Six years after Zach Johnson won the Masters Tournament with a 1-over-par score that matched the highest for a winner in history, Augusta National’s efforts to rein in long hitters has evolved into a balance of fairness and risk – which is what club founder and co-architect Bobby Jones had in mind with his course setup philosophy: “We want to make bogeys easy if frankly sought, pars readily obtainable by standard good play and birdies, except on our par-5s, dearly bought.”
Mickelson, a three-time winner, indicated the usually fearsome putting surfaces might not be giving players as many nightmares.
“These greens are softer than what we play week in and week out,” he said Tuesday. “They are slightly faster, but nothing scary like they used to be. Quite honestly, they have been softer the last five years than anything we play on tour other than Pebble. The fear factor has not been there, and I don’t anticipate them going back to the way we expect. I think it’s going to play soft.”
Uh-oh. Who wants odds on whether the club will crank up the drying systems under the greens to overdrive on the night before the first round?
“Is he kidding?” asked Fuzzy Zoeller, who won the Masters in 1979 when 8-under got him, Ed Sneed and Tom Watson to a playoff. “That course is still long and still difficult, and the greens are never easy.”
David Toms said the period of 2006 to 2008, when the average winning score was 4.6 under par and the field average was 74.54, was a product of a perfect storm between the club making the course longer and weather that made the playing areas treacherous and fast.
“A lot of it was the weather conditions,” he said. “It had really dried out a few years ago. Now, the fairways are a little soft and I don’t think they’re really going to dry out – especially with the rain we’re supposed to get Thursday and Friday. Is it still a hard course? Sure, if you don’t hit good shots.”
Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters winner, cautioned that the course is in such good shape and that Augusta National has so much technology at its disposal that players could only guess at how difficult it would be when play starts.
He seemed to disagree with Mickelson’s characterization of the greens as “soft.”
“The golf course is playing pretty long. It’s pretty dry,” Woods said. “But the greens are coming up to speed and they are starting to get there. They (the club) have the ability … that they can basically put this golf course however they want. They can slow it down. Won’t take much to speed it up.”
There’s little doubt that the course has yielded lower scores in the past four tournaments. Since 2009, the field scoring average has gone down by 1.577 shots and the average winning score is 13-under. Fans had wanted more birdies and eagles to cheer for, the club backed off on the setup a bit and the players obliged.
For example, the field averaged 16.3 eagles a year from 2006-08. In the past four Masters, the average has been 32.2.
Competition committee Chairman Fred Ridley said the club has been calculating how long or short the course plays, depending on the weather, and adjusting tees and hole locations accordingly.
“We go into every Masters Tournament, really, with the same approach: to strike a balance each day with regard to the distance the golf course plays to hole locations,” Ridley said. “The golf course is prepared to be as consistent as possible. I think we have struck that balance, and I hope we’ll feel that way at the end of the week. I think we will.”