Modernised lay-out returns players to challenge of past

US Masters: World No 1 Woods believes course changes suit shotmakers but speed of greens and second cut of rough will add to spectacle
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The Independent Online

What does Tiger Woods know, anyway? "Before everyone said you could drive it anywhere," Woods said of Augusta National and the changes – nine holes lengthened, 285 yards added to the course – that have taken place here since he won his second Green Jacket last year. Only in the Tiger era could such an attitude to the tee shots be taken at the home of the Masters.

The bombers that Woods has led into action over the last five years have destroyed the subtlety that was a hallmark of the original design by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie. Even as recently as the Nick Faldo era – three wins between 1989 and 1996 – plotting your way around the course was the essence of the challenge.

Woods changed all that. In the 1997 Masters, when he won the first major he played in as a professional by the indecent margin of 12 strokes, an average round at Augusta for Woods would contain 11 approach shots with a wedge. That included the par-five 15th hole, where Gene Sarazen in 1935 holed a four-wood for an albatross, the "shot heard around the world".

Woods hit no more than a seven-iron in to any par-four that week. Last year, although some modifications like the introduction of a "second cut" of semi-rough and alterations to the second, 15th and 17th holes have taken place in the last three years, Woods was only 45 yards from the green at the seventh, "chipped" an eight-iron to a foot at the 11th and needed only a 75-yard sand wedge shot for his approach to the last.

Yet it was not just Woods causing such mayhem. Few players needed more than a wedge or a nine-iron at the last. Tom Fazio, the architect who undertook the improvements, recalled the shock of the Augusta chairman, Hootie Johnson, at finding Phil Mickelson's drive only 94 yards from the green at the 11th, a hole that had been lengthened only recently. "We wondered if someone had laid up from the trees," Fazio said.

Throughout the history of the game, major advances in equipment have led to longer courses. Yet many of the great courses appeared stuck around 6,900 yards, particularly because ball technology had stood still.

That has changed drastically over the last two to three years with introduction of solid- core balls with enough control to be used by the leading players. Allied to the new hi-tech drivers and more athletic players, courses have had to respond. St Andrews was pushed over 7,000 yards and now Augusta stands at a modern 7,270 yards.

It is the right response at the right time. Further advances in technology may come but it will be a while before another such giant leap. Johnson has already publicly pondered introducing a "Masters ball", in effect a specification limit for tournament play, something that was discussed informally by the officials from the four majors last year.

The idea, typically, was drowned in moans from the players and their equipment sponsors. Last year, Nicklaus said something had to be done about the ball or soon they would be "teeing off downtown". When the six-times champion played at Augusta last October, Johnson had a sign saying "DOWNTOWN" placed on the tee marker at the 18th, which has been extended by 60 yards.

Nicklaus laughed at the joke and the 26-year-old Woods knows enough of his Augusta history to appreciate the thinking behind the most recent changes to the course. "Now it's a shotmaker's course again," he said.

"It starts on the tee. You have to shape your shots off the tee. Then we are going to be hitting the same clubs that they were in the past. The only problem is that greens are a lot harder and faster and on top of that you have the second cut of rough."

The undulating greens at Augusta have always been quick but it will be interesting to see, if given dry weather, the club allows them to get quite as burnt out as on a few occasions in the 1990s, when the severity of the greens was the course's only defence.

The genius of the original design was that it allowed the members to enjoy their golf and not to be embarrassed by, for example, high rough, but made the leading professionals work for their low scores. A birdie putt would not so much be defined by its proximity to the hole but the line.

A putt of the same distance might be a birdie chance on one side of the hole, but a three-putt horror from the other. The premium was therefore on putting the approach shot in the right place on the green. This, in turn, was helped by placing the drive in a particular spot on the fairway.

While the fairways looked wide, the preferred driving areas were narrow. Certain channels and mounds in the fairways could help but were made redundant by the new booming drivers which left only a wedge to the green, making control of the approach shot far more certain than with a longer iron.

Ten years ago, Golf Weekly magazine asked some of Europe's Masters champions to describe various holes. Faldo spoke about the 11th hole, where he won play-offs in 1989 and '90. In former years the approach was with a long-iron so Ben Hogan aimed away from the pond on the left and would deliberately miss the green on the right.

Faldo said: "The fairway is flat on the left and slopes right-to-left on the right. There's a groove running down the middle. If you hit it there, you're perfect. Then it's a four, five or six-iron to the green.

"I disagree with the Hogan theory because then you are left with a hellish chip. It's so quick. Larry Mize's shot [in the 1987 playoff against Greg Norman] was a complete fluke. He could never do it again. The ultimate approach is to hit a slight fade, holding it up into the wind.

"In my first play-off in '89 [against Scott Hoch], I had 209 yards to the hole. It was late in the evening, wet and misty with a little wind coming off the right. That was the best three-iron of my life. I thought: 'I've done it.' I was 20 feet below the hole and the putt came off perfect and dived into the hole. That was the ultimate feeling."

The 11th then measured 455 yards. It is now 490 yards, like the 10th, a few yards over the usual designation of a par-five. In Faldo's third win in 1996, he hit a memorable two-iron on to the green at the par-five 13th. Last year Woods was on in two with a three-wood and an eight-iron. In 1986, while Jack Nicklaus charged to a record sixth win, Seve Ballesteros found the water at the par-five 15th with a four-iron.

The same year, Norman pushed a four-iron right of the 18th green, while three years later he came up short with a five-iron. There should be more drama at the 18th this Sunday evening, but Fazio cannot wait until the following morning when a mountain of data will land on his desk. "We will have people charting every single shot," he said. "I can't wait to see how it turns out."

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