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Bombs Away!
Jaime Diaz
April 05, 1999
Augusta's attempt to slow down the long hitters actually gives them a bigger edge
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April 05, 1999

Bombs Away!

Augusta's attempt to slow down the long hitters actually gives them a bigger edge

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PAR AND YARDAGE

HOLE

PAR

YARDS

1

4

410

2

5

575

3

4

350

4

3

205

5

4

435

6

3

180

7

4

365

8

5

550

9

4

430

10

4

485

11

4

455

12

3

155

13

5

485

14

4

405

15

5

500

16

3

170

17

4

425

18

4

405

OUT

36

3,500

IN

36

3,485

72

6,985

The masters is known for slam-bam finishes like the one staged last year by Mark O'Meara, who birdied three of the final four holes to steal the championship from Fred Couples and David Duval. But in the 12 months since then, Augusta National has undergone its most substantial alterations in almost 50 years, a face lift that could turn next week's end game into more of a stare down than a shoot-out.

In 1998 O'Meara birdied the 15th, 17th and 18th holes. This year those three holes, and others, will no longer play like their old selves. To illustrate, imagine a hypothetical leader coming to the 15th tee on Sunday with a one-stroke edge. Looking for an easy birdie on the 500-yard par-5, he loads up and bombs his drive wide right, which had been safe territory. But now, instead of having a clear second shot to the green, he's blocked by the clusters of 35-foot-high pines that were planted at the edge of the fairway last summer, and must lay up short of the water hazard fronting the green. A birdie is no longer a sure thing. Then on the 17th, what had been an easy tee shot is now an intimidating one. The tee on the 425-yard par-4 has been moved back 25 yards, and the new trees that were added to 15 also pinch the right side of the 17th fairway. Pulling his drive just a bit, our leader clips one of the outstretched branches of the Eisenhower tree, which is now 200 yards from the tee and is no longer purely ornamental. That leads to a bogey, and suddenly there is a tie for the lead.

Moving to the 18th, our shaken player tries to play the shot that has served several Masters winners well in recent years—a drive over the bunkers guarding the left side of the fairway to the wide-open spaces of the old practice range. Only now that puts him in the rough, the first ever grown for the Masters. The second cut is 1⅜ of an inch deep, just high enough to create a hard-to-control flyer with little spin. When his ball lands on the bank behind the hole, it doesn't spin back toward the pin. Instead, it kicks up the slope, leaving him with an impossibly fast downhill 40-footer. When he runs his first putt six feet by and misses the come-backer, our man has lost the Masters.

But these aren't the only changes that promise to make the 63rd Masters a whole new ball game. A series of mounds has been removed from the 15th fairway, and two other holes, the 2nd and the 11th, have been reconfigured: The par-5 2nd has been lengthened by 25 yards, to 575, which brings an obsolete fairway bunker back into play and makes the hole almost impossible to reach in two. The 11th green was raised two feet, making the drop-off to the pond to the left even steeper and scarier. Overall, the transformation is the most radical since 1950, when water hazards were added to the 11th and 16th holes. The only other alterations that come close occurred in 1981, when the greens were converted from Bermuda to bent grass.

The changes make the course, by most estimates, a half stroke to a stroke more difficult, which means that it's unlikely that Tiger Woods's record 18-under 270 in 1997 will be broken. Some people say that Masters officials have Tiger-proofed the National, but the alterations should actually benefit Woods and the other long hitters.

Who stands to gain from the changes? The Lords of Augusta say they are trying to place a premium on accuracy off the tee. "Part of our reasoning for these changes is that these young men are hitting the ball a lot longer," says tournament chairman William (Hootie) Johnson, who pulled the trigger on the alterations. When the changes were first announced, in June, it appeared that the Masters had launched a preemptive strike against big hitters, and the beneficiaries would be the shorter and straighter players. But those types of golfers have always done well at Augusta. In the '90s, for instance, five players of average length but possessing strong short games and course-management skills have won six times. They are Nick Faldo (1990 and '96), Bernhard Langer ('93), José María Olazábal ('94), Ben Crenshaw ('95) and O'Meara. The bombers who have triumphed at Augusta in this decade—Ian Woosnam ('91), Couples ('92) and Woods—are a decided minority.

"What they've done is forced the player to hit better, more accurate shots coming in," says Langer, who last month played 108 holes in three days at Augusta. Still, he doesn't think that he has a better chance to win. "Some of these changes could help me a little, but the longer hitter always has the advantage at Augusta. A guy who is spraying it off the tee will have more trouble, but a long hitter who is playing well won't be off the fairway that much. He might have even more of an advantage on the new holes."

One of the longest hitters, Davis Love III, hasn't seen the changes but is sure of the effect they will have. "Everything they do to make it harder is better for the long hitter," he says. "The more difficult, the longer, the deeper the rough—whatever the change—that always gives the advantage to the long hitter."

He's probably right, and here's why. On number 2 even the longest hitters won't be able to carry the fairway bunker—now 315 yards out—unless the hole is playing straight downwind. Even when the 2nd was reachable with an iron, it was next to impossible to keep the ball on the hard, shallow green. Most players who could reach it in two would fly the green and chip back. The smarter play has always been to put the ball in the right greenside bunker and try to make a birdie by getting up and down from there. The longer players will still be able to reach that bunker; the shorter players won't.

On the 15th the bailout to the right has been eliminated, which means that longer players will have to be straighten Yet a big hitter won't be hurt as much as a short hitter by the loss of the mounds, which had been on the right side of the fairway. Golfers capable of carrying their ball in the 250- to 265-yard range could use the mounds for a slingshot effect down the hill toward the green. They can still bomb it past where the last mound had stood and catch the downslope.

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