Augusta National Ahead of the Distance Curve

By Associated PressApril 7, 2003, 4:00 pm
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hootie Johnson walked out to Amen Corner during the 2001 Masters in time to see Phil Mickelson play his second shot into the 455-yard 11th hole, one of the toughest at Augusta National.
Mickelson had 94 yards to the green -- a flip wedge.
That was all Johnson needed to realize it was right to lengthen the golf course by 300 yards, the biggest overhaul in club history.
Two years later, some players question whether Augusta went far enough.
'I told Hootie, 'You guys were ahead of the curve when you did this golf course last year,'' six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said. 'Now, they're behind the curve.'
The Masters isn't alone.
Torrey Pines revamped its South Course to measure 7,600 yards for the 2008 U.S. Open. Last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black had the two longest par 4s in its history -- No. 12 (499 yards) and No. 10 (492 yards).
Why go to such lengths?
To protect against the most rapid advances ever in golf technology.
It has reached a point where golf's top executives are debating whether to introduce separate equipment standards for elite and recreational players.
'I really would not like to see that, but it may be inevitable,' Arnold Palmer said.
Whether that would change anything is unclear. But it's not as simple as blaming the golf ball and oversized titanium drivers. Look inside the fitness trailer on tour, or in weight rooms at Kapalua and La Costa, and it's obvious that golf is starting to resemble a real sport.
Players are bigger, stronger, more cut.
They lift, they run, they watch what they eat.
Some are trained by renowned teachers before they graduate from elementary school. By the time they mature, players can generate enormous power by swinging the club at speeds approaching 120 mph upon impact.
'I've got a 9-year-old and he plays with all the kids at home, and they're all teeing it as high as a tee will allow and swinging as hard as they can,' Davis Love III said. 'There was only one person doing that on the range when I was growing up, and that was me.'
Equipment companies are responding with drivers made of space-age metals that weigh less and have a large hitting area, allowing more room for error.
They make balls that combine distance and feel, with aerodynamics that optimize lift and reduce drag. Some balls are customized for launch conditions of various players.
Golf is no longer just a game. It's a science.
Nick Price learned to play when it was an art. Like most players 30 and older, he grew up using wooden drivers with a sweet spot the size of a pea.
'Now the sweet spot is the size of a peach,' Price laments.
Swinging for the fences often meant the ball went into the trees. Price figured out he could swing at 85 percent of his total strength before he lost control of his tee shots. Nicklaus was said to have an extra 20 yards when he needed it.
Now, it seems as though every player gives it all they have on every drive.
'As soon as you give a person a lighter, more forgiving club, guys are going to learn to swing harder,' Price said. 'Guys are pushing the envelope, and that's increased their ability to swing by 8 to 10 percent. That's where they pick up clubhead speed.'
He doesn't think rolling back the golf ball by 10 percent would solve anything.
'The game is about the ability to swing a 44-inch object 25 feet, to return it back and hit it on a sweet spot,' he said. 'The smaller the sweet spot, the more you test that skill.'
Price, however, is in the minority.
Most attribute distance gains to the variable that moves -- the golf ball. Nicklaus has been lobbying against golf ball improvements for 25 years, and what happened to him last month at the Ford Championship at Doral only proved his point.
When he won the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the defining shot was his 1-iron from 219 yards into a stiff breeze that knocked down the flag at No. 17.
Nicklaus had 219 yards into a stiff breeze to the par-5 eighth hole at Doral. At age 63, he hit 2-iron into 15 feet.
'What else could it be?' Nicklaus said.
He proposes a tournament ball that would restore shotmaking and reward talent. He also fears the power game is making championship courses obsolete, and the only way to test elite players is to pinch fairways, grow rough and make the greens as firm as concrete.
Just as Ernie Els uses better equipment than Nicklaus had in his prime, Nicklaus used better equipment than Ben Hogan, who had better equipment than Bobby Jones.
'Every generation says the game changes, and the game has changed,' Nicklaus said. 'The only thing that hasn't had to change is the golf course -- until now. How much more can people afford to keep buying land and changing the golf course because of the ego of a ball manufacturer?'
Meantime, anecdotal evidence keeps piling up:
*Els hit a drive that went nearly 400 yards to the bottom of the hill on the 15th hole the Plantation Course at Kapalua. A week later at Waialae Country Club, he reached the 501-yard ninth hole with a driver and a wedge.
*Mickelson nearly drove the green on the 403-yard 10th hole at the Phoenix Open.
*Charles Howell III hit sand wedge for his second shot on the 451-yard 18th at Riviera Country Club, the same hole where a plaque in the fairway pays tribute to Dave Stockton for his 3-wood that helped him win the 1974 Los Angeles Open.
Still, length isn't everything. Tiger Woods is the world's best player, and he relies more on his short game and course management than hitting the ball as far as he can.
'I don't take advantage of technology fully,' Woods said. 'I play with a short driver (43 inches) and a steel shaft and a shallow face, so I've limited myself to what I can do. But I'd much rather control the ball and get the ball in play.'
Is distance ruining golf?
The fear is that technology will turn even the toughest golf course into a pitch-and-putt. Johnson didn't order changes to Augusta National because the scores were too low, he simply got tired of seeing players hit wedge into almost all of the par 4s.
Some worry that golf will become tennis at the highest level -- no longer a game of exquisite shotmaking, but sheer power.
Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in Scotland, opposes two sets of rules. Still, he is not oblivious to a rapidly changing game.
'What's happening now is the gap between the elite player and the average club player has widened,' Dawson said. 'I don't think there's any issue at the club level with technology. But because these guys get so good out here, maybe there is an issue for them.'
Related Links:
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology

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    Five-time Open champ Thomson passes at 88

    By Associated PressJune 20, 2018, 1:35 am

    Hailed as a hero to some and as golf royalty to others, Peter Thomson, a five-time winner of The Open and the only player in the 20th century to win the championship for three straight years, died Wednesday. He was 88.

    Thomson had been suffering from Parkinson's disease for more than four years and died at his Melbourne home surrounded by family members, Golf Australia said.

    The first Australian to win The Open, Thomson went on to secure the title five times between 1954 and 1965, a record equaled only by American Tom Watson.

    The Australian's wins came in 1954, '55, '56, again in 1958 and lastly in 1965 against a field that included Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

    Only Harry Vardon, with six titles between 1896 and 1914, won more.

    Thomson also tied for fourth at the 1956 U.S. Open and placed fifth in the 1957 Masters. He never played the PGA Championship.

    In 1998, he captained the International side to its only win over the United States at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne.

    Asked by The Associated Press in 2011 how he'd like to be remembered, Thomson replied: ''A guy who always said what he thought.''

    Veteran Australian golfer Karrie Webb was among the first to tweet her condolences, saying she was ''saddened to hear of the passing of our Aussie legend and true gentleman of the game .... so honored to have been able to call Peter my friend. RIP Peter.''

    Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said Thomson was ''a champion in every sense of the word, both on the course and in life.''

    ''Many know him as a five-time champion golfer of the year or as a three-time captain of the Presidents Cup International team.'' Finchem added. ''But he was also a great friend, father, grandfather and husband. He was golfing royalty, and our sport is a better one because of his presence.''

    Former golfer and now broadcaster Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open champion, called Thomson his ''hero'' - ''Peter - my friend and mentor R.I.P. Australian golf thanks you for your iconic presence and valuable guidance over the years.''

    From Britain, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers praised Thomson's plans for the game's future.

    ''Peter gave me a number of very interesting and valuable thoughts on the game, how it has developed and where it is going, which demonstrated his genuine interest and love of golf,'' Slumbers said. ''He was one of the most decorated and celebrated champion golfers in the history of The Open.''

    Born in the Melbourne inner-city suburb of Brunswick on Aug. 23, 1929, Thomson was a promising cricketer. He scored an unbeaten 150 runs for the Carlton club against a men's side as a 15-year-old.

    But golf became his passion, and he turned professional in 1947.

    He won the national championships of 10 countries, including the New Zealand Open nine times and Australian Open three times. He first played on the PGA Tour in the U.S. in 1953 and 1954, finishing 44th and 25th on the money list, respectively. He won the Texas International in 1956.

    Thomson won nine times on the Senior PGA tour in the U.S. in 1985, topping the money list. His last tournament victory came at the 1988 British PGA Seniors Championship, the same year he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

    Overall, he won 26 European Tour events, 34 times on the Australasian PGA tour and 11 on the seniors tour in the U.S, as well as once in Japan.

    In later years, Thomson wrote articles for many publications and daily newspapers, was club professional at Royal Melbourne and designed more than 100 golf courses. In the 2011 Presidents Cup program, Thomson provided an insightful hole-by-hole analysis of the composite course at Royal Melbourne.

    Thomson was always reluctant to compare his wins with anyone else's.

    ''All records are qualified in that they were made at a certain time in history,'' Thomson told golf historian and author Brendan Moloney for a story on his 80th birthday.

    ''The circumstances change so much, and so do the players' attitudes. In golf, only in the last 30 years or so has there been a professional attitude to playing for money. The professionals in the USA and Britain and anywhere else all had club jobs as a backstop to their income.

    ''When they did play and make records, you have to understand that they were taking time off from the pro shop,'' he said. ''So the records that were set were pretty remarkable.''

    Thomson always had stories to tell, and told them well. With a full head of hair and a lineless face that belied his age, the Australian wasn't afraid to let everyone know his feelings on any subject.

    That was true as far back as 1966. As president of the Australian PGA, Thomson was indignant that Arnold Palmer's prize for winning the Australian Open was only $1,600, out of a total purse of $6,000, one of the smallest in golf.

    ''Golf Stars Play for Peanuts,'' blared the headline of a story he wrote. ''Never before has such a field of top golfers played for what $6,000 is worth today. Canada offers 19 times that. I know 19 other countries who give more.''

    But he was always happy on the golf course.

    ''I've had a very joyful life, playing a game that I loved to play for the sheer pleasure of it,'' Thomson said. ''I don't think I did a real day's work in the whole of my life.''

    Thomson served as president of the Australian PGA for 32 years and worked behind the scenes for the Odyssey House drug rehabilitation organization where he was chairman for five years.

    In 1979, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his service to golf, and in 2001 became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his contributions as a player and administrator and for community service.

    Thomson is survived by his wife Mary, son Andrew and daughters Deirdre Baker, Pan Prendergast and Fiona Stanway, their spouses, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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    Gaston leaves USC to become head coach at Texas A&M

    By Ryan LavnerJune 19, 2018, 11:00 pm

    In a major shakeup in the women’s college golf world, USC coach Andrea Gaston has accepted an offer to become the new head coach at Texas A&M.

    Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Gaston, who informed her players of her decision Monday night, has been one of the most successful coaches over the past two decades, leading the Trojans to three NCAA titles and producing five NCAA individual champions during her 22-year reign. They have finished in the top 5 at nationals in an NCAA-record 13 consecutive seasons.

    This year was arguably Gaston’s most impressive coaching job. She returned last fall after undergoing treatment for uterine cancer, but a promising season was seemingly derailed after losing two stars to the pro ranks at the halfway point. Instead, she guided a team with four freshmen and a sophomore to the third seed in stroke play and a NCAA semifinals appearance. Of the four years that match play has been used in the women’s game, USC has advanced to the semifinals three times.  

    Texas A&M could use a coach with Gaston’s track record.

    Last month the Aggies fired coach Trelle McCombs after 11 seasons following a third consecutive NCAA regional exit. A&M had won conference titles as recently as 2010 (Big 10) and 2015 (SEC), but this year the team finished 13th at SECs.

    The head-coaching job at Southern Cal is one of the most sought-after in the country and will have no shortage of outside interest. If the Trojans look to promote internally, men’s assistant Justin Silverstein spent four years under Gaston and helped the team win the 2013 NCAA title.  

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    Spieth 'blacked out' after Travelers holeout

    By Will GrayJune 19, 2018, 9:44 pm

    CROMWELL, Conn. – It was perhaps the most-replayed shot (and celebration) of the year.

    Jordan Spieth’s bunker holeout to win the Travelers Championship last year in a playoff over Daniel Berger nearly broke the Internet, as fans relived that raucous chest bump between Spieth and caddie Michael Greller after Spieth threw his wedge and Greller threw his rake.

    Back in Connecticut to defend his title, Spieth admitted that he has watched replays of the scene dozens of times – even if, in the heat of the moment, he wasn’t exactly choreographing every move.

    Travelers Championship: Articles, photos and videos

    “Just that celebration in general, I blacked out,” Spieth said. “It drops and you just react. For me, I’ve had a few instances where I’ve been able to celebrate or react on a 72nd, 73rd hole, 74th hole, whatever it may be, and it just shows how much it means to us.”

    Spieth and Greller’s celebration was so memorable that tournament officials later shipped the rake to Greller as a keepsake. It’s a memory that still draws a smile from the defending champ, whose split-second decision to go for a chest bump over another form of celebration provided an appropriate cap to a high-energy sequence of events.

    “There’s been a lot of pretty bad celebrations on the PGA Tour. There’s been a lot of missed high-fives,” Spieth said. “I’ve been part of plenty of them. Pretty hard to miss when I’m going into Michael for a chest bump.”

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    Pregnant Lewis playing final events before break

    By Randall MellJune 19, 2018, 9:27 pm

    Stacy Lewis will be looking to make the most of her last three starts of 2018 in her annual return to her collegiate roots this week.

    Lewis, due to give birth to her first child on Nov. 3, will tee it up in Friday’s start to the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Arkansas. She won the NCAA individual women’s national title in 2007 while playing at the University of Arkansas. She is planning to play the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship next week and then the Marathon Classic two weeks after that before taking the rest of the year off to get ready for her baby’s arrival.

    Lewis, 33, said she is beginning to feel the effects of being with child.

    “Things have definitely gotten harder, I would say, over the last week or so, the heat of the summer and all that,” Lewis said Tuesday. “I'm actually excited. I'm looking forward to the break and being able to decorate the baby's room and do all that kind of stuff and to be a mom - just super excited.”

    Lewis says she is managing her energy levels, but she is eager to compete.

    “Taking a few more naps and resting a little bit more,” she said. “Other than that, the game's been pretty good.”

    Lewis won the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship in 2014, and she was credited with an unofficial title in ’07, while still a senior at Arkansas. That event was reduced to 18 holes because of multiple rain delays. Lewis is a popular alumni still actively involved with the university.