Sandy Lyle once told me a great little story about one of his visits to Augusta National back in the 1990s. The 1988 Masters champion said that during his first practice round that year he hit a driver as usual off the first tee only to see his ball plunge into the deep right-hand fairway bunker that in the previous years he had invariably carried with ease.
He was surprised by the outcome and it was not until later that day he discovered the bunker in question had been moved 10-15 yards nearer the green. The Augusta authorities have always been quick to protect the integrity of their golf course, which is why it has been stretched on several occasions from just over 6,900 yards in the late 1990s to nearly 7,500 yards this year. The difference now is they are much more open about when and why they do it. And with good reason, too.
Both former Augusta National chairman, William “Hootie” Johnson, and his successor Billy Payne, made it quite clear that advances in technology were behind the sweeping changes they made to the course during 2002 and 2006, and that is a policy which has been maintained under the current chairmanship of Fred Ridley.
“We will keep the course current with the times,” Johnson confirmed back in 2005. “As in the past, our objective is to maintain the integrity and the shot values of the course as envisaged by (original designers) Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie.”
“We are always looking at options,” agreed Payne. “We create plans, looking into the future, when we believe shot value has been impacted by how far the ball is now travelling.”
This year the biggest change is at the daunting par-4 5th hole, which has been lengthened some 40 yards to 495 yards and now requires players to fly the ball 313 yards through the air if they want to carry the deep fairway bunkers. Statistically, the 5th has been the course’s fifth most difficult hole in Masters history with a scoring average of 4.26 but it is probably no coincidence that it has been extended in the aftermath of the 2018 tournament when that average dropped to 4.16.
The new tee on the 5th is built on a parcel of land which used to be across the Old Berckmans Road and it is not the only land grab the club has made in recent years with a view to strengthening the defences of its course to combat modern clubs and balls.
The good news is that, to date, tournament officials have resisted the urge to lengthen the iconic 510-yard par-5 13th hole but that may only be a matter of time now that the club has purchased some land behind the existing back tee from its neighbours, the Augusta Country Club, and that some of the bigger hitters are routinely hitting the green with not much more than a drive and a wedge.
It remains to be seen to what lengths the club will go to protect its course from future assault other than to continually lengthen it.
Introducing a uniform tournament ball is one option Augusta officials have aired in the past but that introduces all sorts of logistical problems and would not receive the support of the R&A and the USGA, who said in the conclusion to their recent 2018 Distance Report that they “continue to believe that a single set of rules for all players of the game, irrespective of ability, is one of the game’s great strengths.
They added: “The R&A and the USGA regard the prospect of having permanent separate rules for elite competition as undesirable and have no current plans to create separate rules for highly skilled players.”
Personally, I have no desire to see the introduction of bifurcation of any kind, either. However, I cannot help but think it will be inevitable at some stage unless the authorities and the manufacturers can work together to find a solution which limits the distance the top players hit the ball without diminishing the enjoyment the rest of us get from the game.
There is no sign of that so far.