantly shorter than in recent years, if so desired by the powers that be. Also, grass was allowed to grow ever-so-slightly longer, permitting balls that in the past may have rolled into water to hang up just short. The green speed stopped short of a linoleum floor.

All that added up to make one heck of a tournament. Just look at the drama that unfolded on Sunday. That Woods and Mickelson were able to fight their way back into contention speaks volumes about the new accessibility of the course.

That both stumbled at the end -- along with several others, including Perry -- shouts that the course still punishes mistakes. That the roars were back on Sunday at Augusta National re-establishes the brilliance of this Bobby Jones-Alister MacKenzie design, and it reaffirms the willingness of one of the proudest traditions of this club: the ability to change. It's nice to have Augusta National back. Well played, Mr. Payne.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of GolfWorld magazine and author of the best-selling book "Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make you a Better Player" and recently released "The Game Before the Game: The Perfect 30-Minute Practice."