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SBJ/April 8 - 14, 2002/Opinion
Master-ing the new technology
Published April 8, 2002
The Masters Tournament, whose 66th edition tees off Thursday at the Augusta National Golf Club, long has had much to recommend it, not the least of which has been its value as a measuring stick. Because it's the longest-running important professional tourney staged on the same course, it could be used to summon mind's-eye comparisons of how the top golfers of the present era might have fared against those of the past.
Beginning this year, though, that function will be depreciated. Responding to technological change in the game, the overseers of Augusta National have revamped their scenic layout to lengthen it by 285 yards, altering half of its holes in the process. The course that Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval will play won't be the same one that challenged Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Arnie Palmer in days gone by.
The changes that triggered the move are familiar to every golfer: tighter-wound balls and club heads made from NASA nose-cone materials that have souped up their sport in recent years. The new gear has added a few yards to the shots of average players, but it's allowed the experts to conquer space. A 270-yard drive used to be considered a real blast among the PGA tourists, but any current male pro who doesn't average 270 off the tee might as well toss his sticks in his car trunk and head home.
Golf is not alone in outstripping its historic parameters. Advances in racket science have changed tennis from a game of placement and spin to one of raw power; top players today can generate so much pace on their baseline shots that the serve-and-volley style that once produced intriguing matchup contrasts is in danger of becoming obsolete. In baseball, juiced batters and balls have relegated to the junk heap 75 years of home-run records. Baseball clubhouses these days house more-massive musculatures than Gold's Gyms.
Golf's power leap is different from those of tennis and baseball because its instruments have been more expensively and avidly promoted; the contest among equipment manufacturers to offer more bang for the player's buck resembles nothing so much as the old U.S.-USSR arms race. Money is the reason the movement hasn't been stemmed or reversed. The weight of dollars behind it is so great that it's overwhelmed most of whatever restraints regulators might be tempted to pose.
One upshot is that some tournament courses have been lengthened in recent years, and others have been tightened with bunkers and penitential rough. The courses that host the U.S. Open best exemplify the latter approach. As accommodating as the U.S. Golf Association has been to power-peddling club makers, it's protected par in its showcase event by taking the drivers out of players' hands.
The Masters installed some fairway-side rough in 1999 but resisted further tightening on the ground that it would change Augusta National's character. It had added yardage in dribs and drabs over the years, and moved tees to create more-challenging shot angles.
But when players began turning its par-five holes into two-shot affairs and its par fours into chip-and-putts, it decided that drastic action was needed. The 285 yards that were added in the latest renovation, upping the course's length to 7,270 yards, equaled all the distance tacked on from the first Masters in 1934 through 2001.
The latest changes affect nine holes in all, including two of the three that make up the famous Amen Corner of 11, 12 and 13. No. 11 will play at 490 yards instead of 455, and No. 13, the azalea-lined dogleg, has been stretched to 510 yards from 485.
Perhaps the biggest change will be to the finishing hole, No. 18. It'll measure 465 yards instead of 405. When Woods last year ensured his victory by chipping onto its green from about 75 yards out, the Masters decided that "progress" had gone far enough.
Frederick C. Klein (email@example.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.