- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. As the 66th Masters nears, the talk is less about the top players than about the topography that is, the dramatic redesign the course has undergone. Holes have been lengthened, bunkers widened, tees moved, trees planted all with the aim of making Augusta National a less hospitable place to play.
Reaction to the changes has been mixed. Short-knocker Scott Hoch, for instance, looks like his dog just died. (To Hoch, who hasn't broken 70 here since the second round in '97, the course was already plenty tough.) Big-knocker John Daly, on the other hand, approves of the modifications. "Longer is always better for me," he says.
David Duval is taking the unusual step of replacing the 2-iron in his bag with a 7-wood a club generally used to kill spiders but one that "could come in very handy," he says, at the New Augusta, especially on the longer and scarier approach shot over the creek at 13. And everybody agrees that Tiger Woods' record-low score of 18 under won't be challenged now or in the foreseeable future (though Sam Snead's and Jack Burke's record-high of 1over might).
This is what makes golf unique among our games. In golf, the playing field is constantly changing; the course is a living thing. Think about it. In other sports, the playing field is almost never tampered with. Aside from a pitcher's mound that's five inches lower, the baseball diamond is the same as it was in Ty Cobb's day. The NBA has widened the foul lane twice, the last time in 1964, but that's about the only thing the league has done to alter the dimensions of the court. As for the NFL, the field is still 100 yards long and 53 yards wide, the end zones still 10 yards deep.
And it's not as if there hasn't been discussion from time to time in these sports in hockey, too about raising the rim or increasing the size of the playing field to give ever-bigger, ever-faster athletes more room to maneuver. During the recent Winter Olympics, the hockey games were so exciting and free-flowing that fans once again wondered why the NHL doesn't play on the larger international surface.
Most sports tend to deal with such issues by fiddling with the rules rather than the playing field. Why? Economics, for one; increasing the size of the field would mean eliminating some seats. And so instead of a wider field in the NFL, we have defensive backs limited to one bump on a receiver. Instead of a larger ice surface in hockey, we have a few more penalties handed out for clutching and grabbing. And you can forget about the NBA ever raising the rims until everybody in the league is as tall as Shaquille O'Neal. Fewer dunks, after all, might cut into the league's airtime on SportsCenter.
Baseball is actually going the other way. Baseball is building smaller stadiums so that "sluggers" like Brady Anderson can hit 50 home runs. Instead of trying to restore the credibility of the homer like the Masters is trying to restore the credibility of the birdie baseball is giving away bobble-head dolls and cutting fancy designs into the infield and outfield grass. (It's amazing, really, that it continues to hold the line against metal bats.)
Not every golf tournament fights the forces of technology the way Augusta does, of course. The Phoenix Open, to name one, seems perfectly content with having Mark Calcavecchia shoot 28 under. But in events of greater import, like the Masters or the U.S. Open, courses will go to great lengths literally to provide players with the proverbial True Test. Southern Hills, you may recall, subjected contestants to the first 600-yard hole in Open history last year (the 642-yard fifth). Six hundred and forty-two yards? Heck, I've played front nines that were shorter than that.
The greencoats at the Masters, though, have been particularly vigilant. This is one of the game's holy places, and the scores here are supposed to mean something. And really, the course changes on display this week are just the latest in a long line of tweakings. Did you know, for example, that the famous pond that fronts the 16th green used to be a far less daunting stream? You also might want to catch the highlight film of the '66 Masters on the Golf Channel sometime. In the final scene, you'll see Jack Nicklaus triumphantly striding up a 18th fairway that's totally devoid of bunkers. (They weren't put in until '67.)
But while Augusta has deviated quite a bit from Bobby Jones' original vision, the spirit is the same. The course is meant to challenge the best golfers in the world; it isn't meant to be Coors Field. And if you aren't on top of your game, you're going to be at the Delta ticket counter soon enough, looking to book an earlier flight out. Hurrah for that.

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