New Augusta? As good as always

US Masters: After staging the perfect tournament last year, there was only one thing to do. Make it even better
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The Independent Online

Those clever people at Augusta National have done it again. The 66th US Masters, which starts on Thursday, is the most eagerly anticipated since, er, last year. It was then that Tiger Woods turned the tournament into the greatest show in golf, becoming the first player to win four consecutive major championships.

Like his grand entrance in 1997, when he won by 12 strokes, Woods' win appeared preordained. Unlike four years earlier, Tiger was pushed all the way by David Duval and Phil Mickelson. Having the world's best player triumph in historic circumstances over two of his closest challengers was as good as golf gets.

Yet at Augusta National, perfection can always be improved upon. Since last year's tournament, no fewer than nine of the holes have been lengthened, adding 285 yards to the course. Next weekend's BBC coverage could be co-presented by the Ground Force team, who would no doubt love to get their hands on the azaleas and those water features.

Since Woods blew away the field in '97, there has been talk of "Tiger-proofing" Augusta. Five years ago, Woods set a new tournament-record score of 18 under par. He was only two strokes worselast year. Some have suggested the scores will go up by a shot and a half a round, but the work done by architect Tom Fazio, in consultation with Augusta's chairman, Hootie Johnson, and former Masters champions like Arnold Palmer, was not inspired by thoughts of protecting against low scores, nor with any particular player in mind.

"The objective was to give the course strength for the major event that it holds," Fazio said. "It was considered to be a course of strong par-fours. But it's hard to call par-fours strong when players are hitting a driver and a wedge."

"I spoke to Hootie about the changes and they are not for me," said Woods. "They're for the kids that are coming up. There are kids in college and high school who hit the ball further than I do."

The result is that even the longer hitters will have to hit more middle-iron approach shots, as well as having to work the ball off the tee more. Of the 14 driving holes, seven now require a draw and five a fade, with the third and the seventh straight but suffocatingly narrow.

In the final round last year, Woods was only 45 yards from the green at the seventh and had only a 75-yard sand- wedge approach to the 18th. The closing hole has been altered most drastically, with the tee pushed back 60 yards, and five yards right, the fairway bunkers enlarged and the green relaid with a new back-right pin placement. Woods hit a monstrous drive of 330 yards on his way to birdieing the 72nd hole last year but almost everyone in the field was hitting in nine- and eight-irons, and the fairway bunkers were hardly in play. It will be very different now. In cold conditions last October, Tiger hit his approach with a five-iron while his playing partner, Mark O'Meara, hit a three-wood.

O'Meara, like Sandy Lyle, is one of the few champions to birdie the 18th to win the Masters. It could become an even rarer feat. "Depending on the wind, a par would be like making a birdie," Woods said of the 18th. "I think if you play that hole in 16 [four pars] for the week, you're going to pick up a shot on the guys at the top of the leaderboard." Six other par-fours have been lengthened, including the 10th and 11th, both of which play downhill but which already rank as two of the most difficult. The first, seventh, ninth and 14th are the others. At the ninth and the 14th, the "second cut" on the right- hand side has been removed, so balls are not stopped from running into the trees.

At the first, where the tee has been creeping back for years, the carry over the fairway bunker on the right is now more than 300 yards. The same is true at the par-five eighth, now a genuine three-shotter for most. The other par-five to be lengthened is the 13th, where the tee has been pushed back 25 yards on to land bought from the neighbouring Augusta Country Club for $500,000.

At 7,270 yards, Augusta now has a yardage befitting a modern major championship. Whether the chances of the longer hitters have been enhanced is the question. At the 7,213-yard Atlanta Athletic Club, David Toms, who ranked 96th in driving distance on the US Tour last year, beat Mickelson by laying up at the 72nd hole. Paul Azinger believes the changes level the playing field. "The difference between hitting a six-iron and an eight-iron is not nearly as much as between eight-iron and wedge," he said.

"You are going to see guys missing more greens because they are hitting longer shots," said Woods. "Chipping and putting has always been an intricate part of the game at Augusta. It's going to be quite a challenge, but a fun challenge. It doesn't really matter if you are long or short at Augusta, whoever's driving well and putting well will be in contention."

Though the 14 different winners on the US Tour this season contain seven first-time winners, the others are all Masters champions or in the world's top 10: Sergio Garcia, Mickelson, Chris DiMarco, Jose Maria Olazabal, Ernie Els, Woods and Vijay Singh. If DiMarco stands out, he was the halfway leader at Augusta last year. The other possible contender must be Duval, who has finished in the top six for the last four years. Darren Clarke, after his second to Singh in Houston last week, heads the British and Irish contingent. Olazabal, having sorted out his driving even if it is a continual struggle, is second on the US money list with six top 10s in seven starts. His pedigree as the winner in 1994 and '99 is obvious, while Garcia, the low amateur in '99, is now ready to contend regularly in majors.

Of all the longer hitters, the one, other than Woods, perhaps with most control, good course-management and superb skill around the greens is Els, who a month ago was on a run of three consecutive strokeplay wins. The double US Open champion deserves a Green Jacket, but he will have to rip it off Tiger's back first. One of the best players in the world winning from a bunch of his peers? Now there's a novel idea.