Augusta National changes slow Tiger's record chase


Tiger Woods hasn’t won a Masters in seven years, or since former tournament chairman Hootie Johnson added 150 yards and a second army of trees to toughen up a half-dozen or so holes at Augusta National. Johnson’s first lengthen-and-strengthen crusade occurred in 2002, prompting some to characterize the renovations as “Tigerproofing.” Almost a decade later, that once-whimsical notion has become reality.

You’d have a hard time convincing people otherwise. Woods won three of his first six Masters as a pro but has just one victory in his last nine starts. It would be ridiculous to think he can’t win again – Tiger’s worst finish since winning in 2005 is a T-6. He has finished a total of 21 strokes behind the winners in those six years, an average margin of 3.5, so it’s not like he’s flailing about and not factoring on the weekend.

Still, it’s fairly obvious Johnson’s green thumb has made green jackets much harder to come by in Tiger’s world. The tree plantings served as a counter-punch to Woods’ biggest weakness in recent years: the inability to drive the ball accurately. He could get away with it at the old Augusta National, but the price of a wayward bomb is significantly higher now. Certainly enough to cost him another major title or two.

The shame of it all is that Johnson, a man of honest intentions, tinkered with the Bobby Jones/Alister Mackenzie masterpiece, thereby altering the character of the game’s finest competitive stage. Jones, whose love of the Old Course at St. Andrews is well-documented, wanted those who hit errant drives to still have a chance at the green. A recovery route can lead to a heroic shot, one that requires skill and creative instinct. By disposition, Augusta National was never meant to be a connect-the-dots type of venue.

Because Jones was so keen on allowing multiple angles of attack, the greens are exceptionally severe. The heavy contours and pronounced undulations produce the payback for any ballstriking mistakes made en route. You can be aggressive, but you’d better be precise – or you’ll find yourself with an impossible putt or a chip you can’t get within 25 feet of the flag.

Basically, we’re talking about a layout with linksland-style overtones in a parkland setting that was transformed into an unabashed parkland test. In its original state, the entire golf course was intended to serve as a shrine to risk vs. reward, which is the true genius behind Augusta National. Certain design elements that seem over-the-top actually serve a crucial purpose in maintaining the risk/reward balance.

By no means did Johnson ruin that, but he did affect it. If the surplus of trees and yardage was an attempt to combat technological advances in equipment, that hasn’t happened. Scoring at Augusta National has (and always will) depend largely on the weather conditions. In 2007, Woods finished tied for second at 3 over par. In 2010, he ended up tied for fourth at 11 under.

His ability to improvise and execute in difficult spots may be the greatest of his many assets – consider the chip he holed from behind the 16th green in 2005 as the best example. That strength has been compromised by the course changes, leaving a guy Jack Nicklaus once predicted would win “10 or 12” green jackets stuck on four.