Road Hole Shorts

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Archive for April 14, 2010

Masters of Deception

Published in the Las Cruces Sun News 9 April 2010

The coincidence of my first column and the beginning of the 2010 Masters is a wonderful crossing of events for me.  The Masters was the one of the first nationally televised tournaments.  Growing up in Iowa, any hooked golfer was bound to be watching the Masters since it ordinarily coincided with the opening of golf courses in the area.  As the years passed those bright white bunkers against the deep green fairways speckled with flowering dogwoods and azaleas was sure to bring a smoldering desire to be on the links to a roaring blaze.

Those years – probably sometime in the early 60’s – were very special to me.  As a budding player I relished seeing the professionals and the occasional amateur and it spurred my curiosity about golf at other levels as well.  I would later realize that my interests lay much more in the observation of the holes than in the play.  Oh sure, I had my favorites – relentlessly rooting against Jack Nicklaus and always for Arnie – but more than anything, I wanted to see “around” the bend in my television to “Amen Corner” so I could see why those holes seemed even more exciting than 15-18.  CBS has televised the Masters every year since 1956, but in the beginning, only the last four holes were shown.  Wikipedia has a nice piece on the history of the Masters broadcast, but they neglect to tell us how the broadcast progressed from 1956 until 1993 when all 18 holes were televised.  I distinctly remember watching for Master’s news as the snow melted late each winter.  Around 1968, I found and kept an 8 ½ x 11 color map of the course as a part of a promotional piece – probably from Cadillac or another luxury car sponsor.  As I watched for news, I was mostly interested in how the broadcast would change – always with the hope that I would get to see more holes.  As I recall, the telecast went from the last four holes to including Amen Corner and the 14th.  It seems to me that CBS didn’t really cover the tee shot on the 11th, but instead used the camera from behind the 12th tee to pick up the approaches to the treacherously guarded green.  From there, the 10th hole was added (about 1985) and then the approaches and putting on the glass-like putting surface of the 9th.  I think that pretty much fills in the Wikipedia broadcast history gap.  Back in those days, (the early 60’s) Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was a golf viewer’s staple followed a little later by the CBS Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.  Shell’s WWG one hour was the most exciting for me with a new course in a new country and two new professionals every week.  It also featured some information about the host country and included interviews with the players during the round. 

But, the Masters was at the root of my interest in golf course design.  Later, when I played on my high school golf team, the coach would gather us all before the snow was gone and we would have meetings.  Usually they covered rules and strategy, but at least once a year there would be a film of one of the major golf tournaments.  I believe they were made by CBS and I think Chris Schenkel was the announcer.  His voice sticks with me today.  There was just something about the way that he described the action that heightened the emotions of the event. 

And so, my love for the Masters grew and I followed every tournament and examined every drawing I could find of the course.  I dug into the history of the course and found out that Bobby Jones, with Alister Mackenzie designed the layout.  The course opened in early 1933 and the first tournament – then called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament was played March 22, 1934.  In the 1935 the nines were permanently reversed to the configuration we know today.  In that year, Eugenio Saraceni hit the “shot heard round the world” when he rifled a 4 wood into the cup on the storied 15th for a double eagle.  The shot led to a tie that he won in a playoff.  Who was Eugenio?  You might remember him as Gene Sarazen. 

As with most new courses, there wasn’t much to be done to Augusta National for several years.  Then, in 1947 and again in 1950 Robert Trent Jones, Sr. was retained to “tweak” the layout.  While the adjustments he made aren’t readily documented, I know that a pond in front of the 6th green was filled in and the brook on the 16th was dammed and a pond created.  I think that Jones also redesigned the 16th green and its surrounding contours and bunkering.  In the 70’s, there were several improvements including slight lengthening from its original 6600 yards to just over 6900.  An improved strain of Bermuda grass was introduced to the greens.  Although the improved strain had less grain and a finer blade, it reportedly resulted in an overall slower surface.  By the late 70’s the Club leadership became increasingly dissatisfied with the greens.  After testing creeping bentgrass on the par 3 course, the Championship course was converted for the 1981 tournament.  Anyone that saw this happen in that era knows that creeping bent provided a much faster surface than the improved Bermuda.  This of course led to altering the contours of the greens to maintain traditional cupping areas.  And so the original Augusta National was lost.  Perhaps it wasn’t coincidental that Bobby Jones passed on in the winter of 1971.  His passing, long after his collaborator Alister Mackenzie (1870-1934), opened the gates to the reinterpretation of the course. 

Subtle as the changes were prior to 2002, they led to a course that no longer resembled Jones and Mackenzie’s vision.  In a 2006 article by Bill Fields by Golf World, Hale Irwin, who played in 21 Masters between 1971 and 1996, was quoted, “But Augusta was very subtle, they would move a tee back a couple of yards, or change a green contour, but if you didn’t know the course very, very well, you probably wouldn’t recognize it.”

And so the changes began as a trickle.  Some of the adjustments seemed good to me.  One was the addition of mounds to the right in the driving zone on the 15th fairway.  This was the ideal position to approach the green if the player was to reach it in two.  Clearly, most of the field was able to clear the pond in front without much trouble.  In my mind, the mounds introduced uneven stances and while they didn’t necessarily discourage players from going for the green they did make the shot more difficult and risky.  Mounds are also in concert with links golf, which was the essence of Jones instructions to Mackenzie.  Alas, the mounds were removed in subsequent renovations.

The course was lengthened to over 7200 yards for the 2002 Championship and then again in 2006 to 7,445 yards.  With the property being much less than 500 feet above sea level and the tournament ordinarily being played at the end of their rainy season, the course probably now plays as long as any on the Tour.

We all know that length is the singular factor that dictates difficulty – at least according to the USGA.  And one would think that this course has been made more difficult.  The so-called “Tiger-proofing” that was done in 2006 seemed to result in par being preserved at Augusta National as Zach Johnson won with a +1 score in 2007.  Since then, the winning scores have been –8 and –12.  Those are right back where the scores were in the twenty years from ’81 to ’01.  More data is needed to really draw a conclusion.  So, where do we (they) go from here?  Well, if we know anything about the power-brokers of Augusta National, it’s that they won’t tell us anything unless they have no choice.  The projects in 2002 and 2006 were publicized only because they were TOO BIG to hide.  Why the secrecy?  Well of course it is a private club and they can pretty much do what they want when they want.  Martha Burk proved that.  But that’s a rationalization, not a reason.  No, I think there’s something more to it.  I think there’s a certain mystique at Augusta National Golf Club.  It’s the mystique of Bobby Jones.  Oh, sure they honor him in words, images, even in ideals, but they surely don’t honor him in their deeds. 

As an Architect myself, I have the utmost respect for the job that Mackenzie did in carrying out his client’s input.  But, I also envy him a client like Bobby Jones.  The course that Bobby Jones envisioned and Alister Mackenzie designed had very little to do with length and quite a lot to do with strategy and shot making.  The extra wide fairways and relatively large severely contoured greens probably harkened back to Jones “hate – love” experiences at St. Andrews, where the path you choose is dictated by conditions and hole location.  But that course is gone.  Hootie Johnson and his buddies that followed Clifford Roberts have erased Bobby Jones vision from the land as surely as I could erase this paragraph from my article – which of course I didn’t do.  Why did they erase it?  Out of sight is out of mind maybe?  They don’t want the “evidence” hanging around?  You can bet it has something to do with the Bobby Jones mystique.  I guarantee you Bobby would be crying about now.  Perhaps the Jones mystique isn’t so much omnipresent at Augusta National these days as oppressive to the Club’s Directors.

As much as I love this tournament – and I will watch it this week – I have bitter feelings about the course.  Perhaps you can tell that.

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