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December 06, 2001

Augusta: If it ain't broke...
By Dan Patrick

The Mona Lisa just got cleavage. In other words, golf's artistic masterpiece -- Augusta National Golf Club -- has been changed when no altering was necessary.

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus stormed to his sixth Masters title in 1986.

Nine of the 18 holes have been renovated, lengthening the course by another 300 yards. But is longer better? If you can argue that long hitters will benefit the most, Augusta seems to be buying into the theory that the big hitters will put their power on display and have a larger presence on The Masters' leaderboard.

Jack Nicklaus isn't a big fan of Augusta's changes, although they are nothing new to him. Despite changes to the course in the early '60s, it didn't prevent him from winning mulitple green jackets, capped by his record sixth in 1986.

When I spoke to him at the Fred Meyer Challenge in Portland, Ore., his complaint was more about the lengthening of courses in general, not just at Augusta. Golfers, he said, are no longer playing golf; they are playing power ball. He said the long hitters need to be restricted and forced to make shots.

Nicklaus said such changes are ruining the sport because they are rendering thousands and thousands of courses obsolete. And having played Augusta earlier this year, I can understand how certain 60-year-old bunkers could become less significant obstacles, even for a B-flight golfer.

Look at the golfers who have been finesse players and shot makers instead of long hitters. Curtis Strange could not win back-to-back U.S. Opens now. Could Corey Pavin win the U.S. Open again? With new technology and lengthening courses, probably not. A message is being sent to anyone who wants to play golf -- bulk up, buy the best technology and attack the courses.

Nicklaus said the high handicapper loves golf's newer clubs and balls, and he's right. But he makes a valid point: It takes $5,000 to change the golf ball; it takes millions of dollars to alter the courses. Although you can't take the clubs out of a young golfer's hands, he said, you can take the ball away, referring to the Titleist Pro V.

Major League Baseball never went to aluminum bats, thank God. NASCAR has restrictor plates for its cars. But is that the direction golf needs to head? Will there be a restrictor ball, something that levels the playing field -- or the golf course -- for everybody? Do we ask what is fair for the golfer or what the golf fans want to watch? The public loves the long hitters, just like in baseball. That's why the galleries will still show up to see John Daly play. He's probably the second-most popular golfer because he hits the ball a long way, but he hasn't won since the British Open in 1995.

Winning The Masters, however, has never been about hitting the farthest ball; it's about knowledge. The local caddies say you have to know the subtle nuances of the course. It's not like wide-open St. Andrews; where a player can swing the club and not worry about where the ball is going.

At Augusta, golfers not only have to hit the ball, but they have to hit it to the right or left, above or below, or to the side of the hole. You almost need a compass to navigate the course. It requires shotmaking and creativity. And that, Nicklaus said, is what is supposed to separate the best golfers.

Ben Hogan set The Masters' four-day scoring record of 274 in 1953. In 1965, Nicklaus broke the mark with a 271, tied by Raymond Floyd in 1976, before Tiger Woods established the current tournament record of 270 in 1997. So, in the span of 68 years, how well did Augusta hold up against new technology and the advent of modern-day golf? Just fine.

When a player is hitting a driver and and an eight-iron into a par-5 when they used to hit a driver and a two-, three- or four-iron, the game has changed. But Tiger only bettered the old mark by one shot. Granted, he ran away from the pack and won by 12 strokes. But don't blame -- and change -- the course. Blame the rest of the field.

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