Change not always good at supersized Masters

The guardians of all that is good and green at Augusta National couldn’t have been happier when their new leader went before the assembled media and declared that he would rather jump naked into the pond on the 15th hole than do anything to spoil their little tournament.

OK, so Billy Payne didn’t say anything about skinny dipping on Wednesday. He didn’t mention Martha Burk, either.

Still, they stood, green jackets on, in the back of the room as Payne invoked the spirits of Bobby Jones and Cliff Roberts and pledged to uphold the traditions and customs they held dearly when they started the Augusta National Invitation Tournament 73 years ago.

The tournament is now the Masters, and the name change is one of many that have unfolded on the rolling hills of the world’s most revered golf course over the years. At times it seems the only constant is the big oak tree shading the clubhouse lawn and the tasty peach cobbler served on the verandah.

Arnold Palmer was musing about that the other day, remembering years when bunkers were added, tees shifted and greens rebuilt.

Long before persimmon became titanium and Tiger Woods came on the scene, they tinkered with the golf course, trying to get it just right.

”The golf course here started changing the first year I ever played it,” Palmer said.

Palmer couldn’t have imagined some of the changes. To get an idea, on Thursday morning he’ll hit a ceremonial first tee shot from a spot where he used to practice his putting.

There won’t be any women in green jackets watching, so maybe it’s true that some things never change at Augusta National. Like his predecessor, Hootie Johnson, Payne dismissed any talk about coed membership on the eve of the Masters, saying it was a private club matter.

Players don’t care much about that, anyway. To them it was always a manufactured issue.

What they do care about is that Augusta National now looks like it is on steroids, complete with the corresponding stubble on the edges. They care about whether they need to hit driver to reach the par-three fourth hole, and trying to stop a seven-iron on the tabletop that is the 15th green.

They worry that only a few chosen power hitters can win these days, and wonder what the stewards in green jackets will do next to battle the technology demons who have invaded the game of golf.

”I’m not waving the white flag or anything, but with all the changes it’s very difficult for my type of game,” Jeff Sluman said.

There weren’t any players in the interview room for Payne’s debut press conference as chairperson of Augusta National, but they would have had reason for both relief and concern.

Relief in that Payne thinks the huge changes on six holes last year may have been enough for now to keep players from overpowering the course. Concern in that the green jackets seem intent on making even power players hit six-irons to greens.

The golf course, they believe, should play the way it did in Jones’ day.

”It’s something that we must be always aware of and never, ever be afraid to do whatever we have to do to protect this great course,” Payne said.

Consider the job done. If anything, the green jackets have already gone too far.

A tournament that not that long ago could be won by Ben Crenshaw and Mark O’Meara is now limited to a dozen or so players who have the strength to still reach the elongated 15th in two or can hit their drives far enough to have a decent iron over the pond to the 11th green.

The field is small to begin with, but the changes favour so few players that Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have now won five of the last six Masters.

But that’s not the only problem. The worst thing is that they’ve taken away a lot of the fun of Sunday afternoon.

The old adage was that the Masters began on the back nine on Sunday, when it was almost always a mad dash to the finish. Birdies, eagles and meltdowns were in abundance, and it was almost a guarantee there would be some grand theatre of the green.

As late as three years ago, three players in the top five shot 31 on the back nine on Sunday, including a leaping Mickelson. Last year, the leaders struggled to break par on the final nine, and Mickelson won in a yawner.

Before Woods ran away with the Masters a decade ago, the green jackets never used to care much about what score won. Now they’re using distance and an unnatural cut of rough to try to guard par like the USGA does at the US Open, even though viewers for the most part couldn’t care less if the winner is eight under or 18 under.

The tees are never going to be moved back up, and that’s fine.

But eliminating the rough would not only make things more interesting, but draw more players into contention.

At the very least, it would make for more exciting eagle chances on Sunday afternoon.

It’s one change Jones would surely approve of. The course would play more the way he meant it to play.

And the keepers of all good and green could rest easy, knowing they did it right. ‒ Sapa-AP

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