News Archive

Reality Check

Are you ready for a shocking statement?

The player who wins the Masters this week will be the one who plays the best.

OK, on the surface that sounds like stating the obvious. But if you consider what you've been reading and hearing about Augusta National in the build-up to the Masters, it's a truly radical statement.

Nearly all of the voices in the chorus are singing in unison that only long hitters can win the Masters now that the course has been stretched to 7,445 yards, an addition of 155 since last year and 520 since 1998. I'm here to sing a different tune. In my book, anybody can win.

The prevailing view is based largely on the assumption that a longer course necessarily favors long hitters. It's an assumption that doesn't hold up under scrutiny, at least not in its simplistic form. The prevailing view also ignores other elements of changes to Augusta National that DON'T favor long hitters. This is odd, since those other changes have been much discussed--but seldom in the context of how they effect the long hitters.

There's a certain herd mentality going on here, especially among PGA Tour players, who don't like having to play a harder course. Worse, there's a lot of exaggeration, misinformation, and misleading anecdotal evidence being passed off as fact.

To hear a lot of the players talk, everybody but the bombers are going to be hitting long irons into nearly all of the par fours. Don't believe it. The tales that are being told about clubs players have hit into greens during practice rounds--in many cases, they are talking about rounds played over the winter--are selective. Players tend to remember and remark upon hitting a long club into a green, but somehow it gets lost in translation that the hole was playing into the wind or the ground was soft. The only way any player will be hitting long irons into more than a couple of par fours is if somehow EVERY hole is playing into the wind, and the fairways are soggy enough to require galoshes.

You would think that players would be reliable guides to how a course is going to play. After all, they are the ones who are hitting the shots. But remember the 2004 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits? To hear the players talk before the tournament, you would have thought that nobody would have been able to finish, yet alone break par. But the course turned out to be eminently playable.

Here are some examples of what they're saying this week. About the first hole, now 20 yards longer at 455 yards, Chris DiMarco is quoted as saying, "Freddie Couples will be hitting 3-wood into the green, and I'll be laying up!"

Um, maybe if the hole is playing into a gale-force wind (Couples apparently did tell DiMarco he hit a 3-wood in during one round, presumably during the winter.) Here is what is going to happen under normal circumstances. DiMarco, one of the shortest hitters on Tour, is going to hit a drive that travels slightly less than his usual 281 yards because it lands on somewhat of an upslope (but not further back, where he might face a blind shot). Then he's going to hit a 7-iron (maybe a 6-) into the green. Couples, who averages 296, is going to come in with about an 8-iron.

Sometimes things get passed around among players like high-school gossip. Ernie Els talked about having to hit a 7-iron for his second shot to the seventh hole (now 450 yards), and wondered about Mike Weir having to hit a 4-iron into a green not designed for that type of approach. Jack Nicklaus heard the story, and passed it along this way to the press: "Ernie Els is hitting a 4-iron into the seventh green. What's Mike Weir hitting--4-wood?"

Has the golf world collectively lost its common sense? Today's pros, even Fred Funk, will not be hitting anything close to a 4-wood to a 450-yard par four. For that matter, on a calm day players like Els will be hitting a wedge, if they hit a driver off the tee.

The par-three fourth, extended from 205 yards to 240, has been the topic of much discussion, with players hitting as much as 3-wood into the green (one scribe wrote that "some may need driver on the par-three fourth," an absurdity unless it refers to a couple of the oldest past champions).

Tiger Woods said he talked to some who played in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s (we're guessing not too many from the '50s), who told him that they never had to hit a wood. That may be true, though I'm guessing there were some woods hit in the '50s. But I remember players hitting 2-irons into the green in the late 1980s. And most of the woods players will hit to the hole this year will be 5-woods and hybrid clubs that replace 2-irons in their bags because they can hit them higher and land them softer. Chalk that up to technology.

As for the 11th, where 15 yards have been added to make it 505, a little math is in order. Barring soaked conditions, the average drive will travel about 300 yards or even more on that downhill hole, leaving about a 6-iron in for the average player--in other words, the same club Ray Floyd hit into the water to lose the 1990 playoff to Nick Faldo. But to listen to the talk, you would think that 2- and 3-irons were the order of the day.

Now let's look at the long course/long hitter assumption. If we're talking about a hole where driver is generally the play (the case at most holes at Augusta), everybody ends up having the same amount of yardage added to their second shot. So, let's say that, on a given hole, the long hitters were hitting pitching wedges and the average hitters 8-irons. Now, if the hole plays two clubs longer, the long hitters are hitting 8-irons and the average hitters 6-irons. I don't see any significant difference in the long hitter's advantage.

The factors that determine if the bombers have an edge are whether can fly their tee shots over bunkers, cut corners of doglegs, catch downslopes, reach par fives in two that others can't; and, importantly, whether they can let it fly without worrying about being overly penalized by an errant drive. None of that information shows up on a scorecard; there may be short courses that offer long hitters those advantages or long courses that don't.

Still, let's concede that there is some truth to the players' notion that the nature of the approach shots at the newly-lengthened Augusta gives more of an advantage to the heavy hitters. Even if that's so, any increased edge in that regard is more than offset by disadvantages brought on by other changes.
 
The alterations carried out by Masters chairman Hootie Johnson and designer Tom Fazio have brought fairway bunkers into play for the bombers that they used to fly over. In fact, at least a couple of those fairway bunkers aren't even reachable for short hitters, so they're the ones with a wider fairway. The much-discussed growth of a "second cut" of semi-rough and the planting of trees on many holes has introduced more of a penalty--mild in the first case, severe in the second--for drives that stray off line.

In terms of effective length, the course plays pretty much like it did 15 or 20 years ago. The only hole whose character has been significantly altered from a length standpoint compared to those days is the seventh, then a decidedly short par four. Many holes, however, have had their character altered by the addition of trees. Sounds to me like a net loss in the advantage for the long hitters, when you consider that they tend to be more wild.

I'm not saying that long hitters don't have an edge at Augusta. It always has been a course that favored power, assuming that it can be combined with a deft short game. What I'm saying is that the new Augusta doesn't give them any more of an edge than the old one, and it may well be less. The changes certainly don't eliminate anyone from contention, except maybe the shortest of hitters, who always faced an uphill battle at Augusta anyway.

This year's prevailing theme echoes that of 2002 when the course had its first major growth spurt. A year later, short-hitting Mike Weir beat short-hitting Len Mattiace in a playoff. Last year, short-hitting DiMarco would have won if his chip had dropped on the 72nd hole. He and Tiger Woods were seven strokes clear of the field, and DiMarco didn't lose the playoff because he's short--he lost because Woods is the best clutch player of all time.

The long hitters who have won since 2002 haven't won because they are long, they won because they are the best (Woods, twice) and near-best (Phil Mickelson) players in the game. No players who use distance as their only calling card have won, or even seriously threatened, in that span.

When Weir won, it was written that, well, in those wet conditions a short hitter had a chance because the greens were soft and could hold his longer approaches. Some year, when a short or medium hitter wins in dry conditions, it will be written that, well, it can happen when players are getting a lot of roll on their tee shots and the course doesn't play so long. Either way, it will be forgotten the next year, when it will again be written that only long hitters can win at Augusta.

While the lengthening of Augusta tends to be played up in a "Who can win?" fashion, the narrowing of Augusta is generally cast as a "What would Bobby Jones think?" question, with its effect on the odds of a certain kind of player winning the Masters completely ignored.

By the way, while the traditionalists are right that the tree-planting binge and "second cut" have altered the nature of Augusta National, they overstate their case when they say that this has happened to such an extent that Augusta is becoming just like any other course.

They tend to talk about the addition of "rough," but this is a case where Augusta National's term of "second cut" isn't just a euphemism. It really isn't rough as we would know it elsewhere.

The current buzzword seems to be that Augusta is "dictating the line of play" with its rough (or whatever you call it) and its new trees, rather than letting the players choose their lines of play as in the past. This is an exaggeration. The fairways are still quite wide. And while it's true that in the past some players may have on occasion chosen a line that is now in the "semi-rough" (my term), I'm confident in saying that no player ever intentionally aimed where any of the trees are now. Their effect is to penalize the wild shot.

In any case, the question of "What would Bobby Jones [or Alister MacKenzie] think?" doesn't really have an answer. We know what they thought (or at least what they wrote) back then. But nobody can know how their thinking would have evolved as the game has changed.

The practioners of the power game today don't really care much about angles, they just want to get as close to the green as they can. If there's not much trouble off the fairways, they're not too upset nor very much penalized if they misfire and don't have the best angle to the hole location.

Let's say Augusta had done what the traditionalists would have preferred and kept the grass short from treeline to treeline, while not planting any trees. Now THAT would be a long hitter's paradise.

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