When it comes to major championships, the pedigree of a golf course matters. The courses preserve the history of the players who won there.
Arnold Palmer in Cherry Hills. Ben Hogan in Merion. Tom Watson in Turnberry.
Tiger Woods at, well, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Valhalla and Augusta National when he won all four specialties in a row in the so-called “Tiger Slam” in 2000-1.
But the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters, is different from the rest. It was originally designed by two greats: Dr. Alistair Mackenzie and Bobby Jones, a great amateur. This is the only major who has played on the same course year after year. And his champions are returning as members this week. Ripe birds and flowering azaleas.
There is only one problem: modern professional golfers are hitting the ball so far that classic golf courses are being overcome, and some are struggling to find ways to stay relevant and challenging.
Just two years ago, Bryson Deschamps dominated Winged Foot, which is considered one of the toughest places in the championship to win the U.S. Open. He hit it as far as possible and then pressed it to the green. The terrible, high rough kick of the US Open had little effect on him (although he was the only player to finish below the score).
Now the days of players like Gene Sarazen, who won the Masters in 1935 by falling into the 15th Green Par-5, are behind him. But the fear is that instead of someone like Woods hitting 7-irons in the same green, it will be a wedge, much easier to beat with a club.
Augusta National knows that the Masters are superior to golf. It is important not to allow the track to fall victim to bulls and swords that help players increase the distance. The Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, another classic course, had its future as a major venue challenged earlier this year as Genesis Invitational players drove along nearby fairways to make it easier to approach the green field.
So how does Augusta National continue to challenge players and confront golf balls that fly farther and stop quickly, and drivers who run those balls 330 yards and beyond? It is a combination of technology and psychology.
“Augusta National continues to reasonably increase the length where it can,” said Ben Crenshaw, 1984 and 1995 champion and renowned golf architect. “Subtle changes have been well thought out.”
For such a historic course Augusta National makes changes almost every year. This year, he extended the 11th and 15th holes, which have become less strategic as players hit further, and the 18th, with a giant bunker waiting to swallow any direct strikes.
The extra distance is about 50 yards for three holes when the tees are pushed back. The goal is to change the players’ approach to these holes. This is not a new problem.
“There has been a long debate at Augusta National since Bobby Jones and Alistair Mackenzie developed the course,” said Joe Bowden, a local doctor, longtime volunteer and member of the neighboring Augusta Country Club. “In the first year of the Masters game in 1934, the length of the track was 6,700 yards. This year, the track will officially have 7,510 yards for the 2022 tournament. ”
However, there is a limit to the length. As wonderful as it is to watch Augusta National on television and feel personal, she is not exactly on the prairie. The barricaded Washington Road, a commercial highway just as average as Magnolia Lane, is impressive; established neighborhoods; and the Augusta Country Club, National as its neighbors call it, has so much room to grow in the state’s second largest city.
A few years ago the club went so far as to buy out the Augusta Country Club whole hole so that it had room to extend its own 13th hole. In a letter to his members, the then president of the Augusta Country Club noted that Augusta National would restore part of the 8th and 9th holes as part of the deal.
However, the club can also change the speed of the fairways and green fields at will, through how they water them, but also in which direction they cut them. “People don’t understand how much this can speed up or slow down the course,” said a former assistant golf professional at Augusta, who asked to remain anonymous because staff were not allowed to talk about club issues. “But it’s much more than you think.”
For a club that regularly adjusts its angles and hole lengths, there are more amazing things it can do and still fit the original course plan. Michael Herzan, who designed Erin Hills, the 2017 US Open website, noted a few things the club can do to dampen the impact of distance while still matching Mackenzie’s design. One would be to continue to draw trees into the game. They can be used to block shortcuts that players can use. “There are only two dangers that matter to a big player,” he said, “trees and water.
Another thing is to think differently about bunkers. There are twice as many bunkers today, 44 than during the construction of the course, but only 12 fairway bunkers. Of these, only three are in the back nine, where the championship is often decided, and two of them are at 18.
“The fairways are mostly bunker-free,” said Hurdzan, who advocates for bunkers that protrude into the fairway, known as transverse bunkers. “Mackenzie was not afraid of cross bunkers. If someone wanted to make it tougher, he could use cross hoppers or more bunkering in the fairway. You can try to get into a big drive and take a risk, or push a shorter club and get on a longer iron ”.
Of course, all the classic courses struggle with technology: a ball that flies farther than ever when hit by a driver who twists it like a trampoline. This is a problem addressed by the two golf governing bodies, an update was released in March. Observers believe it is time to change the equipment.
“With all due respect to the players, the ball goes no further than their work,” said Jeff Sheckelford, an architect and commentator on the golf course. “You give them technology that’s 10 years old and they go back. Technology that is 30 years old – they really will go back.
“There are so many things Augusta can do to make it difficult,” Shekelford added. “It won’t become irrelevant, but it loses some of its charm if you take away some of the things we’ve learned.”
Shackleford noted that previous attempts to reduce the distance were met with resistance, but not so by the March announcements of the U.S. Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Technology, he said, makes it harder to stand out as a player. “It probably muffles the extra special skills of some super-elite players.”
The length, however, can be misleading in Augusta. Greg Norman was one of the longest players of his era. When in 1987 he found himself in the playoffs with Seve Balesteras, whose short game equaled wild kicks, and Larry Mize, a relatively short striker, looked like Norman had the upper hand.
But it’s not over. In the second hole of the playoffs, Miso killed a birdie to win the playoffs.
“With his length, Greg had the upper hand,” Miz said. “Thank God golf is more than length. The longest strikers do not always win the Masters.
However, Misze said he would also be in favor of the USGA reviewing what the technology has done to remove it.
“I know it’s hard to get back,” Mize said. “But I hope that in 20 years golfers will not do it anymore. I am optimistic that Augusta will still be relevant. This is a special place and a special event. “