Thursday, April 11, 2002

Beefed-up No. 18 promises new excitement




The Associated Press

        AUGUSTA, Ga. - Even if the Masters doesn't really begin until the back nine on Sunday, the problem is that it was usually over in recent years by the time players reached the 18th hole. A back nine that seemingly had everything was lacking one thing — a tough finishing hole, one that meant something.

        Other holes had glamour and intrigue, but 18 was merely where the Masters usually ended.

        Indeed, when Tiger Woods flipped a lob wedge for his shot to the final green last year, the stewards of Augusta National could barely stand it.

        That won't happen this week when Augusta National unveils a new beefed-up 18th hole, with the hope that disasters of days past will lurk again.

        To win on Sunday, the new Masters champion will have to deal with a finishing hole that might look much the same but has changed completely. It's longer and tighter, the fairway bunkers are bigger, and the green has a new ledge perfect for a back right pin.

        “I think you'll find 18 now will get itself up there in the top 10, 12 finishing holes in the world,” Greg Norman said.

        That's what Johnson and others had in mind when they commissioned architect Tom Fazio to make the most sweeping changes ever to Augusta National during the offseason.

        The result was added length and expanded bunkers on nine holes, beginning at the par-4 first and continuing through the back nine.

        All will affect shots during the Masters. None of the changes will have as big an effect as moving the tee back 60 yards and to the right on the 18th.

        Birdies won't be so routine. Par will become a good score.

        “When you get to 18, if you're one shot behind or tied or one shot ahead, obviously it's not going to be as automatic as it was when it was a 405-yard hole,” Fazio said.

        At 465 yards, with an imposing chute of trees in front and newly expanded bunkers ready to catch even well hit balls, the 18th is now a monster of a finishing hole.

        Players found that out quickly this week, even before an overnight rain softened the fairway and made it play even longer.

        Nick Faldo hit driver, 4-iron to the green, the same clubs he hit in 1989, the first year he won the Masters. Mark Calcavecchia put his drive down the right side of the fairway and had to sharply slice a 5-wood to get near the putting surface.

        Even John Daly was forced to hit 3-wood, 6-iron to a narrow green where ball placement is crucial.

        “It's a very difficult hole now,” Daly said. “It's just not as easy as it used to be.”

        While the changes are a step forward, they bring 18 back to its past. Instead of hitting a short iron to the green, players have a mid- to long iron much like players had before advances in conditioning and equipment allowed the hole to be overpowered.

        The two fairway bunkers are now an improbable 335-yard carry, and moving the tee slightly to the right also brings the right trees into play more.

        Daly and other long hitters might play a 3-wood to stay short of the bunkers, while other players will blast away with driver and hope for the best.

        “For a guy like me, the bunkers don't exist off the tee,” Jim Furyk said. “I'm trying to hit a draw when I used to hit a fade there. If I hit it on the right side of the fairway I have to slice it around the trees to get to the green.”

        The 18th had gotten so short that players were able to hit wedges to specific spots on the tiered green and get close easily. Three of the last four winners birdied the hole on Sunday, and last year it yielded 55 birdies overall.

        That's in contrast to 20 years ago when it was the third toughest hole on the course and only 17 birdies were made.

        Indeed, 18 used to matter for different reasons in the Masters. Arnold Palmer made a double bogey on the final hole in 1961 to lose the tournament, while Gary Player had to get up and down from a bunker to win.

        Recently, however, the hole has been no more than a pitch-and-putt that offered little potential for disaster.

        “When you see a guy hitting a 71-yard pitching wedge or sand wedge or whatever into the 18th hole in a major championship it doesn't do anything for you and it doesn't do anything for the game,” Norman said. “You want the championship to come down where the guy has to execute and hit four perfect shots.”

        Johnson put it another way.

        “Some folks coming in there, if they are leading by one, they are going to be damn glad to get a par,” Johnson said.

        “And that's OK.”

        More Masters and local golf coverage at Cincinnati.com/golf



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