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Golf - Length is Not the Issue

By Vincent Musco
Saturday, March 23rd, 2002

A lot has been made over the changes at Augusta National for the 2002 Masters next month. Golf course architect Tom Fazio added 285 yards to the hallowed links under the direction of Augusta National Chairman, Hootie Johnson. According to Johnson, the alterations should keep the course challenging enough to combat improvements in technology and player fitness. In other words, Johnson doesn't want to see the TPC at Deere Run become a tougher test than Augusta.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with a top-notch architect like Fazio tinkering with the layout. Keep the player's challenged, I say.

But why the length? Haven't we learned that length alone is not what makes scoring difficult? Is anyone else tired of architectural projects centering on length? And worse yet, the "improvements" to Augusta only further isolate big-hitting superstars like (surprise!) Tiger, Duval, Mickelson, and Singh.

Indeed, some minor modifications took place that created tougher tee angles and larger bunkers. But why couldn't these have been the only changes? Or why couldn't there have been more changes like these? On three of the holes, including 18, 300 yard carries are now necessary off the tee in order to have a wedge into the green. That may sound enticing, but this only helps the few long hitters in the field who may be able to hit it that far.

Bottom line: lengthening a golf course only makes length even more of an advantage.

Sure, the course will play a little tougher with the added yardage. The 18th hole is now a daunting 460 yards, while eight other holes gained at least 20 yards in length.

But length is not the best way to toughen a course. Narrow the fairways. Grow out the rough. Make short game more of a factor. Make the player's think about how to play the hole instead of whining that the hole is too long to be played. These are the best ways to increase the difficulty of a golf course without both punishing shorter hitters and necessitating purchases of more land.

Why was Tiger Woods the only player to shoot better than 3 over par at the 2000 U.S. Open? Because of length? Hardly. Pebble Beach played only 47 yards longer at the Open than it does every year at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. And every year, the field routinely blisters the course with rounds in the 60's including the 2002 champion, Matt Gogel. At the 2000 Open, Gogel missed the cut, barely breaking 80 in the second round. All because of 47 extra yards? Pebble's teeth came from its thick rough, especially around the greens. It placed a greater premium on accuracy and short game, which made decision-making crucial.

Look at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst #2. Only the late Payne Stewart broke par at one of the toughest Open venues in the tournament's history. The "turtle-backed" greens deserve all the credit, as players struggled to hit the greens not only from the rough, but also from the fairway and in the worst of cases, from greenside locations. "You could make every hole out here 335 [yards] and players would still have trouble breaking par," remarked Johnny Miller during the telecast.

Why does the 135 yard 17th at Sawgrass give players fits? Why does the 12th at Augusta have a storied history of crucial mistakes by players in contention when a short iron is all it takes to hit the green? The reason is that the best holes and best courses demand and reward excellent decision-making. This can be done without lengthening the course.

You want a guarantee? A long hitter will win The Masters this year. Half of the field doesn't stand a chance.

Augusta's new look is a reflection of modern golf course architecture which insists bigger is better. It ignores true architectural genius that exists at Merion, Valderrama, and Royal Troon's Postage Stamp hole. These classic masterpieces don't rely on length. We know better.

I only thought Augusta did, too.

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