Back-nine roars at Augusta unlike any other

By Rex HoggardApril 4, 2009, 4:00 pm
The roar is distinctive, a pine-rattling clarion call that has announced charges and celebrated victories since Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie carved 18 ribbons of golf heaven from the former nursery.
The soundtrack to major championship history at times appeared dubbed along Augusta National Golf Clubs inward loop, from Arnies Army to Jack Nicklaus historic charge in 1986 to the modern variation of the theme that was introduced in 1997 when Tiger Woods lapped the field by a cool dozen.
Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson's duel with Ernie Els in 2004 produced big noise from the patrons. (Getty Images)
For more than seven decades, time was kept on the Grand Slam clock by the echoes reverberating from Augusta Nationals back nine on Sunday. But earlier this decade things started to change. Roars were replaced by stunned silence, birdies supplanted by bogeys, charges gave way to pile ups.
Its just quiet that last couple of Sundays Ive played there, said Davis Love III, who before last year had played in 17 consecutive Masters. Theres been a lot of oohs and aaahs, instead of the big roars.
When Masters merrymaking turned to mayhem is not in dispute. In 2002, in reaction to soaring golf balls and sliding scoring averages, officials nip/tucked an additional 285 yards onto the storied layout. Since that makeover an additional 175 yards has been added.
Whether all that additional real-estate has added up to a collection of sleepy Sundays is a matter of opinion. Officials will point to Phil Mickelsons closing 31 to win in 2004 among the best back-nine charges in Masters history and wild weather in recent years has factored into an atmosphere that feels more white-knuckle than red-hot.
However, the ultimate experts, the players, have no doubt the current version of Augusta National simply doesnt allow for the type of late Sunday charges for which the Masters is known.
The golf has become much more difficult, Tiger Woods said. Some of the holes you used to take for granted you cant anymore. Fifteen used to be a driver and a wedge.
The evidence is in the numbers and at the Champions Dinner.
Its little surprise to many that the last two Masters champions ' Zach Johnson and Trevor Immelman ' were wedge-and-putt specialist, a pair of plodders who may be scrappy but would never have much of a chance in an NBA lineup.
Johnson won in 2007 with a simple plan, hole every putt that matters and never, under any circumstances, try to reach one of Augusta Nationals historically scoreable par 5s in two shots. Immelman followed with a similar, win-with-a-wedge mentality.
It is in stark contrast to the way the golf course played before the changes.
When I played in 99 I could hit 3-wood (off the tee) at 15 and get on with a long iron. Now, theres no way, said Brandt Snedeker, who finished tied for third last year. It makes things so much different. Every guy in the field used to be able to go at 15, not anymore.
The numbers also suggest a substantial change in the way Sundays final nine holes are played, if not a shift in the fundamental way the golf course is set up.
In the seven Masters played since the 2002 makeover, the Sunday final-nine scoring average for the top-10 finishers was 35.53, nearly a half stroke higher than the seven tournaments played prior to the changes.
Its going to be tough now (to shoot 30 on the back nine), Snedeker said. Youre talking about 11 being a 500-yard par 4. Its a par 5. I dont see 30s anymore, I really dont. Unless the place gets really firm and guys are hitting it way down there. (No.) 18 is a par 4 .
The extra length, which included an additional 30 yards to the 11th hole and almost 60 yards tacked on to the 18th, seems to be the primary culprit, but difficult weather conditions, the addition of the second cut of rough in 1999, slight variations to traditional pin placements and a reluctance to adjust tees have also factored into a series of relatively quiet closes.
The golf course plays so much harder now and even when the winds blow they dont move the tees up, Woods said.
The second cut, which was 1 3/8 inches last year, has also taken away from the strategic beauty of the golf course, according to some.
Its a wide open course without the cut, but it was such a great departure from normal golf because you could hit way up the right side to get a good angle and take a chance of going in the trees or way left depending on the pin, Stewart Cink said. Its taken a lot of the creativity out of the course, and really the genius that Bobby Jones created.
Minor changes to traditional pin positions also have limited birdies, and in turn quieted patrons. Last year, for example, the Sunday tee sheet listed the pin at the par-3 16th at 29 paces deep and three paces from the left edge, a Sunday Masters tradition like pimento cheese and Butler Cabin. In practice, however, the difference between a birdie hole location and a hit-and-hope location can be a matter of inches.
They move them within three of four paces and thats big paces, Snedeker said. On 16 the difference between back left and middle left is a huge difference. It changes the complete shot shape of the hole.
It all adds up to a back nine that, according to many players, simply will not yield low scores or late charges like it once did. Gone are the days of Nick Faldo roaring past Greg Norman with a closing 33 like he did 1996, or Ben Crenshaws closing 34 to win a year earlier.
Its how they want it to be decided, Love said. Do you want it to be decided by scrambling and par putts, like the U.S. Open, or do you want it decided by who ever makes a bunch of birdies and eagles coming down the stretch. Thats their decision, but it sure was exciting in 86 when Jack (Nicklaus) was making a bunch of birdies and eagles and came back and won.
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