How Augusta National Is Adjusting to Players’ Focus on Distance

When it comes to major championships, the pedigree of the golf course matters. Courses hold the history of the players who have won there.

Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills. Ben Hogan at Merion. Tom Watson at Turnberry.

Tiger Woods at, well, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Valhalla and Augusta National when he won all four majors consecutively for the so-called “Tiger Slam” in 2000-1.

But Augusta National Golf Club, host of the Masters, is different from the rest. It was originally designed by two greats: Dr. Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones, the great amateur. It’s the only major played on the same course year after year. And its champions return like members for that week. Cue the song birds and blooming azaleas.

There’s just one problem: modern professional golfers are hitting the ball so far that classic golf courses are being overpowered and some are struggling to find ways to remain relevant and challenging.

Just two years ago, Bryson DeChambeau dominated Winged Foot, considered among the toughest championship venues, to win the United States Open. He hit it as far as he possibly could and then wedged it onto the green. The formidable, high rough of a U.S. Open had little effect on him (though he was the only player to finish under par).

Now, the days of players like Gene Sarazen, who won the Masters in 1935, hitting a wood into the par-5 15th green are behind us. But the fear is that instead of someone like Woods hitting a 7-iron into that same green it will be a wedge, a much easier club to hit with.

Augusta National is aware that the Masters transcends golf. Keeping the course from being a victim of clubs and balls that help players increase their distance is paramount. Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, another classic course, had its future as a major site called into question earlier this year when, at the Genesis Invitational, players hit drives down adjacent fairways to have an easier approach to the green.

So how has Augusta National continued to challenge players and stand up to golf balls that fly farther and spin to a quick stop, and drivers that launch those balls 330 yards and beyond? It’s a combination of technology and psychology.

“Augusta National continues to add length judiciously where they can,” said Ben Crenshaw, the 1984 and 1995 champion and an acclaimed golf architect. “Subtle changes have been well thought out.”

For such a historic course, Augusta National makes changes pretty much every year. This year it lengthened the 11th and 15th holes, which have become less strategic with players hitting farther, and the 18th, with its gigantic bunker waiting to swallow any straight shots.

The added distance is around a total of 50 yards for the three holes, if the tees are pushed back. The goal is to change how players approach those holes. It’s not a new issue.

“The length debate has been going on at Augusta National since Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed the course,” said Joe Bowden, a local doctor, longtime volunteer and member of the adjoining Augusta Country Club. “The first year the Masters was played in 1934 the course length was 6,700 yards. This year the course will officially measure 7,510 yards for the 2022 tournament.”

Yet there’s a limit to the length. As magnificent as Augusta National is to watch on television and experience in person, it’s not exactly situated on a prairie. Hedged in by Washington Road, a commercial thoroughfare as average as Magnolia Lane is spectacular; established neighborhoods; and the Augusta Country Club, the National, as its neighbors call it, only has so much space to grow in the state’s second-largest city.

A few years ago, the club went so far as to buy an entire hole from Augusta Country Club so it would have space to lengthen its own 13th hole. In a letter to its members, the then-president of Augusta Country Club noted that Augusta National would rebuild part of its 8th and 9th holes as part of the deal.

Yet the club can also change the speeds of the fairways and greens at will, through how they water them but also which direction they cut them. “People don’t realize how much this can speed up or slow down a course,” said a former assistant golf professional at Augusta who requested anonymity because employees aren’t allowed to speak about club matters. “But it’s much bigger than you think.”

For a club that regularly adjusts its angles and lengths of holes, there are more striking things it could do and still be in keeping with the original intent of the course. Michael Hurdzan, who designed Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open, pointed to several things the club could do to mute the impact of distance and still be consistent with MacKenzie’s design. One would be to continue to bring trees into play. They could be used to block shortcuts that players can take. “There are only two hazards that make a difference to the great player, ” he said, “trees and water.”

Another is to think differently about the bunkers. There are twice as many bunkers, 44, today as when the course was built, but there are only 12 fairway bunkers. Of those, only three are on the back nine where the championship is often decided, and two of those are on 18.

“The fairways are basically bunkerless,” said Hurdzan, who advocates bunkers jutting into the fairways, known as cross bunkers. “Mackenzie wasn’t afraid of cross bunkers. If someone wanted to stiffen it up, they could use cross bunkers or more bunkering in the fairway. You could try to hit the big drive and risk it or hit a shorter club and hit a longer iron in.”

Of course, what all classic courses are battling is technology: a ball that flies farther than ever when hit with a driver that springs it like a trampoline. This is an issue golf’s two governing bodies are addressing, with an update issued in March. Observers think this is the time for changes to the equipment.

“With all due respect to the players, it’s not them working out that’s making the ball go farther,” said Geoff Shackelford, a golf course architect and commentator. “You put technology in their hands that’s 10 years old, and they’re going to go backwards. Technology that’s 30 years old — they’ll really go backwards.”

“There are so many things Augusta can do to make it tough,” Shackelford added. “It’s not going to become irrelevant, but it does lose some of the charm when you’re taking away some of the things we’ve come to know.”

Shackleford noted that previous attempts to roll back distance were met with resistance, but not so the March announcements from the United States Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. The technology, he said, is making it harder to stand out as a player. “It probably mutes some of the super elite players’ extra special skills.”

Length, though, can be misleading at Augusta. Greg Norman was among the longest players of his era. When he found himself in a playoff in 1987 with Seve Ballesteros, whose short game made up for wild tee shots, and Larry Mize, a comparatively short hitter, it looked like Norman had the advantage.

But that’s not how it ended. On the second playoff hole, Mize chipped in for a birdie to win the playoff.

“With his length, Greg had an advantage,” Mize said. “Thank God golf is more than length. The longest hitters aren’t always winning the Masters.”

Still, Mize said he, too, would be in favor of the U.S.G.A. addressing what technology has done to distance.

“I know it’s hard to bring it back,” Mize said. “But I’m hopeful that 20 years from now golfers won’t be hitting it any further. I’m optimistic that Augusta will still be relevant. It’s a special place and a special event.”

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