Augusta National has been severally revamped. Its now the U.S. Open played in early April. They say the tournament doesnt start until the back nine on Sunday. Well, the tournament this year never DID start. Phil Mickelson put a choke-held on it in the fourth round and midway though the back nine, he had strangled the life out of the field. No one else had much of a chance after, say, the 15th hole (??)
This isnt to say, by any means, that Mickelson would not have won playing the old Augusta National. But at least someone would have made a run at him. Where was all the back nine drama on Sunday? Sadly, there was none.
It reminded me a little of those Alaska log-rolling contests. No one save Mickelson could stay upright on the Augusta log. Whoop whoop, here you go ' splash splash, glub glub. A slippery log, rolling over and over, turning, stopping, one end suddenly higher or lower than the other ' and another one goes falling off.
Its perfectly OK if you like the new Augusta. If you like the final day of the U.S. Open ' the grinding out of par after par , thats OK, too. Its strictly a matter of personal taste, and I happen to prefer an easier Augusta, one where anyone can catch fire on Sunday afternoon and run the tables.
We are very comfortable with what we are doing with the golf course for the Masters Tournament, said Hootie Johnson earlier in the week. Nuff said ' the powers-that-spoken and theres no room for debate.
The Masters is obviously very comfortable with the winner (in this case, Mickelson) shooting only 7-under. Only two meaningless shots, a hole-out birdie on 18 by Tim Clark and a bogey on 18 by Mickelson, prevented the winning margin from being four strokes.
Somehow, though, this is no longer a tournament were someone has to go out and WIN it. This a tournament of survival, where the champion is the last man standing, having clung to the ledge with his fingernails and held on until the 72nd hole. And if that reminds of a certain other major ' U.S. Open? ' so be it.
Im afraid weve just about seen the last of eagle chances at the two back-nine par 5s, 13 and 15. Rare, rare indeed are birdies at 10 and 11. Rare are birdies at 17 and the closing hole, 18. Instead, par is a very good score on any of the back nine holes ' remind you of a certain tournament in the middle of June? So long, 32s. Hello, 36s or 37s.
Heres a glance back through just 10 years at the Augusta I have admired:
2005 ' Tiger Woods and Chris DiMarco both shoot 12-under. Woods birdies 16 with one of the most dramatic chips in Masters history, then wins it in overtime with a perfectly played 18th in overtime.
2004 ' Mickelson starts the day with a three-stroke lead, loses it, then wins by making birdie on five of the last seven holes. His 20-foot birdie on No. 18 nips Ernie Els at the wire.
2003 ' Len Mattaice fires a 65 the final day to tie Mike Weir and force a one-hole playoff which Weir eventually won. However, Mattaice (who started the final round six shots out of the lead) birdied 10, 13, 15 to achieve the tie. Weir birdied 13 and 15.
2002, 2001 - Woods shoots 12-under to win in 02, 16-under in 01 to win. Augusta had begun the lengthening in 2002, adding 300 yards. This after Woods won in 2001 by two shots over David Duval, making birdies on the 11th, 13th, and 18th to win a stirring battle with Duval and Phil Mickelson.
2000 ' Vijay Singh makes birdie at 13, 15 and 18 in shooting 10-under.
1999 ' Tied for the lead with Duval, Greg Norman and Lee Westwood, Jose Maria Olazabal makes birdies at 10, 13 and 16. His birdie at 13 was in response to an eagle by Norman to again tie the lead, Ollie eventually winning by two.
1998 ' Mark OMeara birdies three of the final four to win by a stroke over Duval and Fred Couples.
1997 ' Woods sets a Masters record with 18-under and wins by 12 strokes.
This doesnt include the dramatic back-nine struggles that have occurred, including 1996 when Nick Faldo overcame Normans six-shot lead and won; Ben Crenshaw making birdies at 16 and 17 to beat Davis Love III by one in 1995; Bernhard Langer with an eagle at 13 and birdie at 15 to turn back Chip Beck at 93. How about Fred Couples surviving a 92 back-nine shootout with Ray Floyd, Corey Pavin and Craig Parry, or Ian Woosnam catching fire in 91 to beat Tom Watson and Olazabal?
And how about Jack Nicklaus with a 30 on the back side in 86, going eagle-birdie-birdie on 15, 16 and 17?
Yes, it was an easier Augusta National then. But the Masters was WON by each of these gents. The green jacket wasnt awarded to someone just because he was the last man standing.
The year 2006 is obviously the start of a new era in Masters history. We wont see any of those soul-stirring rallies. It will be more like the U.S. Open, in which the champion will be the man who makes the fewest mistakes - not the one who makes the most birdies and eagles on the back nine.
Augusta has gotten what it wanted, and done an outstanding job in shaping a course which meets the mold of what the top brass wanted. But, I liked it the old way, Im afraid.