'They've ruined it. It's a big part of my life and I hate to see it changed'

It takes a lot to anger Jack Nicklaus these days, but course alterations at Augusta have done just that
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Over the years, the Augusta members have become rather blasé to placard-bearers blocking their Bentleys' path up Magnolia Lane. A little while back it was the black civil rights activists they ignored before the colour and gender of the objectors changed when Martha Burk and her white suffragettes arrived banging at their gates. Equality, eh? How very, very tiresome.

But next week will they find it so easy to wave off the sight of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player marching in a circle around their braziers? And will they really be able to resist reading these particular placards that will scream "Save Augusta", "Beauty Before Brawn" and, most pertinently, "Masters Champions Are For Life, Not Just Sundays in April"?

It is stretching the point, of course, to suggest this holy triumvirate would resort to such measures. As former winners The Golden Bear, The King and The Man in Black would never have to stand outside as they are honorary members. But the sentiment itself is not being stretched. Because the legends are furious with the course changes Augusta has made since last year and have been quick to articulate their fury.

"They've ruined it," barked Nicklaus. "I used to love the place but now I'm not so sure," lamented Palmer. "What are they going to do in the future, put the tees in the streets?" quipped Player. And so the gloves have been taken off before the fight proper has even begun and with these three in their corner there will be nothing stopping the modern professionals from coming out swinging. Be sure, Masters week is going to be dominated by this controversy as the question "Have they ruined Augusta?" hangs heavy in the Georgia air. If the reaction so far is any gauge the answer will be a resounding, "Too damn right they have". They have added a scowl to golf's Mona Lisa she did not need.

Augusta being Augusta, though, they will not listen. They may not even be bothered to respond, no matter how many other prestigious voices join on to an ever-growing clamour that already includes the world No 1, Tiger Woods, both Ryder Cup captains in Ian Woosnam and Tom Lehman and a few former winners in Jose Maria Olazabal, Bernard Langer and Mike Weir. Augusta's curt reply to Nicklaus and Palmer spoke volumes of their indifference to criticism.

"No, Mr Johnson has no opinion about their comments," declared a spokesman. "Every past champion is entitled to his point of view."

Mr Johnson is, of course, Hootie and he has been the man with the plan they have all loved to pan. It is no coincidence that his rise to chairmanship came just as they were setting out on their policy of Tiger-proofing the course which so unwittingly, and so ironically, played into Mr Woods's hands. Four years ago came the first mass bulldozing as 285 yards were added to the layout cultured so magically in 1933 by Bobby Jones, and now, they have just put on another 155 yards by lengthening six holes (the first, fourth, seventh, 11th, 15th and 17th). This makes it more than 500 yards longer than it was for Woods's watershed 12-shot victory in 1997. Or to put it another way, another bogeyable par four. When Player bemoans the demise of the shorter, more skilful player of which he was the finest example, it is hard not to sympathise. "This is now strictly a long-hitters' course," asserted the three-times champion.

However, it is not just the lengthening that has triggered anger. Nicklaus understands why, with the relentless progression of technology and driving distances, they have sought refuge for their beloved National in the tape measure. His main beef is with the narrowing of the fairways by planting new pines and by growing once non-existent rough. This, he says, has destroyed Jones's vision of giving players latitude off the tee so they could choose different angles into the famously slick greens.

"I think they've ruined it from a tournament standpoint," said the six-times winner. "Augusta is a big, big part of my life, and I love it. That's why I hate to see them change it. They've altered the nature of the course. Bobby Jones wanted a second-shot golf course. They've completed eliminated what he tried to do."

There have been whispers that Nicklaus, Palmer and Player are simply sounding off because their proud noses have been put out by not being asked to assist in the amendments (Nicklaus's catty remark that the alterations appear as if they have been done "by someone who doesn't know how to play golf" has only poured paraffin on this claim). But when such an honest and modest professional as Langer stands up you just know this runs far deeper than a personal issue.

"I totally agree with Jack," said the 1985 and 1993 winner. "The fairways used to be 40 to 80 yards wide and there were certain sides of them you'd hit for the right angle. Now they're so narrow it takes most of these angles out and therefore most of the strategy. It's not nearly as interesting now. It's just stand up and boom."

Indeed, it is the "boom" factor that has caused most consternation. Even Woods, the most feared "boomer" of all, wonders why the need for the latest upheavals. The 30-year-old maintains there has not been enough time to evaluate the changes made to the course in 2002 because it has always rained before or during the tournament in the last three tournaments.

"We have yet to have it hard and dry and fast for the entire week," said Woods. "If we do, with these new tee locations, over par will win. Either way, it [the lengthening] will eliminate a lot of guys." But how many? Well, if what Ernie Els said to Nicklaus at a dinner recently is true then quite dramatically and quite calamitously if it is indeed a genuinely competitive field that Augusta have been chasing.

"I said to him, 'Ernie, how many can win the tournament? Is there 10 guys who can?'" Nicklaus recalled. "Ernie said, 'I think you're being generous.' He said about six or eight. That's not what the Masters is all about." Expect fireworks then. If not on the course, then definitely off it.