It would be fair to say that Augusta National has changed a great deal since its founder, Bobby Jones, and his original course architect, Alister Mackenzie, created their masterpiece on an undulating piece of land just under 150 miles to the east of Jones’ home town of Atlanta.
The first major change came in 1937, just a handful of years after the club’s inception, when the green on the current 10th hole – then the 1st – was moved back to higher ground. The following year, Jones heeded the advice of first Masters champion, Horton Smith, to lengthen the 7th – formerly the 16th – and introduce a “postage stamp green” surrounded by bunkers. The current par-3 16th was also substantially lengthened a couple of years later and a small stream excavated to create the large pond that still guards the left-hand side of its green today.
It is interesting to note that three quarters of a century ago Jones was already adding length to the course and that process has been gathering pace ever since. It has had to.
Between 1940 and 2000, the increase was a modest 185 yards, but since the Millennium a further 450 yards have been added primarily to counter rapidly accelerating improvements in ball and club technology.
Of course, it is not just technological advances which are threatening the integrity of Augusta and all our other venerable championship courses. The increased fitness of players and improvements in greenkeeping practises are also factors but you only need to read some recent research conducted by Golf Digest to see where the main blame lies.
That research all-but took the fitness factor out of the equation by comparing the average distance a group of PGA Champions Tour professionals hit their drives last year compared to when they were 30. The results were staggering. Or deeply worrying depending on your point of view.
According to the findings, last year 57-year-old Fred Couples was averaging 300.4 yards off the tee or 27.8 yards (10.2%) more than he did as a 30-year-old. 57-year-old Kenny Perry and 52-year-old Scott McCarron were up 8.94% and 8.3% respectively. 53-year-old Lee Janzen’s average was up 7.73% from 262.7-yards to 283-yards while at the age of 60 the evergreen Bernhard Langer enjoyed a 7.72% increase from 260.3 to 280.4 yards. Distance gains are even more substantial on the PGA Tour. Eighteen years ago, John Daly was the only player with a driving distance average of over 300-yards. This year, by mid-February, there were 68.
The good news for golf is that the authorities seem finally be willing to admit there is a problem.
“We do not think distance is necessarily good for the game,” USGA Executive Director, Mike Davis, admitted in a recent radio interview. “The issue is complex, it’s important and it’s one we need to, and we will, face straight on.”
Last month, Martin Slumbers, Davis’ counterpart at the R&A, gave the biggest hint yet that the game’s governing bodies are now willing to act.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the technology has made this difficult game just a little bit easier,” he said. “At a time when we want more people to play the game, I think that’s a good thing. But we do also think golf is a game of skill and should be reflective of skill. If you look at the data, there has been a significant move up on all tours.
“For a number of years there has been a slow creep upwards, but this is a little bit more than a slow creep,” he added. “It’s actually quite a big jump. Our 2002 Joint Statement of Principles put a line in the sand. But when you look at this data we have crossed that line in the sand.”
We will all have to wait for their forthcoming joint Distance Report to learn if the R&A and the USGA propose changes to their equipment rules and then see how the manufacturers respond.
However, we can but hope the two sides will reach agreement before historic major venues like Augusta are rendered obsolete.