- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s time to put an end to some Masters myths.

With the 70th edition of the green-jacket scramble starting today, there are five fallacies concerning the world’s most prestigious tournament that require exposure. Most of the following myths were applicable before the Greencoats stretched the venerable layout by 460 yards in the last five years. Those drastic course changes have led to significant changes in the profile of the players able to compete at Augusta National.

Let’s crush some conventional wisdom:

• Myth: The Masters is a glorified putting contest.

A hot putter is a virtual must for a player hoping to reach the winner’s circle in any tournament. But Augusta National’s diabolical greens have received an undue amount of respect in this regard over the years. Sure, few sets of putting surfaces in the world feature such severe breaks.

But because the world’s best players return to Augusta National every year, the players in this week’s field are possibly more familiar with the nuances of these greens than with any others on the planet. Only Masters rookies are shocked by the speed and subtleties of Augusta’s greens.

While a superb short game is a Masters must, statistics show driving distance is the asset most closely linked to success at Augusta National.

In the last six Masters, only one winner (Mike Weir in 2003) has ranked higher in putting statistics relative to the field than in driving distance. Since 2000, the winners on average have ranked 22nd among those who made the cut in putting but 12th in driving distance.

Augusta National is first and foremost a bomber’s paradise, a fact that only has been accentuated by the massive lengthening of the layout in recent years.

“Today, the game is 90 percent power,” six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus said yesterday. “And when it comes to rewarding power, Augusta National is right up there with St. Andrews.”

• Myth: This week’s hard, fast conditions greatly expand the winner’s pool.

It’s true that a few more players should be in the mix this week than in the last four Masters, when soggy conditions basically turned the event into an exercise in blunt force. But despite the warm, dry, breezy weather, Augusta National’s fairways are far from fiery. Why? Because the Greencoats made the decision this year to mow all the fairways into the players, drastically reducing the amount of roll shorter hitters can expect on tee shots.

“Nick Faldo was never a long hitter, but he was long at Augusta because he could shape the ball around the corners and get the ball going with the slopes and everything,” golfer Charles Howell III said. “You know, they used to mow half the fairways downgrain and half into, and the downgrain bit was kind of the parts on the corners, so Nick could work the ball down the edges. Now, all of it is mowed into [the player].”

Firmer greens should bring more players into the mix by forcing more precise iron play, but don’t expect an influx of short-knockers on the big board, because the mowed-into fairways simply aren’t Open-style fiery.

“Actually, they’re doing everything they can to slow it down with the fairway mowing pattern,” shortish hitter Justin Leonard said yesterday. “It’s firm out there, but it’s not particularly fast.”

• Myth: The entire field has enjoyed a similar leap in distance because of recent technology.

Actually, only players with swing speeds of 115 mph or higher have maximized breakthroughs in ball and clubhead technology. Bombers with high swing speeds like Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia have added 30-35 yards to their fifth-gear, all-out clouts from the tee. But players with slower swing speeds like Weir and Leonard can’t completely compress the new balls or new driver faces, widening the gap between golf’s distance haves and have-nots.

“I was the longest when we played, and everybody said, ‘Gee, Jack hits it so far,’ ” Nicklaus recalled. “But I hit it 10 or 15 yards, maybe 20 yards really, by the next guy. The difference today may be 100 yards between a good player, a long hitter, and a short hitter. It’s such a great difference.”

• The Masters provides a rare competitive glimpse at the game’s legends.

The Masters used to offer the unique opportunity to watch competitive bursts from past legends like the great triumvirate of Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer. No more. The course is now so long that it has rendered obsolete the vast majority of the event’s aging past champions.

Nicklaus finished tied for sixth as recently as 1998, when his intimate course knowledge still could mitigate his age and lack of length. But the Golden Bear has gone into permanent competitive hibernation because he knows a 7,445-yard track has eliminated the possibility of such a renaissance charge. As a result, the Masters has lost a huge chunk of its nostalgic charm.

“It’s perplexing because the club is just trying to stay ahead of the game,” two-time champion Ben Crenshaw (1984 and 1995) said yesterday. “But without a doubt, the changes have hastened our retreat.”

• No course has better taste in champions.

There’s a reason the Masters never offers a dog champion, and it has far less to do with anything Bobby Jones breathed into the sod and more to do with the exclusive nature of the field. Only 90 players are in attendance this week, as compared with the 156-man fields that are the standard at the other three majors.

And of those 90 players, 16 are either over-the-hill past champions (see Player, Charles Coody, Raymond Floyd, etc.) or no-chance amateurs (five in the field). That leaves 74 legitimate competitors, most of whom are among the top-50 in the world rankings. When the game’s relative dogs aren’t invited, the green jacket doesn’t have to be placed on a mutt.

Prepare to see another long-knocking member from golf’s top tier slip into the coveted coat come Sunday afternoon.

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