No matter what changes are made, the marvel of Augusta course remains

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The Independent Online

There are no tour guides or marker posts but the instinctive urge of any first-time visitor to Augusta National, having marvelled in general at the scene laid out in front of the clubhouse, is to head for the 10th tee.

There are no tour guides or marker posts but the instinctive urge of any first-time visitor to Augusta National, having marvelled in general at the scene laid out in front of the clubhouse, is to head for the 10th tee.

Little do they know this will become an annual rite of passage should they be lucky enough to return.

It is the back-nine of Augusta that is so familiar from the television coverage, but the visitor is immediately swept downhill in a manner that is never captured on the flat TV screen, a deception puffingly confirmed upon regaining the rise back to the 18th green, the first tee and the clubhouse later on. Down the funnel of pines, the grass apparently greener than anywhere else and the sand of the bunkers a purer shade of white, past the 10th green and on down the 11th.

It is about halfway down the 11th fairway, when the land suddenly falls away again, that the pinch-yourself moment arrives. There ahead is Amen Corner, the 11th green with the pond in front on the left, and behind, Rae's Creek and an impossibly narrow strip of a putting surface that must be the 12th green.

Even early in the week, or more specifically on the Wednesday afternoon when the players and the crowds are over at the Par-Three contest and there are few souls around, there is the anticipation of great dramas to come, in common with any of the world's great sporting arenas.

That initial view from halfway down the 11th fairway will from this year be disrupted by a clump of 36 new trees planted just off the fairway and which, given no time at all, will appear to have been there forever. Though the hole has been lengthened and the tee moved to the right in the past, players were still getting a huge kick down the slope by hitting a massive hook out to the right. Not any more. (By the way, this was the hole that ranked most difficult last year.) Except from a new heating and cooling system under the 13th green, to match the one at the 12th, this is the only major change to the course for this year's 68th Masters Tournament. Which, after the tumultuous changes of the last few years when virtually every one of the par-fours and the par-fives has been stretched or altered, is a relief.

Jack Nicklaus claimed they would be teeing off "downtown" soon, but the lengthening of the course was necessary after even the rank and file pros, armed with modern technology, started overpowering the old subtleties of the course. But it will be interesting to see the players learning to adapt to the new course, especially if the course plays hard and fast.

The last two years it has been soft and wet after heavy rains which created a fearful stench once the chemically-enhanced greenery was mulched to mud.

New drainage has been put in under the busier walkways to help with the perfume problem.

Two years ago Tiger Woods became only the third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo, to win successive titles. Last year, Mike Weir, hardly one of the longer hitters, showed the course still caters for anyone playing well, with a stunning short game and who can putt like God. Weir's 104 putts for the week were the lowest ever recorded by a champion.

This year's Masters will also be the last time we will hail the King, at least for two days. Arnold Palmer, making his 50th appearance, won four times, in 1958, '60, '62 and '64, meaning he was involved in the green jacket ceremony, either putting on or helping into, for eight consecutive years. He got it back from Nicklaus once, for his last win, but not a second time.

We went through the tearful farewell routine a couple of years ago when Palmer said he wanted to go "before I get a letter". That was when the club were trying to persuade some of the older former champions to retire but Palmer and Nicklaus got together last year and proved that there are some issues over which the chairman, Hootie Johnson, can change his mind.

It was Bobby Jones, the founder of the club and the tournament, who instituted the lifetime exemption for past champions and he probably meant lifetime as in playing career but that's by the by. Next year Palmer, now 74, will probably move to the Honorary Starter's role, one of those variable Augusta traditions which is currently in abeyance.

Palmer and Nicklaus, 10 years his junior, would certainly not be interested in simply hitting an opening tee shot, as Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Sneed did in their latter years. But someone should remember that the legendary trio used to play nine holes in a buggy and before that completed 18 while they could.

Playing for the first time this year will be China's Zhang Lian-wei, who received a special invitation from the club. Zhang has the distinction of being the first Chinaman to win on the European Tour but there are others on the Asian Tour who would suggest Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee might have a better claim.

Jaidee and India's Jyoti Randhawa labelled the decision "political". If there is a commercial angle, it might be to do with television rights.

Overseas TV rights dwarf what Augusta would get from its home market, with the BBC, Japanese broadcasters and others providing $10m (£5.6m). Tickets sales will provide another $10m, with the price of a four-day tournament badge having risen from $125 to $175, the largest increase ever but still cheap by other golfing and sporting events. Add another $20m from the merchandise tent - the only place and the only time of the year the public can buy anything with an Augusta National emblem, and the loss of $7m from US television rights and sponsors Coca-Cola, IBM and Citicorp can be absorbed for a second year.

Johnson released the sponsors from their contracts and ran the Masters commercial-free on television for the first time last year after Martha Burk began her campaign to force Augusta to change their all-male membership.

Burk's protest rally last year was little attended - most people were more interested in whether Tiger would make the cut at the time - and she says she will not be repeating the exercise.

Instead, the chair of the National Council of Women's Organisations is working on a website exposing corporate connections with Augusta and is writing a book on how the club's discrimination is emblematic of the problems facing women in business. She disputes Johnson's assertion that the sponsors will willingly return to the Masters in the future.

Maybe, even, at some future Masters, without fanfare or acclaim, there will be one or more green jackets worn by a woman. If so, like every other change at Augusta, it will seem as if it was ever thus. On the other hand, don't hold your breath.