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Augusta National Changes: "Buzzkill" or Return to Long Run Form

2009 April 9
by Brian Goff

Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel writes:

The 13th is the end of Amen Corner and these days the golfers don’t have a prayer. It was once a 465-yard par 5 that was conducive to thrilling eagles that could lead to dramatic comebacks. Now it’s a 510-yard dogleg that forces golfers to lay up safely unless they just uncorked the most magnificent of drives. Safe should be reserved for the U.S. Open though, where survival is the goal. Back-nine shot making, incredible runs and come-from-behind drama are what the Masters is supposed to be about.

The last few years we’ve seen nothing of the sort. Whether it is two separate lengthenings of the course, adverse weather or a combination of both, where the roar once raged, it’s been ambivalence by the azaleas.Did they Tiger-proof this place or thrill-proof it? “It’s not the same,” Tiger Woods said. “The golf course is so much longer and so much more difficult; you just don’t have the same amount of birdie opportunities that you used to have. The scores reflect it.”

The “ruining” Augusta theme and “Tiger-proofing” theme have run rampant the last couple of years with just passing mention of 30 mph winds or cold, cold temps. Wetzel does muster a wave of the hand to the idea that Bob Hope Desert Classic-type scores may be selective memory:

the romance associated with those specific memories has clouded reality though. As the [Augusta] Chronicle’s Scott Michaux pointed out, back-nine heroics are actually rare here. Only six players have shot 33 or better to win the Masters while 22 won despite failing to break par 36. Everyone remembers Nicklaus’ back-nine 30 to win in 1986. They forget his limp-home-to-a-green-jacket in 1972.

Both the players and their media enablers have little sense of longer run history — a common problem in data analysis. As some of the people involved with the course changes have noted, the changes only attempt to restore approach shots to by-gone levels. Tiger hitting a 9-iron into the par 5 15th or Phil hitting a wedge into the “long” par 4 11th did not reflect the kind of shot making of the 1986 run by Nicklaus or earlier tournaments. I watched a 1986 re-run last night. In his 1986 run, Nicklaus hit a 4-iron into 15. Seve Ballesteros (a long hitter) what appeared to be a 3-iron into 13. Nicklaus hit a 5-iron into 18. A few years back, a mid-to-late 40-something Tom Kite hit a driver/9-iron into 18 — Tom Kite, a 9-iron!

Variability in scoring produced great back-nine, Sunday drama — some high, some low, not just low and lower. The crazy weather of the last two years put a premium on conservative play. My guess is that better weather will restore scoring and drama on Sunday to the “salad days” (in my view) of the 1980s and before — not the Bob Hope DC days of the late 1990s.

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