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It’s a longer, meaner haul to win Masters

Tiger Woods studies a putt on the first hole during the 2000 Masters. No. 1, which has been lengthened to 455 yards, is one of several holes at Augusta National that has been upgraded in the past several years.
 (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Tiger Woods studies a putt on the first hole during the 2000 Masters. No. 1, which has been lengthened to 455 yards, is one of several holes at Augusta National that has been upgraded in the past several years. (File/Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Thomas Bonk Los Angeles Times

AUGUSTA, Ga. — There’s a large surprise waiting behind the two-story hedges that separate the pine trees of Augusta National Golf Club from the concrete of Washington Road. When the Masters is played in a few short months, it’s going to be the longest one ever.

A full 155 yards have been added to six holes, and the course now extends 7,445 yards – 520 yards longer than it was in 1999. This makeover marks the third time in the last seven years that the historic course laid out by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie has been significantly toughened.

Augusta National now ranks as the second-longest course in major championship history, trailing only the 7,514-yard long Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, where the 2004 PGA Championship was played.

There is greater trouble everywhere you look, beginning with the 455-yard first hole, which is 20 yards longer than it was last year. The tee box was moved back 25 yards three years ago and if it’s moved much farther, it’s going to be at the front door of the Eisenhower Cabin.

Coaxing a golf ball to land on the fourth green won’t be much different from dropping a marble into a rowboat from 240 yards. That’s 35 yards longer than last year.

It has even drawn the attention of Tiger Woods.

“Well, four is brutal,” he said.

Woods will use a five-wood that he recently added to his bag specifically for this hole.

If the fourth hole doesn’t get your attention, then perhaps the revamped seventh will. It’s 85 yards longer than it was in 1999, when Jose Maria Olazabal won his second Masters. In its newest transformation, the tee was moved back 40 yards and the hole plays at 450 yards, the view to the green framed by tall pine trees that appear to be closing in on each side.

For every change at Augusta National, the longer hitters are going to benefit, but only if they hit the ball straight, and that’s part of the overall plan behind the latest alteration. Fred Couples, who played the course after it opened in October, said the intent of the makeover is obvious, even to him.

“I can’t take too much into this little brain,” he said. “I think we’re all talented enough and for all of the length, it’s very, very tight, so for a shorter hitter playing No. 7, if he hits four really good drives down the middle of the fairway, I would say he’s got an advantage.

“But if Tiger Woods hits four really good drives, or Vijay (Singh) or Davis (Love III) or Ernie Els, I don’t know a course they don’t have an advantage on. So you have to keep it in play.

“I told David Toms, `You know, you’ll have an advantage, believe me. You drive it so great and you’re great with a three-iron and four-iron and a five-wood.’ But if the greens are rock hard, there are about eight guys that can win. And it’s a given. I named about five of them already.”

At Sherwood Country Club, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., during the Target World Challenge, Couples told some other players about the lengthening of the course and his comments inspired some strict attention.

Hootie Johnson, the chairman of Augusta National, doesn’t think players will be alarmed by the changes to the course.

“These are the greatest players in the world, so I wouldn’t expect them to be frightened,” Johnson said in a response to an e-mail.

Woods said he’s already thinking about the seventh, even though he hasn’t played the course since the changes were made in time for opening day at Augusta National, a fall and winter club, in mid-October. The work began in late May, and three construction crews were used. Tom Fazio was once again the architect of record.

“Seven used to be just a great little short par four where you could take the chance, well, ‘I could try and fit a driver up there.’ Now, driver, I hope I can get onto the flat area.’” Woods said. “It’s a totally different mind-set. Now, I just wonder if we’re going to be in the fifth fairway. It’s got to be close.”

Actually, the new seventh tee required the removal of a maintenance shed that was indeed close to the fifth fairway. Seven trees were added, two on the left side of the fairway, and five on the right.

The 11th hole ranks as the fourth toughest since statistics were first kept in 1942 (the 495-yard 10th is the most difficult), and it’s now 15 yards longer at 505 yards. Plus, 17 pine trees were added to the right side of the fairway. In 2002, the tee was moved back 35 yards and last year, 36 pine trees were added on the right of the fairway, which amounts to a small forest of 53 additional trees in the last two years, thus taking away a possible bailout area for the players if the pin is on the back left of the green.

Colin Montgomerie has only seen pictures of the changes, but they have had an impact.

“My goodness, it looks very, very different again,” he said. “And every year we go back there, there are changes. There are certain holes now where it’s going to be very, very difficult.

“The days of shooting 64 or 65 around the Masters course, I think you’ll find this year, are a thing of the past.”

Not that those scores have ever come frequently at Augusta. Toms had the last round of 64 at the Masters in 1998. The course record of 63 has been accomplished only twice.

Two more changes are ready, but they aren’t the most significant of the lot. At the 530-yard par-five 15th, the tee is 30 yards back and 20 yards more to the golfer’s left. The 440-yard par-four 17th is 15 yards longer and trees down the left side have been thinned to bring the 65-foot Eisenhower Tree – 210 yards from the tee – back into the line of sight.

Johnson has presided over the most dramatic enhancements to Augusta National since he took over as chairman from Jack Stephens in 1998. The reformation began slowly in 1999, when the first, 15th and 17th were changed. In 2002, nine holes were altered and 285 yards were added.

Johnson said the newest changes to the course are consistent with the ideals associated with the competition that the club has tried to maintain from its first invitational tournament in 1934.

“Our objective has been to maintain the integrity and shot values of the golf course as envisioned by Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie,” he said. “We also continued our goal of placing a premium on accuracy off the tee. I think our recent changes accomplished those objectives.”

In a magazine article from 1959 when he wrote a hole-by-hole analysis of Augusta National, Jones said the tee shot from the fourth “is usually a strong iron or even a four-wood or three-wood.” He also wrote that the second shot at the 11th “is usually played with a three-iron or stronger club.”

It is clear that the recent changes were intended to put these clubs back in the players’ hands. But it is also clear that the greens are much harder and faster than in the distant past, making it difficult for the ball to hold the greens.

Woods, a four-time Masters champion, said there should be some sort of trade-off.

“Make the greens as slow as they used to be,” he said. “The greens are running 12 and 13 (on the stimpmeter). They never ran 12 or 13 back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. But hey, we’ve all got to play it. That’s the thing.”

Said Couples: “The greens aren’t the same, we all know that. … They’re trying to get it to where we hit the same clubs that maybe someone hit in the ‘70s. I wasn’t there, but you see the highlights. It was pretty slow. Now they’re like the fastest greens in the world. It’ll be interesting.”

Woods laughed when asked whether Johnson had consulted with him on any of the changes.

“That’s the funniest thing I ever heard,” he said.

Woods also said he’s fine with what has transpired at Augusta National – length, accuracy and the speed of the greens.

“Before, you could bomb it, who cares, go find it, get around the greens, save yourself,” he said. “But now you have to have precision on your drive, drive it out there with some length; they brought that back into the game, with the first cut (rough) and the length.”

Couples, who has made the cut in all 21 Masters he has played, won his only major at Augusta in 1992. He said he’s ready to try for another one and whatever is done to the golf course won’t matter to him.

“It’s my favorite spot, so I think they could make the course smaller and keep us out there for 11 hours and I really don’t think I’d complain,” he said.

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