Thursday, April 10, 2008

#11 at Augusta: Against the Trend?

I was doing a little bit of thinking about today when taking a look at the early scoring data for each hole at Augusta National. At last check, #11 is the 5th hardest hole on the course. Last year, it was the hardest. Changes to the hole over the years include lengthening the hole and adding trees to the right side of the hole to cut off the approach angle to the green from that side. This year, they removed some of the trees that they planted, and replaced the grass around those trees with pine straw to make shots from that forested area even more penal.

In essence, Fazio and the National completely eliminated the two-angle approach on #11 that made the hole so dramatic in the first place. There really is only one option to play the hole in a safe fashion: drive it down the left side of the hole, try to miss to the right, chip to the pin, and make a par. Basically, the trees take birdie out of the equation. Out of the 70 players that have seen 11 today at the time of writing, 4 have made birdie. There are 2 double bogeys. The rest are pars and bogeys. The statistics back the theory.

Why do that, though? Geoff Shackelford was watching the Amen Corner coverage with Bobby Clampett today on #11. Clampett kissed up to Augusta and the Committee for eliminating the right side angle and prescribing a course of action to play the lengthened, 505 yard hole. He said it was the correct angle. Shackelford correctly wonders, then, why would you take away the angle that is supposed wrong? Why not allow players to take the wrong angle and see what happens - a likely penalty if Clampett is right?

It seems that Augusta is operating differently than the PGA Tour and the major championships in general in that regard. #11 is endemic of an effort by the National to prescribe how the course should be played. Angles have been closed off or modified to be difficult to find. It cuts off scoring opportunities and imagination - both the hallmark of the Jones and MacKenzie design.

Meanwhile, on the PGA Tour, there has been a tremendous rise in the popularity of the short or driveable par 4. These holes present options for aggression, with peril in store for mistaken shots. One need look no further than #10 at Riviera. Another great example is at TPC Boston. The PGA Tour has committed to presenting players with unique options in an effort to inspire some imagination that they have taken away from other holes and courses by tightening fairways, growing deep rough, and making ridiculous pin placement decisions.

The USGA has also seen the light and has implemented the value of the short par 4 into the Open setups in each of the last 3 years. It has paid off in creating a hole that still packs a lot of punch, but creates some real options for players in how aggressive they want to be.

The USGA has also been at the forefront of the deforestation movement in the majors. Oakmont had hundreds of trees removed from it to restore it to its original design scheme. It created a course that was not as tight, looked visually more appealing, and brought some other elements of the layout back into play and the spotlight. While the scoring conditions did not improve because of that, the USGA is trending to a more "open" agronomy.

Southern Hills, host of last year's PGA Championship, sunk significant money into removing trees from the course to promote short grass areas and open up new ways to play certain holes. Southern Hills was a great success as a host of the PGA Championship and looks likely to host another major again in the future because of their decision to open up play. Again, scoring was not out of control by any stretch.

So, then, why does Augusta National choose to go against the grain? Is it pride? Is it firmly held belief? I'm not certain. But, I feel that 11 embodies the stubbornness with which Augusta National appears to be approaching the changes to their course. They refuse to let anything dictate to them how the Masters will be played - technology, critics, the weather. Instead of letting any of those factors impact them, they will cut off their nose to spite their face and go back on the tradition of Jones and MacKenzie.

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