The Masters has always made time stop. From the ageless visage of Gene Sarazen to the perpetual paradise of Amen Corner, Augusta offers a comforting coalescence with the past. At next week's 62nd edition of the tournament, though, the clock will be ticking. In the offing is a collision between the old and the new—an immovable object and an irresistible force. Something has got to give, and when the final putt drops, we'll know better what gives in golf.
The immovable object is the Augusta National Golf Club, the longest-standing tournament site in the game. Actually, the course has undergone constant revision since the inaugural Masters in 1934. There have been 76 alterations since the first change, in 1937, when the 10th green was moved back 50 yards, turning a patsy of a par-4 into the toughest hole on the course. Most of the changes, though, have been more fine-tuning than overhaul.
But last year, an irresistible force was launched by Tiger Woods, and for the first time there's a real sense that the minimalist design principles of Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie may not hold. More than Woods's score of 18-under-par 270, which broke the record held by Jack Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd by a stroke, or Woods's 12-stroke margin of victory, it was the manner in which the 21-year-old ran roughshod over the sacred ground that created a belief that big changes are imminent. Where-as Nicklaus in his record year was reaching the par-5s in two with mostly long irons and Floyd employed a magical five-wood, Woods emasculated the holes by punching in short irons. He used his driver on the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 18th holes to effortlessly fly yawning but irrelevant fairway bunkers intended to thwart long hitters. With the amount of red he splashed on the scoreboard and the way he made mincemeat out of the par-5s, which he played in 13 under, Woods turned last year's Masters into golf's version of a splatter movie.
The scary thing is, he may do it again this year. More important, though, is this point: Woods is not the only man capable of cutting Augusta National to ribbons. Suddenly, an elite group of players has risen to match him in style and substance. These long-hitting, pin-seeking, physically imposing, lob-wedging aggressors are the purveyors of the Extreme Game. Besides Woods, they are Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, David Duval, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson and Jesper Parnevik, all of whom, with the exception of Love, have a victory this year. The group sometimes includes a resurgent John Daly, and to a lesser extent, because of their slightly toned-down approach, Ernie Els, Greg Norman and Tom Watson.
What Extremers do is use tremendous length off the tee to reach ideal positions from which to attack the flag with high, soft-landing approaches. It's a style of play that leads to a lot of birdies, especially on par-5s. The downside of the Extreme Game is that it's extremely risky. Also, the style works better in regular PGA Tour events than in majors, in which there is less margin for error. However, the Masters is an exception. Yes, Augusta National punishes mistakes such as overcooked approaches or less-than-surgical putting, but no course better rewards the Extreme Game.
The course's wide, tightly mown fairways and lack of rough allow for a bombs-away mentality off most tees. The length of the Extremers' drives makes placement far less important. Getting a four-iron second shot to stop near the hole requires all of a player's skill, but putting the brakes on a nine-iron hit from 50 yards closer to the target isn't nearly as tough. If a player can consistently hit his approaches below the pins, as Woods did with well-controlled short irons, Augusta's greens become less fearsome. Woods's lack of a three-putt was as much the result of an awesome 323-yard driving average as it was of a sensitive putting stroke.
"Augusta has always rewarded length more than any other course, and the reward is increasing as the players get longer," says Nicklaus, the only six-time winner of the Masters. "The places where 10 percent of the players can now drive the ball gives them a disproportionate advantage over the other 90 percent. The challenge of the course is being watered down."
Plenty of short hitters have won at Augusta. Since 1984 Nick Faldo has won three times, while Bernhard Langer and Ben Crenshaw have each won twice. Their performances were marked by impeccable course management, shot-making and sterling putting.
Woods provided a new blueprint for victory. Like Roger Bannister, he seems to have broken a psychological as well as a physical barrier, and the floodgates may open for other Extremers. "In the past I've gone in and shown the course too much respect," says Els, whose best finish in the Masters is a tie for eighth. "You've got to freewheel, let it fly and go for every pin. That's what Tiger did last year, and that's what I'm going to do."
In the wake of Woods's victory some predicted that the Lords of Augusta might react with drastic alterations, but they stayed in character by only gently tweaking the course. Small corners of the 6th, 8th and 14th greens have been extended to provide new pin positions, while the 11th tee has been moved a few yards to the right to produce an angle that makes it harder to hit a distance-gobbling draw. Some trees have also been added on the right sides of the 13th and 18th holes to make escapes more difficult. Overall, though, the club essentially has said to Woods, Let's see you do it again.