This April marks the seventieth anniversary of the Masters, and while tournaments on several continents are older, none can match its history, mystique and lore. The Masters is unlike anything else in the world of golf. Think about it: It's the only major championship that's played on the same course every year.
I have been fortunate over the past quarter- century to play nearly eighty competitive rounds at Augusta National, and they have been some of my most memorable—in terms of both pure elation and utter disappointment.
Like most classic courses, Augusta has been forced to reinvent itself through the years to keep up with technological developments. But most of the lengthening has occurred in the last seven years. In fact, the golf course is 155 yards longer than it was a year ago and 460 yards longer than it was in 1999. At 7,445 yards, Augusta National is now the second-longest course in major-championship history. Only Whistling Straits, at 7,514 yards for the 2004 PGA Championship, was longer.
No matter what changes a course makes, however, a good player is going to find a way to tame it—once he makes the necessary adjustments. Sure, there's a difference between a six-iron and a nine-iron, but these guys can stick it close no matter what club they have in their hands. That said, I'm not sure we'll see any sixty-threes like the one I shot in the first round a decade ago or the one Nick Price shot in the third round twenty years ago. The course is just too long and tough now.
What Augusta does better than any other course is blend significant changes seamlessly into the existing design. The quality of work done by the Masters committee is always phenomenal, and, from what I've heard, this year's work is no exception. Tees and fairways have been adjusted in such a way that the course looks like it hasn't been touched—it seems as if it's been there forever. In actuality, it bears only a passing resemblance to Alister MacKenzie's original design.
I think the big difference in this year's changes is that the club has tried to emphasize both power and accuracy. Technology has dramatically changed how modern golf is played at the professional level, and Augusta has adjusted as required to keep up. For many years, as the course got longer, the advantage shifted to guys who could just wing it—hit it as hard and as high as they could. At Augusta National, and every other golf course for that matter, power is a huge asset on the par fives. If you can reach them in two, particularly with a short or middle iron, you know you've got a fair chance of picking up four shots every day—basically, you're playing on a par-sixty-eight golf course.
But Augusta is and always will be about precision. You have to know where to land the ball to get a desirable lie in the fairway (though there are very few truly flat lies) and where to land it on the green for an uphill putt. Precision is an invaluable asset, especially when you're dialed in. In fact, there are a few guys out there, myself included, who request distances to the half yard. I struggled with distance control early on during the final round in 1996, and if you're off even a little bit at Augusta, the punishment is severe. If I had to hit it 155 yards, I hit it 153 that day, and those six feet can make the difference between a twenty-foot birdie putt and a forty-yard chip.
Case in point: One of the more confounding holes to me is number three, which was not altered this year. Most amateurs would love to be able to spin the ball backward, but for a professional there's no problem as frustrating as spinning it too much—nowhere more so than on the third hole at Augusta. That approach shot was always a nightmare for me. There was just nowhere to land the ball and keep it on the green. Once, not knowing what else to do, I hit my ball to the right side of the green and spun it sideways ninety feet left to the pin! That hole might not be as problematic anymore, given that today's ball doesn't spin as much.