- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National is finally primed to bite back.

Since the greencoats first began tinkering with golf’s most prestigious piece of property after the 2001 Masters, the world has been waiting for a dry-run battle between the lengthened Bobby Jones gem and the game’s elite players. A rain-free forecast for the next few days promises finally to deliver that showdown at the 70th Masters this week.

“If it ever gets dry and baked out and it doesn’t rain — like in 1999 when [Jose Maria Olazabal] won and the greens got blue-looking — it will be even par or over par that will win, easily,” four-time champion Tiger Woods said recently when asked about the changes.

When Woods claimed his second green jacket in 2001, Augusta National measured a mere 6,985 yards from the tips. After the layout’s latest bit of offseason stretching (adding 155 more yards), the beast that greets players this week measures 7,445 yards. And unlike the past four years, in which early round play was interrupted by thunderstorms, this week’s anticipated warm, windy, dry weather should accentuate the National’s new nastiness.

“We haven’t really experienced the changes in all their glory yet,” Charles Howell III said yesterday.

Though Howell is making just his fifth start at the Masters, few if any competitive players in the field have played the course as often as the Augusta native, who boasts 20 trips around the layout since last year’s event.

“If it plays hard and fast, and I hope it does, then the added length really becomes an issue because you’re lines get a lot tighter off tees and you’re trying to hold these greens with much longer clubs,” he said. “If it plays hard and fast, I think it plays exponentially harder, and it’s already brutally difficult.”

A number of old-guard players, must notably six-time champion Jack Nicklaus, have groused about the changes to the layout co-designed by Jones and Alister MacKenzie in 1934. Nicklaus, who this week will celebrate the 20th anniversary of his shocking final major uprising at the age of 46, said the changes have limited the tournament’s pool of potential champions to the game’s dozen or so elite players (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, etc.).

But players like Howell and England’s Luke Donald argued yesterday that the Golden Bear’s logic applies only to a water-logged Augusta National, when brute force far outstrips precision. If the layout plays fast and firm, the field’s shorter hitters will benefit from added roll off the tee, while the bombers will be forced to play the short-knocker’s game of executing precise iron shots to firmer greens. Olazabal’s victory in 1999 proves the point. One of the shorter hitters in the field that week, the Spaniard grabbed his second green jacket via some spectacular iron play and clutch putting.

And though virtually all of the focus concerning the course changes has been on the added length, Augusta National also has been considerably tightened during the last several years as trees, often fully mature, have been moved to pinch in fairways and landing areas on nearly every driving hole.

Consider the new-look No. 1, which was lengthened by 20 yards but also had a number of left-side trees moved closer to the fairway. Augusta National officials said the largest of these trees was a 40-foot, 52-ton magnolia, which was seamlessly transplanted some 10 feet closer to the fairway. Only at Augusta National, where expense is absolutely no object.

“I think the old adage of people saying it was a bomber’s course or that Augusta had wide fairways is no longer the case,” Howell said.

To that end, Mickelson has indicated he will employ the same dual-driver formula he used to lap the field at last week’s BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. Mickelson won by 13 strokes using a shorter driver weighted to impart a fade on holes that demanded a right-to-left shape and a longer one weighted to impart a draw on left-to-right holes.

“I had to drop one of my three wedges, but the positives far outweighed the negatives because it kept me in the fairway and helped me to attack,” said Mickelson, the 2004 champion who shares top billing with Woods this week.

Regardless of the impact of the added yardage at Augusta National, hopefully the field adopts Howell’s positive view of the changes instead of whining about the added length. After all, the average upper-tier player has added roughly 30 yards off the tee in the past five years because of technology. Augusta National simply has taken those yards back, adding an average of 34.6 yards since 2001 to the layout’s 14 driving holes.

“In my opinion, all they are doing is just keeping up with the times and trying to restore the golf course to how it should be,” Howell said. “The golf course is a grind, and that’s the way it should be. It’s a major. It’s the Masters. I think that’s the way Bobby Jones would have wanted it.”

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