Rightly won, but the thrill has gone

Even in defeat Tiger Woods left his mark on the 2008 Masters, a tournament deservedly won by South Africa’s Trevor Immelman on Sunday, but depressingly lost in the eyes of those who view the annual rites at Augusta National as golf’s best opportunity to convince the world that the sport is capable of scaling the heights of drama and excitement.

”It is like a United States Open golf course,” Woods said of Alistair MacKenzie’s classic layout after his level-par opening round. By this Woods meant it was boring, a regimented challenge that had been stripped of the nuances and subtleties — and thrills and spills — that had long made it the game’s greatest theatre.

The trouble with saying what Woods said, especially on a day when 18 other players in the field had broken par, is that it sounds churlish. Likewise, the trouble with arguing he was absolutely right is that it might be misinterpreted as failing to give Immelman his just deserts.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Immelman has one of the best swings in the game and will probably win more majors, although just how many depends on how much he continues to improve his putting. But all of that doesn’t change the fact that Immelman’s first major victory will be remembered mostly for the tedium of the final day.

For this the winner and his playing partner, Brandt Snedeker, must take at least a smidgen of blame. Playing as a two-ball, they took almost five hours to complete their round on Sunday and finished a long way behind the group in front of them. This was indefensible, even allowing for the fact that so much was at stake. Slow golf is boring golf, as the spectators at the course made clear by departing the premises in droves long before the final round was over. Presumably television viewers were driven away, too, although we will have to await the ratings figures to confirm in what numbers.

Meanwhile, a doctoral thesis could be written on whether the effect of the so-called second cut is a good thing, because it means those players who find themselves in it can’t control their ball as well as they can from the fairway, or a bad thing, because its presence means that balls that might once have rolled off into the trees are now held up in longer grass, thereby mitigating poor shots.

Such arguments are the kind of stuff that golf-course architects, and those with an interest in the subject, obsess about. Meanwhile, the wider public might think they don’t care about such detail. But they do. They care because they watched Sunday’s final round and wondered why the Masters is no longer the spectacle it used to be.

Here is why. Because of the course changes, players no longer have the chance to make Sunday afternoon charges up the leader board, as Nicklaus did in 1986 by shooting 30 on the back nine to win. The players in the lead know this, just as they know that if they can play conservatively and get to the clubhouse without making too many mistakes they will win.

This is exactly what Immelman did, albeit with a few early stumbles. That his progress along Augusta’s back nine was not accompanied by roars did not bother him one iota and why should it have done? He won, after all. Yet one man’s hard-earned victory does not refute the weight of evidence suggesting it was won in disappointing circumstances. — Â

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