Letter from St. Andrews: National Offense

Once again our friends at Augusta National Golf Club have seen fit to lengthen their playground—this time by 155 yards to a total of 7,445.

“As in the past, our objective is to maintain the integrity and shot values of the golf course as envisioned by Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie,” said Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson in announcing the changes.


Let’s face it, if Jones and MacKenzie could have been cryogenically preserved and brought back to life for this year’s tournament, they’d take one look at what’s happened to their golf course and then head straight back to the freezer. Augusta National is no longer a Jones/Mackenzie course—it’s a Jones/MacKenzie/Clifford Roberts/Perry Maxwell/Robert Trent Jones/George Cobb/John LaFoy/George Fazio/Joe Finger/Byron Nelson/Jay Morrish/Bob Cupp/Jack Nicklaus/Tom Fazio course—and in the process of all that revision the guys at the wheel have, to borrow a Scots expression,  lost the plot.

Hootie, if you think your founding architects would approve of what you and your predecessor chairmen have wrought, it’s time you started reading something other than putts. For starters, pick up a copy of MacKenzie’s The Spirit of St. Andrews, written the year he completed Augusta National. Among the views he expressed were these:

* Courses are ruined by the well-intentioned but injudicious attempts of their green committees to improve upon nature.

* The more money clubs have had to spend, the more their courses have deteriorated.

* It is possible to have too high a degree of perfection.

As for Jones, he felt that an ideal golf course should:

* Give pleasure to the greatest possible number of players.

* Require strategic thought as well as skill.

Now, somehow I doubt that the electronically climate-controlled greens, talcum powder bunkers, meticulously manicured fairways, and ponds dyed the color of lime-scented aftershave are quite what Alister and Bobby had in mind. Nor is a 7,445-yard golf course with two par fours of more than 490 yards, no matter how far the pros are hitting the ball.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the latest raft of alterations and see what the Good Doctor had to say about them.

Hole No. 1: The tee has been moved back 20 yards. Trees have been added to the left side of the fairway. New yardage: 455.

MacKenzie: “When discussing the question of altering a hole, the chief consideration that should exercise the mind is, ‘are we going to add appreciably to the interest and excitement of the hole?’”

No. 1, once a masterpiece of minimalist design, has just lost its charm. Three quarters of the Masters field now will be incapable of carrying the crest of the hill, let alone the single bunker on the right side of the fairway, and will thus have to play mid- to long-iron approach shots from an uphill stance. The brilliant strategy designed into the hole—offering all players the chance to take on the bunker in exchange for a simpler shot to the green—is now all but irrelevant.

Hole No. 4: The tee has been moved back 35 yards. New yardage: 240.

MacKenzie: “How often have I seen a golf course ruined in the attempt to extend it to what is generally considered championship length.”

It’s not as if this hole has been massacred by the pros. Last year it was the third hardest hole on the course, and it was more than 50 years before anyone aced it in The Masters. Originally designed to mimic the artful 11th at the Old Course at St. Andrews—a hole of 172 yards—it has become just a glorified wallop. I think they lengthened this one simply because they could.

Hole No. 7: The tee has been moved back 40 yards. The green has been re-grassed to create a right-rear pin position. Trees have been added to the right and left side of the fairway. New yardage: 450.

MacKenzie: “There should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes—that is, interesting brassie shots, iron shots, pitch and run up shots.”

The seventh began its life as a drive-and-pitch par four, modeled after the 18th at the Old Course. Within five years the green was moved uphill and barricaded with bunkers. So much for the pitch shot. Still, for decades it at least remained, along with number three, a rare and refreshing short par four, played by the pros with long irons from the tee and short irons into the green. Now it’s a drive and a 6- or 7-iron to a green designed to welcome a wedge, and there’s little room for error—or imagination—on either shot.

Hole No. 11: The tee has been moved back 15 yards. Trees have been added to the right side of the fairway and the fairway has been shifted to the left. New yardage: 505.

MacKenzie: “Playing down fairways bordered by straight lines of trees is not only unartistic but makes for tedious and uninteresting golf.”

There are now more than 40 pines in an area that, not long ago, was a wide-open bailout zone. A hole that once offered multiple options from tee to green, now simply says beat it hard and straight twice, or else. Strategic golf, the philosophy MacKenzie and Jones so fervently embraced, has become penal golf.

Hole No. 15: The tee has been moved back 30 yards and shifted approximately 20 yards to the golfer’s left. Masters distance: New yardage: 530.

Okay, I suspect the creators would have few if any quarrels here. From the tee, 15 has always been a visually uninspiring hole, and repositioning the blocks may help a bit. More important, it will force more players to pause before gunning their second shots to the pond-guarded green, and that will add some excitement.

Hole No. 17: The tee has been moved back 15 yards.  New yardage: 440.

Mackenzie (as with hole number one): “When altering a hole, the chief consideration should be, ‘are we going to add to the interest and excitement?’”

The dullest hole on the finishing stretch has just become duller.  Increased distance will add neither interest nor excitement, just difficulty.

But MacKenzie’s most telling comment may have been this one: “If a course ever has to be altered it means that the architect was wrong in the first place.”

The truth is, MacKenzie and Jones made not one but two fundamental misjudgments when they created the Augusta National. First, they tried too hard to import the playing characteristics of a Scottish links. Both were big fans of the Old Course and in Augusta National they hoped to instill some of the “pleasurable excitement of links golf.”

“There is great fascination,” wrote MacKenzie, “in playing a shot with a maximum of topspin and seeing one’s ball climbing over hillocks, through hollows, curving right to left or left to right and finally lying dead at the hole. …there is nothing like the same excitement in watching the flight of a ball through the air.”

A noble—and if you’ll excuse some editorializing, totally accurate—view, but it works best on sandy, seaside turf, not Georgia clay. If the incessant tinkering with Augusta National has proved anything it is that one cannot transplant the fast-running, game of a seaside links to a forested, steeply rolling, cold-in-winter, steamy-in-summer horticultural nursery. At Augusta the ground game was doomed from the beginning, with the result that its wide-open design catered to just one class of player—the guy who could hit it a mile off the tee and leave himself short, high-lofted approaches that stop quickly—and the only way to thwart such a player is to give him a longer distance to toss his darts.

None of that would ever have become an issue had it not been for the second miscalculation. No one anticipated that the course would hold an organized professional tournament, let alone an iconic annual championship. Jones wanted nothing more than “a retreat” for him and some of his cronies. MacKenzie, to his credit, was aware of the advancing distance of the golf ball, and he routed the course in a double-loop that allowed some elasticity in the tees. But it’s a safe bet he didn’t expect his baby to stretch more than 700 yards.

It is the unfortunate confluence of those two mistakes that has brought the Masters to where it is now. The course where the stated intent was to give pleasure to all levels of golfer, has become a behemoth’s paradise where only the strong survive and few of the members can break 80 from the front tees, let alone the back.

The worst part is that all the lengthening has had little effect on Tiger and company. Last year Woods and Chris DiMarco tied for first at 12 under par. Interestingly, three months later Tiger won the Open Championship at St. Andrews, by five strokes, with a score of 14 under, won on a course that was similar in scorecard distance to Augusta National but played much, much shorter. (Tiger’s drives at Augusta averaged 291 yards while his drives on the Old Course averaged 341.)

One could argue, of course, that the Masters scores were low because Augusta had received some green-softening rain, that if it had been dry and fast for four days the drives would have been longer but the scores would have been higher. Fine. You could also argue that, over the four days at St. Andrews there was barely a breath of wind, the element that puts the teeth in any links course.

Yet the old lady held up well. She held up because the game played here for those four days was the same game that has been played here for four centuries, a game calling for not just power, not just artillery practice, but a full measure of imagination, creativity, and ball control.

“St. Andrews retains its pristine charm. I doubt if even in a hundred years’ time a course will be made which has such interesting strategic problems or creates such varied shots. It is the standing example of a course which is pleasurable to all classes of golfers, not only to the thirty handicappers but to the plus-fourteen man if there ever was or will be such a person.”

So said Alister MacKenzie, and I couldn’t agree more.