Spring is near, the days are getting longer, and the azaleas soon will be in bloom. For golfers, the word azalea has a special, and specific, meaning: The Masters Tournament.
It's the time of year when we begin to turn our thoughts to Georgia and the resumption of a love affair with Augusta National. Not that we ever fully move away from Augusta-in subtle ways the countdown to April renews the moment the last Masters tournament is complete.
Augusta National holds power beyond just The Masters. For many, the course is the idealized expression of golf, an emotional focal point not unlike how St. Andrews is permanently embedded in the British psyche. For others it's the first textbook in the American architectural cannon, a course to be studied and emulated.
Augusta National also has its share of critics, particularly an earnest group of purists who lament the annual facelifts and maintain that the club' s elite maintenance practices create an unrealistic trickle down effect in the daily golfer's conditioning expectations.
But whether you believe Augusta National is paradise or paradise lost, there 's no mistaking its prominent position in golf's physical and emotional landscape. Let's take a look at what it does well, and where it has possibly failed.
What We Should Remember - No discussion of Augusta National can be advanced without discussing its annual alterations. It does little good to bemoan recent changes moreso than those implemented 30, 40, or 60 years ago; almost from the moment Alister MacKenzie left the premises the club began to tweak its features. Mutation is part of what the golf course is.
Many of the alterations have been popular or beneficial, such as Robert Trent Jones's creation of the current par-3 16th hole, which most agreed was a dramatic improvement over the original short-iron one-shotter playing right to left across the current line of play. MacKenzie's shortish 10th was a charismatic but ineffectual beginning to the daredevil second side - now it's an immense par-4, a difficult birdie, and a sight to behold.
What We Should Forget - For every instance of significant improvement there are perhaps a dozen cases of excess. A book could be written about the lost features of Augusta National, both good and bad. The green site at the par-5 eighth is but one example: initially a boldly contoured putting surface surrounded by mounds, it became a razed, naked riser-like green in the 50s only to see multiple permutations to work it back to original form. The tee has likewise been jiggled, and the driving bunker has seen just about every spot in the fairway except the far left rough.
Other notable losses include the boomerang shaped green at the ninth and a the transformation of the sporty par-4 seventh, with a bald, St. Andrews-esque putting surface, into a narrow, mid-length hole with the most fortified green on the course.
What We Should Remember - The Masters is one of the most unique experiences in sport and typically the most exciting tournament in golf. The reason for that - beyond the unrepeatable aura of Augusta National - has much to do with the club's persistence in addressing the issues it believes need addressing. This includes perceived course weaknesses, hence the yearly "improvements."
The club also deserves credit for being open to the possibility of using a tournament ball, a rule that might potentially alleviate the desire to lengthen the course every other year. And, of course, the entire golfing world should take note of the club's 1970's era concession-stand pricing.
What We Should Forget - The beauty of Augusta National is that pure length didn't necessarily provide an advantage: strategic incentives were built into the design, and any player able to read the course and bravely execute the high risk shots had a chance to score well. The course has always been brilliant at separating the great shot from the indifferent without levying heavy penalty. Is the tinkering necessary?
Today the course plays well over 7,000 yards and includes a traditionally foreign cut of rough, meaning that, a) certain advantageous angles to the greens have been eliminated, and b) players of moderate length have virtually no room for error. Two time champions such as Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, and Jose Maria Olazábal would scarcely have a chance to win today.
What We Should Remember - Augusta National is nearly as famous for its conditions as it is for the Masters tournament. The club has become the symbol for agronomic perfection and is indeed Laboratory Number One when it comes to turf and chemical research and development, not to mention its subterranean engineering and state-of-the-art equipment. Many advances pioneered in Augusta have made their way into the collective curriculum, bettering the way golf courses are maintained.
What We Should Forget - Of course everyone wants to play on perfect ground, but it isn't practical and it isn't cheap. It's not realistic except for the wealthiest clubs and resorts, and even they have their seasons.
Many forget or don't realize that Augusta National is closed for months at a time. Visit in August and notice how those emerald fairways are now as splotchy brown as your muni in March. American golfers place an enormous amount of emphasis on conditioning and Augusta National could possibly be the culprit of unreasonably high expectations. It may be not right to blame it for pursuing excellence, but it's worth a reminder that not even a club of its stature can afford to keep the course in Masters condition for more than a few weeks.
What We Should Remember - Augusta National's greens are novels, characters, fascinating stories - they are the heart and soul of the golf course.
To say that the club is intimate (or fanatical) with the way its greens play is putting it lightly. The putting surfaces and hole placements are so precisely measured that the slope is sometimes modified to the fraction of an inch, re-graded from a 2-percent slope to 2.5-percent if it will enhance the way a certain pin position plays.
What We Should Forget - As effectual as the greens are, a tour of the course reveals a hodge-podge collection of size and shapes, from the surreal contours of Perry Maxwell's 14th, to the small, sloping 10th, to the more conventionally contoured 11th or ninth. Virtually every green site has been torn down and rebuilt numerous times, by numerous architects, to the point there is no longer any harmony to them.
As a collection, however, they remain magical, or at least they did until the club chose to grow up the rough.
Augusta National was designed on the playing concepts of The Old Course, where the player could select almost any line off the tee to set up an optimal angle to the day's pin. Seemingly good choices often left harrowing, if not impossible, approach shots given the peculiarities of the greens. By adding rough, many of the creative approaches into Augusta National's legendary pin positions are negated, reducing both strategy and the rewards an aggressive, intelligent play might have otherwise (and in years past)
gained. In short, the rough lessens the variation of approach positions - all shots will come from somewhere in the center of the fairway - stereotyping the shot-making and in effect stripping the wonderful greens of their full dynamic potential.
Plus, it's strange to see yardage markers 20 years into the rough.
In the final examination, Augusta National will always be a national treasure - it's history and prominence in our spring dreams will likely never diminish. It's also a testament to the site and strength of the original design that it can withstand so much annual alteration.
The odd thing is that, after so many changes over the decades, there's really no longer a true Augusta National. Any talk about reverting the course to an earlier, more pristine version quickly stalls, because, when was that? 1940? 1960? 1985?
Perhaps the best recommendation - and one the club certainly would never indulge - is to put the course back just a few years, before the rough, before the extra tree plantings, but maybe not before the most recent lengthening.
And then, just stop. So far Augusta National has weathered the knife admirably, even thrived at times, but who can guarantee the next change will not be critical? Then again, the club would probably just change it again the following year.
April 8, 2004