Longer Course Cuts Short Drama At Augusta

A view down the fairway of the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club. i i

A view down the fairway of the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Called Camellia, it's a 495-yard par 4. Tom Goldman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman/NPR
A view down the fairway of the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club.

A view down the fairway of the 10th hole at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Called Camellia, it's a 495-yard par 4.

Tom Goldman/NPR
Masters champion Phil Mickelson answers questions from reporters. i i

Two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson answers questions from reporters. Mickelson says he doesn't put any stock in rivalries; he competes against golf courses and not fellow players. Tom Goldman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Goldman/NPR
Masters champion Phil Mickelson answers questions from reporters.

Two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson answers questions from reporters. Mickelson says he doesn't put any stock in rivalries; he competes against golf courses and not fellow players.

Tom Goldman/NPR

Each year, the CBS tag line for the Masters golf tournament is, "A tradition unlike any other." There's a lot of truth to that — of the four major tournaments in men's golf, the Masters is most steeped in history and tradition, from the lush grounds at the storied Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia to the many famous shots that have become part of golfing lore.

But another tradition is evolving at Augusta, and it has some players worried. Physical changes to the golf course have led to high scores and less drama.

Charging And Roaring

The roars coming from Augusta's final nine holes — the back nine — always have been part of the tournament, as much a part of the tradition as vibrant pink azaleas and the winner's green jacket. Over the years, the roars have heralded some of Augusta's greatest moments, back nine charges when players came from behind to win.

Gene Sarazen's "shot heard round the world" — a rare double eagle on the 15th hole in 1935 — and Jack Nicklaus' comeback. Down by four strokes at the start of the back nine, Nicklaus went on a tear — five birdies, one eagle — that gave him the victory in 1986.

But in recent years, not as many charges, not as many roars. And players aren't happy about it. Australian Greg Norman, playing this week in his 23rd Masters, says, "The locker room talk is the fact that a lot of the character of the back nine has been taken away."

It's been called Tiger-proofing the course — a way to counter the game's most powerful player, who won his first Masters in 1997 by 12 strokes. Augusta National was renovated to add distance, so even Woods would find it a challenge to reach the greens and score low. This made it that much tougher for everyone else and made the comeback a rarity. Norman says the course has grown by 420 yards since he last played it, in 2002.

"There are a few players who can, but it's not the vast number of players who could actually feel like they can walk on the 10th tee and say, 'Boy, I'm a Ben Crenshaw, or I'm a Corey Pavin or I'm somebody that's a shorter hitter — I can really go and tear up the back nine and just blitz it,' " says Norman.

Decorum is everything at Augusta, so on Tuesday the game's two best players, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, politely blamed the weather of the past two years — cold, rainy, windy — for the high scores and lack of drama. They were partly right. Still, rain or shine, Woods agrees the course has become a beast.

"You don't have the same amount of birdie opportunities," he says. "It's just not the same."

Tiger's Back

If anyone can mount a back nine charge on Sunday, it's Woods. Two weeks ago he served notice that he was back in top form after a long layoff for knee surgery and rehabilitation. Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month with a dramatic 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole.

That performance has created a lot of anticipation about this week's Masters, where Woods resumes his quest for the most major championships. He trails Nicklaus 18 to 14.

There's also excitement in Augusta about Woods' potential challengers. Geoff Ogilvy, a quiet Australian, has become a regular contender at the majors. Ireland's Padraig Harrington is out to prove that his victories in the last two majors (the British Open and the PGA Championship, in 2008) were not just because Woods was out with his injury.

And then there's Mickelson. Known as "Lefty," he already has won twice on the PGA Tour this year and says he is playing the best golf of his career. He dodges reporters' attempts to portray him as Woods' archrival. Mickelson says he doesn't put any stock in rivalries; he competes against golf courses and not fellow players.

One reporter this week tried an end run on the rivalry issue — the tradition at the Masters is for the previous year's winner to put the green sport coat on the new champion. Mickelson has won two Masters tournaments, the first the year after Canadian left-hander Mike Weir won and the second the year after Woods won. The reporter asked, "Did you like it better when Weir slipped the jacket on you, or Tiger?"

"To get that jacket from Mike and keep it amongst left-handers was cool," Mickelson said as reporters laughed. "But I do have a picture of [Woods] sliding the jacket on me, and yeah, it felt good."

That's as close as it gets to fightin' words in the gentlemanly sport of golf. No matter; those two, and everyone else in the field, will have their hands full with the real adversary: the long and difficult golf course.

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