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On the Road with Ernie: The Masters

Find out how Ernie's been preparing for this week's Masters, including what he thinks of the changes at Augusta National and how he plans to attack the course.

Before we get on to the main event of the week, I’ll quickly fill you in on what I’ve been doing since finishing up at the Players Championship eight days ago. We had the Tavistock Cup on Monday and Tuesday, which you may have seen on one of the Golf Channels on television. Then straight from there I headed over to Cherokee Plantation about an hour’s drive from Charleston in South Carolina, where I was able to concentrate on my preparations for this week’s Masters Tournament.

The Tavistock Cup was a lot of fun…although from Lake Nona’s perspective the result wasn’t! We’ve actually just sold our Lake Nona home and moved out only the week before, so I was staying at a member’s guest house on the Isleworth estate. I tell you, it was almost as big as my old house!

If you happened to watch some of the matches you’d have seen that it all starts very friendly, but towards the end of the round the competitive juices start flowing and the tour pro’s natural instincts kick in. I guess we’re all the same; that desire to win is never far from the surface. It was a bit of a trouncing for my team, but credit where it’s due; Tiger and the Isleworth boys played well. We’ll be on home turf next year, so hopefully we can get the Lake Nona name on the trophy for a change. We haven’t won this thing in the three years we’ve been playing the tournament.

I’ve been to Cherokee Plantation a couple of times in recent years, having first heard about it through Peter de Savary, who owns the property and decided it was the perfect location to prepare for the Masters. I played a match against David Duval here a few years back, as part of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf series. It’s a wonderfully secluded and peaceful part of the world, with a beautiful former plantation house and private lodges located amongst the property’s 4,000 acres. You can take part in almost any country pursuit you could think of and Liezl and the kids had a great time, riding horses most days.

The main attraction for me obviously is the golf course, designed by the famous architect Donald Steel in partnership with Tom Mackenzie. It’s a great layout and I have to thank all the greens staff at Cherokee because they pulled out all the stops to get it in fantastic shape for my visit. I’m so grateful to them for their efforts.

Johann Rupert was there for a few days so we played a couple of rounds together. He knows my game inside out and we’re very good friends. And sometimes that’s kind of how I like to play practice rounds – you know, you’re there for a reason and you’re there to work on your game, but it’s nice to have a chat in between shots.

The practice facilities would not be out of place at any top PGA Tour event and, as I was saying, the place is so peaceful that I could really concentrate on my game. Most of the greens at Cherokee have big slopes, not unlike Augusta’s as it happens, so for hours on end I was working on my short game, playing chip-and-runs from around the greens and all the other creative little shots you need in order to do well in the Masters. My short game feels in really good shape.

After five days there I feel rested…and raring to go.

Coming up this week…

I’m leaving Cherokee this Monday morning to head up to Augusta. I decided to take the opportunity of not having to fly, for a change. So I’ve loaded up the boot of the car and I’m going to make the four-hour drive and hopefully get to the golf course around lunchtime. I can’t wait to get there and tee it up. It’s an exciting week, the first major of the year, and there’s lots of anticipation. That feeling when you get to Augusta – let me tell you, the excitement never seems to wear off.

Obviously the big talking point this year is some of the changes they’ve made to the golf course, mainly the additional length which takes it up to 7,445 yards. It’s now officially the second longest major championship golf course in history, just 60 yards shorter than Whistling Straits where we played the USPGA in 2004.

Changes at Augusta National

The rough has been grown a little more compared to how it used to be, although it’s nothing like as severe as the kind of rough you see at other majors. Also, the fairways have been pinched-in a little and they’ve planted a lot of new trees, so it’ll be harder than ever to keep the ball on the ‘short stuff’. And trust me, that’s where you want and need to be, because the added length means we’re hitting some pretty serious clubs into these greens now. The committee made these changes in order to restore some of the old shot values, but I’ve spoken to quite a few players and I think it’s fair to say that on a lot of holes we’ll be hitting clubs that we’ve hardly ever hit before. When I was here for my couple of practice rounds a few weeks ago, I hit a 4-iron into the new-look par-4 7th. That used to be a flick with a wedge.

Let me talk you through the main changes, briefly.

The 1st hole used to be a pretty simple tee shot, for the long hitters at least. You just aimed at the right-hand bunker and bombed it straight over. Not any more. The tee was moved back 25 yards in 2002, which is when they also made the fairway bunker bigger. This year they’ve stretched the hole by a further 20 yards and planted some new trees down the left-hand side, which tightens things up a bit. It’s 455 yards now and you need to be wide awake from the word go.

The new-look 4th hole is pretty controversial, judging from some people’s initial reactions. Admittedly it was always a tough par-3 this one, but they’ve moved the tee back another 35 paces so it now measures 240 yards. This hole is one of the reasons I’ll be carrying a 5-wood in my bag this year. It’s going to be a tough green to hit.

The 7th hole…well, I’ve already mentioned that. It’s a 450-yarder now, with new trees planted either side of the fairway to pinch-in the target area. It’s a slightly uphill approach shot and the green is shallow from front to back. If you’re going in here with a long-iron, or even a fairway metal as some players are predicting if conditions are tough, only a perfect golf shot will do.

The 11th has always been a tough cookie…even when it was 455 yards. Now it’s 505 yards and the tee has been moved and some new trees planted, so you basically have to drive through a chute of trees. We’ll be hitting into this green with longer clubs than ever before. Level-fours here for the week will be worth some cash!

At the par-5 15th the tee has been moved back 30 yards and moved about 20 yards to the left. That change in the angle of play and extra yardage makes a difference, but you’ll still be looking to hit the green in two. It’s just that for the second shot you’ll have a longer stick in your hand. Again, I can easily see my new 5-wood getting some action on this hole. Realistically you’re looking to pick up a shot here.

Finally, the 17th has been stretched further to 440 yards. That doesn’t sound like much on paper, but this green is kind of perched up on a plateau and it’s very firm with some wicked slopes; that’s okay when you’re going in with a wedge, but it’s a longer shot now, so you’ve got to be right on the money with your distance control.

The end result of all that? Well, when I first started coming here in the early 1990s I think it’s fair to say that Augusta was the most fun of all the major championship venues. Now it’s probably the toughest. It’s a seriously long and difficult test of golf. I have to confess, though, I like the changes. But then again, being one of the longer hitters, I guess the changes are supposed to play into my hands.

I was talking to Tiger about this when we were paired together on the second day at The Tavistock Cup last week. The way the golf course plays now – you know, if the long hitters get their games together there’s a real chance they could separate themselves from the rest of the field. It’s going to be interesting, for sure.

Another thing we were saying is that if the wind blows and the course conditions are dry, anything could win. Honestly, an over-par aggregate could be a winning score. No one’s seen that at Augusta for the best part of 50 years.

I’m up for the challenge whatever the conditions. As I was saying earlier, I did some good work on my golf game at Cherokee. My driving has really come along in the last few weeks and obviously that’s going to be a major factor at Augusta.

I tried out a new putter in the Tavistock Cup, but that didn’t feel right. So, having satisfied my own curiosity I went back to my Scotty Cameron and worked hard on my putting on the big, fast, sloping greens at Cherokee. That putter will be in my golf bag for this week’s Masters.

As will be the 5-wood, which I already mentioned to you. Again, I was working with that club at Cherokee and I like the way you can hit high-flying shots with a 5-wood; they tend to more softly than with a 2-iron. As I said, it will come in useful I think on holes like the 13th and 15th, where you need control of your golf ball going into those greens, and also on the 240-yard par-3 4th. That yardage is pretty much right in the middle of my 2-iron and 3-wood, so the 5-wood fills that gap nicely.

Anyway, that’s it for now. Time is moving along and I need to get going.

I’ll write again next week.

Bye for now.

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