By Robert Bicknell

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April 2, 2006

Augusta follies…

Its that time of year again.

The Azaleas are in bloom, the weather is warming up and Augusta National is once again making headlines, this time because of the changes made which extended the course to a whopping 7,445 yards and inspired a broadside attack from former champions.

Tiger Woods believes that all this "Tiger-proofing" of the course actually improves his chances because it hurts talented shorter players especially if the skies open up and soak the course. Jack Nicklaus was even more blunt when he said, that "they’ve ruined it [the course] from a tournament standpoint."

Even Arnold Palmer, one of the nicest and diplomatic players ever to grace a fairway, has publicly aired serious doubts about what is going on at Augusta.

Bobby Jones believed that "golf is a second shot game" and I tend to agree because if it were just driving and putting then any moron could play well, and I could be a multi-millionaire five-time champion.

I’ve played Augusta National twice, both times as a guest of a member, and can tell you that it has never been a "driver" course. The greens are devilishly fast and had only one or two areas which provided a straight putting line to the hole. If you missed that specific area of the green you were in serious trouble. Your iron shots had to be perfect, which is what the original design intended.

If Augusta wanted to be true to Bobby Jones’ beliefs, they should’ve found a way to take the driver out of the player’s hands by increasing the risks of an errant shot. But instead, they added length as well as trees, bunkers and rough, in effect trying to be both a horse and a donkey at the same time, which everyone knows results in the creation of a jackass.

Besides lessening the premium of strong iron play, the obvious consequence of lengthening the course is that it forces the player to hit longer drives. This, in turn, gives equipment manufacturers an excuse to tout the need for hotter balls and more powerful clubs.

While it’s easy to say the "Men of Augusta," made a poor decision, they are victims of circumstance, such as improved technique and physical conditioning by the players, as well as improved technology which results in longer drives.

Nevertheless, I am sad that Augusta National didn’t take a different tact on this issue.

There is no need for 8,000 yard courses, providing the design incorporates a stiff risk vs reward concept. No professional ever grabs a club, especially a driver, without careful forethought and a weighing of risks on each hole. Whereas amateur weekend golfers use the driver on almost every hole, but there’s no problem with that as they are playing two very different games.

The British and US Open tournaments, over the years, have put a premium on "shot-making" and it would’ve been better for The Masters to go the same route as it levels the playing field and truly allows the best all around player to win.

Another disappointment is that, while its normal for golf courses to undergo a face-lift every ten years or so, too many designers feel it is necessary to change the entire characteristics of the course to suit today’s players, meaning a preference for the long ball. Thus, a lot of great courses have become mediocre or lost their uniqueness.

Again, this plays into the hands of the club manufacturers.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against technological improvements which make it more fun for an average weekend player, but I do feel it’s a violation of the "spirit" of the game to reduce the need for self-improvement through practice by letting players "buy" a better game.

I hit a rather long ball, so naturally I favour courses which let me hit the driver. However, by the same token, I find a short tight course much more challenging simply because I cannot hit the driver. For example, at Kings’ Island, I can beat the hell out of Mountainview, but the shorter Lakeside Course gives me trouble.

If Augusta National went that route, it would probably be more interesting because club selection off the tee on all holes would be more critical and would allow a more fair test of all the required skills, not just hitting 350 yard drives.

Sadly, we’ll never know.

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