Monday, April 14, 2008

The 19th Hole: The Tradition Is No More

The Masters is billed as a “tradition unlike any other” by CBS Sports – long time broadcaster of the famed major championship. For many years, the Masters held to that standard. It is the only major played on the same course every year. It is the only major where everyone watching knew the course really well. It was the only major where viewers were expecting Sunday excellence in determining the champion golfer. Each sentence about Augusta National and the Masters in this paragraph is in the present tense, except the last one – the most important.

It has been eleven years since Tiger Woods embarrassed Augusta National in route to his first professional major victory. The wounded egos of the membership at Augusta National have been trying to prevent such a performance ever since. Ten years ago, Augusta was introduced to light rough, called the “second cut.” The course has been lengthened in waves, as well, to today’s length of over 7400 yards.

Though the most noted changes happened between 1998 and 2002, the course has continuously been tweaked in an effort to make it more difficult. Trees were installed, pine needles placed in lieu of grass, bunkers modified, greens extended to allow for more perilous pine placements, and shotmaking angles prescribed by the sum of all of these changes.

All of this was done in an effort to prevent a repeat of 1997 from ever happening. While the moves made by Augusta to the famed track have been successful in that regard, what have been the side effects of the changes?

There are some more minor side effects that seem to indicate the course has been Tigerproofed. Woods has won 3 times since the Tigerproofing happened. Despite that, though, Woods has just a single round below 70 since his 2005 victory at -12. For whatever reason, especially after the changes made in 2006, Woods has struggled at Augusta National.

Then again, so has everyone else. The best round of the week this year was 67 by Steve Flesch in the second round. The best weekend round was 68. In other words, low scores and dramatic moves up the leaderboard are not possible in the same way that Jack Nicklaus did in 1986 and others have in the championship’s storied past. The excitement that made the Masters into the legend that it is today simply is no longer there.

Even with a winning score this week of -8, the final round was absolutely joyless for most players. Contenders hemorrhaged bogeys on the way to the clubhouse. The course, combined with the conditions, made the final round more like a US Open march to the clubhouse than the traditional Augusta sprint. One needs only to hear course redesign architect Tom Fazio say that this version of Augusta National may usher in the “single red-digit era” to know that the Masters has officially changed for the worse.

The biggest side effect of Tigerproofing, though, has been the quality of champions – particularly since 2002. While I reserve judgment on the future successes of Trevor Immelman, whose prospects look very bright, he is a first time major champion. So was Zach Johnson last year. Don’t forget Mike Weir, another first timer in 2003.

2007 and 2008 are the two years widely accepted as the only ones in which the full effect of the Fazio and Hootie Johnson inspired changes were felt by the field. Though the winning scores between the last two seasons diverge by a stunning nine shots, the parallels between the two are obvious. Johnson and Immelman both had one career PGA Tour win before taking the green jacket. Sunday scoring in both of their victories was almost nonexistent. Tiger Woods finished in second both times, despite not having his best game.

The point to be made is that the Masters is losing its identity. Scoring conditions that once made Augusta so magical have been replaced with the kind of defensive play that resembles the US Open. (That seems convenient since former USGA head Fred Ridley now is at Augusta National.) The type of champion that has been produced in recent years on the “real” Augusta resembles the likes of the unknown champions that used to be produced by the PGA Championship and reduce its stature. In other words, the Masters is morphing into something different than the Masters.

To golf fans that love the tradition of the game, that is a very difficult realization to make. That is especially true considering that Augusta National has always stood for tradition and resistance to fads and trends. There are still no electronic scoreboards at Augusta. Prices for souvenirs and food are still consistent with 20 or 30 years ago. The faces that make the Masters – on TV and the tournament committee – seem to never change. Despite that consistency, though, Augusta has changed before our very eyes into a place that no longer is unique. It is formulaic now. Hit the fairway, strike the ball in the prescribed angle to the green, two putt and maybe you will get lucky for birdie. The Masters is now a game of survival.

To a man, the players all said that Augusta National was fair. At least the Masters has not reached the point where players complain that the setup borders on impossible – like at recent US Opens. Birdies exist. There are even a few eagles. Great shots are still rewarded and marginal shots punished. Still, something has been taken away from the Masters and I am not certain we will ever get it back.

The most interesting aspect of the entire story is that Tiger Woods really only has himself to blame for all of the changes. He was the reason Augusta caved in to the trends of tightening, lengthening, and hardening. He is the reason why low scores are no longer possible at Augusta. Yes, he has been successful at Augusta National – old and new – but would Woods trade that twelve shot win in 2007 and two consecutive runner up finishes for a two shot 1997 win and two more just like them? I would bet that he would.

3 comments:

The Florida Masochist said...

Ryan,

Phil Mickelson was a first time major winner when he won the Masters in 2004.

Cheers,

Bill

Ryan Ballengee said...

Correct, but that's why I said I reserve judgment on Immelman. Mickelson went on to win 2 more majors. Clearly, he's not a fluke champion.

Malaga Golf said...

I agree with Ryan - he's no fluke champion.