Augusta and golf tackle a longtime problem

Sergio Garcia and wife Angela named their infant daughter Azalea, after the 13th hole at Augusta National, where he made a career-changing par en route to his dramatic Masters victory in a sudden-death playoff in 2017. Now, that same hole, one of golf’s greatest risk-reward decisions, is at the centre of golf’s referendum on the distance debate.

Augusta and golf tackle a longtime problem

The 13th was designed by architect Alister MacKenzie and club co-founder Bobby Jones to be a tempting and dangerous hole. It invites the long driver to bend one around the corner on the left at the 510-yard dogleg hole. A tributary to Rae’s Creek winds in front of the green, and behind the putting surface are four bunkers. It can produce eagles and big numbers with equal infamy. This is where Byron Nelson in 1947 played the hole in six under par for four rounds as did Phil Mickelson when he won in 2010, and the likes of Curtis Strange in 1985 and Rory McIlroy in 2011 crashed and burned.

Bubba Watson and other long bombers, such as McIlroy, have turned this hole into pitch-n-putt, and it has Augusta National thinking overtime on how to restore the inherent character of the hole.

Last summer, it was announced that the club purchased land from neighbouring Augusta Country Club for the purpose of lengthening the 13th hole, which is one of the shortest par-5s in major championship. It raised eyebrows within the golf community among those who don’t want to see a moustache painted on the Mona Lisa of golf courses.

“I want them to be careful, because I think it’s the greatest par 5 in the world,” said Strange, a two-time US Open champion.

Jack Nicklaus, owner of a record six green jackets, summed up the questions facing Augusta National thusly: Is the club going to move the tee at No 13 back, because it just bought a piece of Augusta Country Club? Will the club stretch the second and fifth holes because it closed Berckmans Road?

The club is confronting these questions, because it refuses to allow technology to render the famed course obsolete.

“Augusta National is the only place that I know in the world that’s been able to keep up with what’s going on,” said Nicklaus.

He has been arguing for golf’s governing bodies to roll back the distance of the golf ball since 1977.

“I said: ‘Guys, look at this now, because this is going to be a problem,’” said Nicklaus.

The subject has reached a head as the US Golf Association and R&A released its 2017 distance report earlier this year and officially declared it is concerned about driving distance. This week, newly minted Augusta National club chairman Fred Ridley provided insight into what to expect for future tournaments here.

“We are intent on making sure that we maintain the design philosophy that Mr Jones and Alister MacKenzie devised and, with the shot values that they thought were important, we have done what we felt was appropriate through the years to maintain that philosophy and that design, those design parameters,”said Ridley.

He continued and here is ‘the money quote’ that suggests Azalea will play in the ballpark of 30 yards longer next April at the next playing of the Masters.

“There’s a great quote from Bobby Jones dealing specifically with the 13th hole, which has been lengthened over time (most recently in 2002), and he said that the decision to go for the green in two should be a momentous one and I would have to say that our observations of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is not a momentous decision and, so, we think there is an issue, not only there, but in the game generally, that needs to be addressed. The ultimate decision is going to be, I’m confident, a collective one. It’s going to be one where all the stakeholders sit down and come to some agreement.”

Twenty years ago, Gary Player proclaimed that golfers would be driving the ball 400 yards and beyond. They scoffed at him, but just two weeks ago at the WGC Dell Matchplay, Dustin Johnson ripped a 489-yard tee shot.

“He what?” Nicklaus said.

“489 yards,” Player repeated.

“Where?” wondered Nicklaus.

“Austin,” said Player.

“Did he really?” said Nicklaus.

“We’re seeing guys hitting 400 yards a lot,” said Player.

“Must have been downwind,” said Nicklaus.

“The whole Tour will hit a wedge to the second hole here, the par 5. They will hit a wedge to No 13 and they will hit a wedge to No 15,” said Player.

“You’ve never done that?” kidded Nicklaus.

“For my third!” responded Player.

All told, there have been 80 drives of 400-yards-or-longer this season, and that’s just on the PGA Tour. Player predicts that golfers are going to hit the ball 400 yards with regularity.

“You’ll find guys that will almost drive the first green here at Augusta in 30 years’ time,” he said.

“It does make you wonder what golf courses will look like if we stay on this trajectory,”said USGA CEO Mike Davis.

Jordan Spieth, who said he hits three-wood at 13, would like to see the hole lengthened to prevent the bombers from taking a shortcut. An extra 30 yards should put the driver back into play in order to reach the same location.

“It just makes it a little bit harder,” he said.

For now, there seems to be no end in sight to the constant face lifts required to keep golf’s crown jewels from going the way of the persimmon wood.

“At what point in time do we stop buying property to change golf courses?” asked ESPN golf commentator and former two-time US Open winner Andy North.

“My hope is that every organisation, every stakeholder will look at this issue from a holistic basis and not only what might be in the best interests of their own organisation,” said Ridley. “Like any difficult question, it requires compromise and debate.”

So, the distance debate rages on and, just like at the 13th hole at Augusta, the risk of tackling this longtime problem will be worth the reward of going for the green.

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