Thursday, April 11, 2002

Augusta reins in big shots

        AUGUSTA, Ga. — You can't just bomb away now. You can't stand there at the 1st tee, or the 11th or the 18th, with a driver in your hand, feeling like King Kong, chuckling about Masters Mystique as you rope your shot 340 yards down a fairway wide enough to accommodate a jumbo jet.

        At the 455-yard 11th last year, Phil Mickelson hit a three-quarter wedge from 94 yards into the green. Talk about a mustache on the Mona Lisa. That's what happens when your drive flies 300 yards, then slingshots another 60 down a sloping fairway.

        Something had to be done before Augusta National became as relevant as Tara. The myth is that the men who run the “toonamint” are slow to change. To social change, perhaps, but not to changing their golf course to keep it meaningful.

        “We hated that time after time, (players) were (using) sand wedge or pitching wedge to par-4s,” Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said. Picture Sammy Sosa on a softball field, hitting 80-mph fastballs.

        The greens always will be evil. To approximate the Masters putting experience, try stopping a golf ball halfway down a window pane. The wind will circle like a buzzard. If it's dry and gusty, every shot is an adventure.

        But no major championship should be decided by a guy hitting driver-pitching wedge on half the holes. That's why Johnson called in the architects and the backhoes to add 285 yards, enlarge some bunkers and shift some tee boxes.

        Not to “Tiger-proof” the place. Why would they want to do that? Here's an idea: Let's identify the best, most popular player in the game and ... make it really hard for him to win our tournament! When he's out of contention on the weekend, our TV ratings will nosedive and we can charge CBS less for the broadcast rights.

        Technology was making the course obsolete. Fairway bunkers were ornamental. Any player with longball power could almost play the Masters with four clubs: Driver, short iron, wedge, putter. When Woods ransacked the course in 1997, he never hit anything longer than a 7-iron on his approaches to the par-4s and 5s.

        Purists suggest the changes have altered the character of the place. But really, it's like replacing the plumbing on a 100-year-old house. It's still charming, but now the faucets work.

        Players are split about what it all means. “I hit the same clubs off every tee I always hit,” said Woods, whose longballs helped force the changes. “I doubt I'll be able to get it to the fairway,” Nick Price, a singles hitter, muttered to his playing partners on the 11th tee Tuesday.

        (Price had a point. The 11th tee, barely visible before, now has been shoved back to somewhere in South Carolina.)

        All the added length means is that if you want to play longball, you'll have to call your shot. The home run artists now must paint more precisely. “You've got to be more accurate,” Woods said.

        Tee shots must split stands of trees. The fairway sand is back from oblivion. But it's still Augusta. You still have to putt. You still need degrees in physics and meteorology to figure the wind. You still have to find a shirt to match the green jacket.

        If Woods wins his third jacket, he'll have to reacquaint himself with his 5-iron. Nothing wrong with that.

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