Archive for Friday, April 7, 2006

Augusta critics should stop complaining

Improvements in equipment have made changes at Masters golf course necessary

April 7, 2006

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— Everybody's playing the same course this week, correct?

Half the field isn't playing Augusta National Diabolical and the other half Augusta National Putt-Putt?

I just want to be clear about this, what with all the hand wringing going on about the changes here. If the players were to wring their hands any more, innocent golf clubs would be strangled to death.

But all the golfers are competing on the same Masters layout, right?

Good. So do us a favor, fellas, and stop your grousing. All's fair in technological war.

Yes, Augusta will be especially mean-spirited this week, thanks to added length, more trees and skinnier fairways. But in some respects, the players are to blame for what club chairman Hootie Johnson and his boys have conjured up.

The controversy shouldn't be about the 7,445-yard course, which is 155 yards longer this year and 520 yards longer than it was in 1997 when Tiger Woods lapped the field.

It should be about the equipment. It's equipment that has evolved to the point where weekend hackers can, on occasion, hit the ball 280 yards off the tee. Imagine what (mostly) in-shape professionals can do with souped-up club shafts and heads. Right, about 350 yards into the meat of the fairway.

These same carping players endorse the equipment to the tune of millions and millions of dollars a year. The first ad in Sports Illustrated's Masters issue is for Woods' "secret weapon." It's a golf ball, and we're told you, too, can be a big hitter if you use this particular make and model. The second ad is for fairway woods that might, if you're game, allow you to reach the green in two on par-5s.

That's fine. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, if you're not busy being born, you're busy dying. But to survive, courses have to be reinvented too. When every par-4 becomes a driver and a wedge, it's not a golf tournament. It's a practice range.

On the dastardly fourth hole, a par-3 that has grown from 205 to 240 yards, players have had to hit a 3-wood during practice rounds this week to get to the green. The par-4 seventh hole has been lengthened 45 yards to 450 yards.

"I totally understand what they are trying to do," said Charles Howell III, who grew up in Augusta. "You never want to see the seventh hole become a 3-wood and (a lob) wedge. You don't ever want to see No. 11 become a driver and a 9-iron. That's not what the hole was intended to be."

But many of the players don't care about intentions. They care about eagle opportunities on the par-5s.

Phil Mickelson will carry two drivers in his bag this week not only for extra distance but because one of them allows him extra "pop" in drawing the ball. He worked with the golf club company he represents to design a club for this tournament.

And it's wrong for Augusta to respond to that sort of engineering?

Asked whether he has taken the fun out of a tournament that blesses us with Amen Corner every year, Johnson said, "I didn't know a tough golf course was supposed to be a lot of fun."

Amen.

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