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How Augusta National adapts to player focus over distance

When it comes to major championships, the pedigree of the golf course matters. Courses contain the history of players who have won there.

Arnold Palmer in Cherry Hills. Ben Hogan to Merion. Tom Watson at Turnberry.

Tiger Woods at Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Valhalla and Augusta National when he won all four Majors back-to-back for the so-called “Tiger Slam” in 2000-1.

But Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters, is different from the others. It was originally designed by two big names: Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, the great hobbyist. It is the only major played on the same course year after year. And its champions return as members for this week. Spot songbirds and blooming azaleas.

There’s just one problem: Modern professional golfers hit the ball so hard that classic golf courses are overpowered, and some struggle to find ways to stay relevant and challenging.

Just two years ago, Bryson DeChambeau dominated Winged Foot, considered one of the toughest championship venues, to win the US Open. He hit it as far as he could, then wedged it onto the green. The formidable tough rough of a US Open had little effect on him (although he was the only player to finish under par).

Now the days of players like Gene Sarazen, who won the Masters in 1935, hitting a wood into the par-5 of the 15th green are behind us. But the fear is that instead of someone like Woods hitting a 7 iron into that same green, it’s going to be a wedge, a club that’s much easier to hit.

Augusta National understands that the Masters transcends golf. Preventing the course from falling victim to clubs and balls that help players increase their distance is paramount. The Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, another classic course, saw its future as a major venue questioned earlier this year when, during the Genesis Invitational, players roamed the adjacent fairways for an easier approach to the green.

So how has Augusta National continued to challenge players and resist golf balls that fly farther and spin to a quick stop, and drivers that launch those balls 330 yards and beyond? It’s a combination of technology and psychology.

“Augusta National continues to wisely add length where it can,” said Ben Crenshaw, 1984 and 1995 champion and renowned golf course architect. “Subtle changes have been well thought out.”

For such a historic course, Augusta National makes changes just about every year. This year, it has lengthened the 11th and 15th holes, which have become less strategic with players who hit farther, and the 18th, with its gigantic bunker waiting to swallow all the forehands.

The extra distance is approximately 50 yards in total for all three holes, if the tees are pushed back. The goal is to change the way players approach these holes. This is not a new problem.

“The long debate has been going on at Augusta National since Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed the course,” said Joe Bowden, local doctor, longtime volunteer and member of the nearby Augusta Country Club. “The first year the Masters was played in 1934, the length of the course was 6,700 yards. This year, the course will officially measure 7,510 yards for the 2022 tournament.”

However, there is a limit to the length. As gorgeous as Augusta National is to watch on TV and experience in person, it’s not exactly set in a prairie. Surrounded by Washington Road, a commercial thoroughfare as average as Magnolia Lane is spectacular; established neighborhoods; and Augusta Country Club, the National, as its neighbors call it, has little room to grow in the state’s second-largest city.

A few years ago, the club went so far as to purchase an entire hole from Augusta Country Club in order to have space to lengthen its own 13th hole. In a letter to its members, the president of Augusta Country Club at the time noted that Augusta National would rebuild a portion of its 8th and 9th holes as part of the agreement.

However, the club can also modify the speeds of the fairways and greens at will, by the way in which they water them but also in which direction they cut them. “People don’t realize how much it can speed up or slow down a course,” said a former professional golf assistant at Augusta who requested anonymity because employees are not authorized to discuss club business. “But it’s a lot bigger than you think.”

For a club that regularly adjusts its angles and hole lengths, there are more striking things it could do while still fulfilling the course’s original intent. Michael Hurdzan, who designed Erin Hills, site of the 2017 US Open, pointed out several things the club could do to lessen the impact of distance while remaining consistent with MacKenzie’s design. One would be to keep the trees playing. They could be used to block shortcuts that players can take. “There are only two dangers that make the difference for the big player,” he said, “trees and water.”

Another is to think differently about bunkers. There are twice as many bunkers, 44, today as when the course was built, but there are only 12 fairway bunkers. Of these, only three are on the back nine where the championship is often decided, and two of them are on the 18.

“The fairways are essentially bunker-free,” said Hurdzan, who advocates bunkers that jut out from the fairways, known as cross bunkers. “Mackenzie was not afraid of cross bunkers. If someone wanted to reinforce it, they could use cross bunkers or more bunkers in the fairway. You can try to hit the big drive and take the risk or hit a shorter club and hit a longer iron.

Of course, what all classic courses fight is technology: a ball that flies farther than ever when hit by a driver that bounces it around like a trampoline. It’s an issue that golf’s two governing bodies are addressing, with an update released in March. Observers think it’s time to change equipment.

“With all due respect to the players, they’re not the ones making the ball go farther,” said golf course architect and commentator Geoff Shackelford. “You put 10-year-old technology in their hands, and they will back off. 30-year-old technology — they’re really going to roll back.

“There are so many things Augusta can do to make it difficult,” Shackelford added. “It’s not going to become useless, but it loses some of its charm when you take away some of the stuff we’ve come to know.”

Shackleford noted that previous attempts to roll back the distance have been met with resistance, but not the March announcements from the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. Technology, he said, makes it harder to stand out as a player. “It probably disables some of the extra special skills for super elite players.”

The length, however, can be deceiving in Augusta. Greg Norman was among the longest players of his era. When he found himself in the playoffs in 1987 with Seve Ballesteros, whose short game made up for wild tee shots, and Larry Mize, a relatively short hitter, it seemed Norman had the advantage.

But that’s not how it ended. On the second hole of the playoffs, Mize chipped in for a birdie to win the playoffs.

“With his length, Greg had an advantage,” Mize said. “Thank goodness golf is more than a length. The longest hitters don’t always win the Masters.

Still, Mize said he, too, would welcome the USGA addressing what technology has done remotely.

“I know it’s hard to bring him back,” Mize said. “But I’m hopeful that in 20 years, golfers won’t go any further. I’m optimistic that Augusta will still be relevant. It’s a special place and a special event.

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