Scores are Higher Test is Tougher

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National has always been known as the cathedral of golf, but now its for reasons beyond the august atmosphere and beauty so majestic that every hole is named after a flower.
 
More than anything, it has become as quiet as church.
 
Someone hit the mute button at the Masters last year when Zach Johnson won at 1-over 289, tying the tournament record for the highest score by a champion. Good thing he overpowered the par 5s, playing them in 11 under, even though he laid up on every one of them.
 
Maybe its time to get used to it.
 
For years, we were led to believe that the toughest test in golf took place every June, where players would grind away with pars until the last man standing was crowned U.S. Open champion.
 
Now, that might not be the case.
 
Toughest test? Steve Stricker said. Im starting to believe that this is more like a U.S. Open course every year. You saw 1-over par win this tournament last year, and I think thats been my misconception coming in here, because theres always been some decent scores here. Gradually, the course is becoming very difficult.
 
There used to be clear separation among the four majors.
 
The U.S. Open has a reputation for shrinking fairways, growing rough and shutting down the irrigation, making the course firm, fast and sometimes out of control. The British Open relies mainly on wind as its best defense and cares more about who wins than what he shot.
 
The PGA Championship was defined by its lack of definition, although now it has the reputation as being the fairest test. Considering how much players whine these days, fair can be translated to mean easy.
 
And the Masters?
 
It used to be known for Jack Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine to win at age 46. For Tiger Woods shooting 40 on his first nine and still winning by a record 12 shots. Former U.S. Open champion and CBS analyst Ken Venturi takes credit for coining the phrase, The Masters doesnt start until the back nine on Sunday. And he wasnt talking about closing with pars.
 
You play the back nine, and it was fun, Venturi said. Those holes with the length now, the Masters is completely different.
 
Over the last five years, the Masters has the highest average winning score of the majors at 281.2.
 
Thats still nearly 7 shots under par, but par is relative. The U.S. Open has been turning par 72 into par 70s for a half-century because of its fascination with protecting par, enhancing its image as golfs toughest test. They still award trophies based on the lowest score, not relation to par.
 
And maybe the U.S. Open still is the toughest test, depending on the definition of tough.
 
This is the most complete test of golf because it tests all areas of your game, Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. Its important to drive the ball well because if you dont, youre in the trees and you dont have a chance. Its important to be creative and hit shots when youre in the rough. You have to have perfect distance control to get the ball to fly to the right sections of the green. And your short game has to be impeccable because these are the most demanding greens that well ever face.
 
The U.S. Open is just brutal. Its not as complete a game. It doesnt test all areas of your game. But its a very penalizing test.
 
Some of the difference is the weather at the Masters.
 
Woods made seven straight birdies over two days during a rain delay in 2005, when he and Chris DiMarco finished at 276 and Woods beat him with a birdie on the first playoff hole. Woods also won at 276 in 2002 when the Masters was more about muck than Magnolias.
 
Last year was firm, fast, next to impossible.
 
I dont want to compare it to a U.S. Open, but it kind of had that feel and that mental (feeling), Johnson said.
 
This change from dynamic to dull is mainly due to the length'520 more yards compared with 10 years ago when Mark OMeara birdied the last two holes for a one-shot victory.
 
That also was the year David Toms made six straight birdies and shot 29 on the back.
 
That will never happen again, Toms said. I hit wedge into 11, wedge into 17. And on Nos. 13 and 15, I hit the green in two. I cant remember the last time I even tried to hit 13 and 15 in two in the same round. The U.S. Open at Oakmont was a lot like here in that once you got on the green, it wasnt over. And here, its always an issue around the green.
 
Scott Verplank is the only player to make birdie on the par-3 12th all four rounds at the Masters, and thats one of the holes that hasnt changed in more than 40 years.
 
Its everything else that has become so difficult.
 
Even par is a pretty good score most times, Verplank said. It used to be even par got you lapped. Guys arent going to shoot 30 on the back nine. You cant reach all the greens in 30. Youd have to chip in four times.
 
Power still helps at the Masters. That hasnt changed. But when the course gets dry, and the scores go up, the volume goes down.
 
Geoff Ogilvy is among those who grew up watching the Masters and all its fireworks, especially on the back nine. When he first arrived at Augusta National, it was like he played a different course than the one he saw on television in Australia.
 
Any regrets?
 
Ogilvy is a practical thinker. He could only imagine what Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus would have done with todays technology.
 
It would have been nice to have competed in 1985 with a persimmon wood and a balata ball and see how you go on that golf course, Ogilvy said. But Augusta is Augusta. Its a special place no matter when you play the tournament.
 
And no matter what the score, the winner still gets a green jacket. That hasnt changed.
 
Related Links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters