Geoff Shackelford: The Tee Box Affair at Augusta National

A real-life, Grishamesque thriller is coming in April, full of high-stakes machinations, Southern charm, and unsuspecting protagonists

How, you ask, could a closely mown rectangle become a non-coma-inducing potboiler? The intrigue centers around the forthcoming fuss over a tee at Augusta National debuting after years of speculation. Anyone with a golf pulse will opine on the impact this massive undertaking might have on 90 or so players attacking the fabled 13th during the tradition unlike any other.

There is so much anticipation around the new tee that Masters Chairman Fred Ridley could break out in a new rendition of Shoutin’ in That Amen Corner and the only press conference follow-ups would center around the most beloved par five in golf. Because after years of land purchases, rerouting Augusta Country Club, and fending off questions about the timing, Ridley okayed the addition of a new tee 35 yards back, with 10 or so yards of leeway in either direction. Even the least inquisitive Masters watcher might wonder why the old 510-yard tee was jettisoned and whether the big extension will work as hoped.

tee box
Illustration by Tim Bower

The club’s design team and data crunchers have likely positioned the tee in the sweet spot of agony, skill, prayer, and a little luck. The additional yardage should antagonize players into having a go even if they should not. Will they agonize, pace, and chat out all of the options before attempting to clear that innocuous little tributary to Rae’s Creek? All for a green jacket and the best free annual dinner invite in all of sports?

There will be pressure on the “Cup and Tee Marker Placement Committee” to show off Augusta National’s pricey new addition in a way that restores the “momentous decision” as cited by Bobby Jones. Ridley holds the words as gospel. So he green-lit this spring’s most anticipated big-budget action thriller to put the decision back, even if the corner backdrop takes a few years to fill in and resemble the old wall of flora and fauna. But there is also a possibility that the club’s minimalist two-tee system has eliminated flexibility, meaning on cool or windy days the 13th turns into lay-up central.

There is a charm to Augusta National’s quaint above-ground presentation of only two low-profile rectangles per hole (or one long one on the 3rd, 6th, and 16th). The simple rectangles are accented by small pine-branch markers and tasteful benches, except at the first tee where a classic white table and umbrella sit. The quaintness sets a soothing tone—unless your job is to set the course up in April, when wild weather swings and high-profile traditions combine to make the highly scrutinized job a delicate task.

For all of the club’s private ways and freedom to do as it pleases, every golfer on earth believes they have a small stake in the Masters. Tilt the setup too far in any direction and the peanut gallery pounces when the par fives are all risk and light on thrill-inducing reward. This sense of ownership is traceable to the respectful way Augusta National treats guests both in person and watching at home. Plus, the holes have become extra-special old friends to whom we’ve formed an emotional attachment even if we’ve never played them. This bond even bleeds into the everyday game, where other courses have long copied elements of the Masters presentation regardless of cost or need.

But in a long overdue plot twist, the golf world appears to be moving away from Augusta National’s bold (and expensive) approach. One centered around a love of deep-green turf, bright blue ponds, bunker sand visible from Mars, and a set of tees used primarily one week a year. The pricey expansion of Amen Corner seems unlikely to motivate courses into buying up real estate simply to get long irons in the hands of some young whippersnappers. Nor are many courses sticking to a two-tee system when everyone from the late Alice Dye—the Godmother of adding tees to make the game more fun—to modern minimalists is discovering that greater elasticity appeals to more golfers.

Some places have gone overboard with the box effect, littering otherwise gently flowing land with as many as seven on a hole. And then there are the color and naming schemes better suited to a Restoration Hardware catalog. The “box” approach also adds a killer amount of maintenance effort wasted when walk mowers must be used to handle tees in odd locales or to appease Augusta-like demands for super-tight striping effects.

This century we’ve seen several renovations and new designs with tees that are simply large areas of closely mown turf featuring plenty of flat areas for multiple sets. This can even allow for unencumbered mowing all the way to the green. Since the look is often tied into short grass coming off the previous hole, the green-to-tee walking experience also becomes more elegant. Course setup flexibility increases as does quality of turf. And the golfers playing way forward no longer feel singled out teeing off from a weird-looking coffin that’s also an eyesore.

Besides the more egalitarian vibe delivered by the fairway style of tee, precious hours once devoted to hand-mowing vanish when larger fairway units or triplex mowers get the job done in less time. Some argue against the increase in maintained “fairway,” but plenty of superintendents will happily take 30 manpower hours a week once devoted to walk-mowing little boxes and put them into more practical projects. Golfers also get to say goodbye to the end of misaligned tees that (supposedly) influenced their bad tee shots.

Last year’s PGA at Southern Hills showed off this look and even delivered much-needed options when the May weather turned strangely cool. The same flexibility will be available at this year’s U.S. Open at L.A. Country Club. But down in Augusta, where the second cut of rough has become a dominant aesthetic and the small membership needs only two tees per hole? The 13th tee box verdict will be in the hands of golf’s vast grand jury. We will hear player testimony, monitor every nuance, and soon find out if Augusta National put some of the Amen back into Amen Corner. Take that, Grisham.

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