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Where's the Masters magic?


What has happened to the Masters? Nothing is quite what it seems these days and golf’s major championships are apparently not immune. The week in early April at Augusta National is meant to be golf’s most anticipated date with drama, the most exciting and thrilling adventure the game offers. But, of late, not so much. Last year that was the US Open at Torrey Pines, but if the 91-hole epic triumph by a one-legged genius was one for the ages then the Open and the USPGA were still riveting even without Tiger Woods.

Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia produced that memorable duel at Oakland Hills just weeks after Harrington had seen off the romantic challenge of Greg Norman to retain his Open crown. Another star that week was Royal Birkdale itself, which with an assist from the British “summer” proved itself a stern but subtle examination for the world’s best players. That used to be Augusta’s role in the game but all the recent changes have undoubtedly altered the nature of the Masters. Suddenly it has become a grinding marathon, while the US Open, with some interesting course set-ups, tempting players with tantalisingly short par-fours, for example, has got more intriguing. What is going on?

So the saying goes, the Masters used to be the major where you could charge back into contention with a brilliant last-round 65. Last year Trevor Immelman won with a closing 75. It matched the worst ever score to win the Masters although he should not feel ashamed since he is in good company. The record was held by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus once got the job done with a 74. But the last two Masters champions both have unfortunate statistics attributed to them since in 2007 Zach Johnson equalled the highest ever winning total of 289, one over par, set by Sam Snead in 1954 and matched by Jack Burke two years later.

Johnson also had the distinction of being the champion with the most ever bogeys on his card (16). He was 11 under for the par-fives for the week, having laid up every single time, a disciplined and effective tactic but not exactly why we tune into the Masters every spring. The weather has not helped. Two years ago there was a wintry blast of freezing air, while last year’s final round was plagued with an irritating breeze gusting through the pines. Pace of play has also become a huge issue, the final twosome taking over five hours to reach the clubhouse. But the slow down is even more insidious than that – the waiting starts on the second shot to the first green on Thursday morning.

There have now been, pleasingly for a four-round stroke play competition, 72 Masters and ten since the process of strengthening Augusta National began under the former chairman Hootie Johnson in 1999 – two years previously Tiger Woods having rocked the place to its foundations by winning at 18 under par. Although there were tweaks to a few holes, the most significant change was the introduction of the “second cut”, fairway-defining fluff that stops balls heading for the trees (thumbs up from the members) but hardly compares to the shag pile at other venues (although with modern wedges providing backspin from even the thickest rough perhaps this is a red herring). Since then, notably in 2002 and ’06, new tees adding hundreds of yards have been created and many new trees planted. How have these changes affect the play at the Masters? A few issues:

Where have all the comeback champions gone? Only two of the last ten champions were not leading or tied for the lead after 54 holes. In fact, the winner has come from the last pairing in 17 of the last 18 Masters, the exception being Johnson two years ago. Yet this is not wildly different from the overall Masters trend. On 41 occasions out of the 72 Masters so far contested, the 54-hole leader, or a player tied for the lead, went on to win. In eight Masters in a row from 1938 to 1948 (three years were lost to the war) the winner was the 54-hole leader and the same was true for seven years in a row in the 1960s when the green jacket was the exclusive property of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. So that’s where Tiger gets it from.

Only once has there been a significant stretch of comeback champions but for those who started watching the Masters in the 1980s it may have appeared it was ever thus. From 1983, five champions in a row, and seven out of eight, charged back from third place (or worse). Heady days, thrilling Sundays, but not necessarily representative of Masters past. The supposedly conservative Nick Faldo came from five behind, three behind and six behind to win his three green jackets, helping to create Masters mythology.

What happened to players scoring 65 on the last day to win? True, Nicklaus did it in 1986 (he is pictured en route, saluting a birdie on the 17th) and Faldo in 1989. In fact the record for the lowest score to win on the final day at Augusta is the 64 by Gary Player in 1978, when he came home in 30 strokes as Nicklaus did eight years later. But the Masters is not unique in this, with all the majors offering similar heroics (see table overleaf) for the lowest major winning final rounds). Over the last ten years, the average fourth round score by the winner has been exactly 70, slightly higher than the all-time average of 69.86. But in the previous ten Masters, from 1989 to ’98, the average last round score by the winner was as low as 68.60 so the changes have led to that figure rising by almost a shot and a half.

Are the winning scores rising? Again, compared to the previous 10 Masters, yes. From 1989 to ’98, the average winning score was 11 under par (Tiger’s record 18 under helps there). Over the last 10 Masters, the average winning score has been nine under par (even taking into account Johnson’s one over par victory in 2007) but the all-time average winning score is eight under so it could be argued that the best are getting better, however hard the course gets.

Where have all the eagles and birdies gone? Last year there were 758 birdies during the Masters tournament. That put it 16th in the list of the last 64 Masters for which records are available. There were also 19 eagles, just under the average for the last ten Masters of 20.20 but higher than the all-time average of 17.25. Again the decade from 1989 to ’98 offers the highest average of eagles at 24.70. In 1991 there were 37 eagles and 965 birdies, a year later 34 eagles and 998 birdies. The 1992 Masters is the only one where the stroke average of all the players competing was under the par of 72. The all-time stroke average is 74.24; the figure for the last ten Masters is comparable at 74.00. In 1966 the club saved on the crystal it hands out to the players as there were only three eagles for the week.

The perceived lack of eagles and birdies has, the contention holds, affected the atmosphere at Augusta. Where have all the roars gone? Perhaps it is not how many eagles and birdies but who is making them. In the heyday of the early 1990s, out early on a Thursday or Friday morning would be Palmer and Nicklaus, and you could track their regal progress around the course by the cheers echoing back up the hill to the clubhouse. The feel-good factor always got an early morning boost.

By the time Palmer, Nicklaus and Player started dominating the Masters in the 1960s, the tournament was established as major championship but only in the previous decade had it come of age. Of course, the Masters was the brainchild of Bobby Jones, who as an amateur won the Grand Slam of the Opens and Amateurs of the US and Britain in 1930. His “Invitational” began in 1934 and a year later Gene Sarazen’s eagle at the 15th hole – “the shot heard around the world” – put the event on the map. But in terms of separating itself from other tour events, that began around 1950. That year Jimmy Demaret, the flamboyant heir of Walter Hagen, won for the third time and declared the Masters was “the greatest championship in the whole world. Bar none!”

Of course, Demaret would say that, having never won the US Open or the USPGA and never having played in the “British”. Jones actually hated his tournament being called a championship. “A championship of what?” he would hiss but presumably did not mind the publicity. By then Byron Nelson had won the Masters twice, Snead was in the process of winning three in six years, while Ben Hogan would win in 1951 and ’53. Each time he would go on to win the US Open and in ’53 he added the Open at Carnoustie. Doing so put the Masters on the same footing as the two Opens and his triple crown was celebrated with a tickertape parade in New York, with Jones on hand to enjoy the festivities alongside Hogan. By the 1980s, the Masters was regularly voted by players as the tournament they wanted to win more than any other. But, if anything, Tiger’s quest to beat Nicklaus’s tally of 18 majors (rather than Jack’s six green jackets) has reaffirmed the notion that all majors are created equal.

Jones and Dr Alister Mackenzie, the famous course architect who helped lay out the National, never intended for their course to match the US Open style as typified by the unrelenting Oakmont. There the philosophy, as described by William Fownes, son of designer Henry Fownes, was that a “shot poorly played should be a shot irrevocably lost.” In The Making of the Masters, David Owen writes: “Mackenzie and Jones both believed that such ruthlessly penal design made the game unpleasant for ordinary players and obscured the differences between great golfers and merely good ones. If a course’s perils are so severe as to leave no reasonable possibility of escape, then a skilled player’s advantage over a less skilled player is greatly reduced.”

In addition, according to Charles Price in A Golf Story, Mackenzie “had no preconceptions about par, which he considered a figment of the USGA’s imagination”. He followed the Scottish theory that “an ideal round of golf ought to add up to ‘level fours’. How those fours added up was immaterial. Not knowing how they would add up was what gave golf its ‘spirit of adventure’.” Once told he should play a particular course because nobody had ever broken par there, Mackenzie replied: “My goodness, what on earth’s wrong with it?”

Adventure is one thing, becoming a pushover is another, and the scoring statistic for the 1990s suggested something had to give. Even short hitters were finding the 18th green with a wedge for their second shot where Norman had, infamously, missed it with a 4-iron in 1986 (to pluck out just one example). After winning for the third time in 1996, Faldo said the course was a “seductive layout that lures you into a false sense of comfort”. Not any more. These days players are forced out of their comfort zone from the first tee onwards.

But if there is one thing that has not played ball over the last decade it has been the weather. Almost every year has thrown up problems but in 2004 everything conspired for a stunning finale in which Phil Mickelson just pipped Ernie Els in a blaze of birdies and eagles. Jones would have approved, having written in the 1950s: “We have always felt that the make-or-break character of many of the holes of our second nine has been largely responsible for rewarding our spectators with so many dramatic finishes. It has always been a nine that could be played in the low 30s or the middle 40s.”

Part of the problem with the course lengthening has been the lack of flexibility when conditions have been less than perfect. There have always been Masters tees and members tees and they have just got further apart with nothing in the middle.

But there is hope for the future under the shrewd chairmanship of Billy Payne. In a modest press release sent out during the winter – Payne is not about to embarrass his predecessor – it was announced that the first hole has been shortened by ten yards and that the tees at the seventh and 15th holes have been extended forwards to allow a shortening if necessary. “This year only minor changes have been implemented and all were made in order to provide greater flexibility in the event of adverse weather conditions, which we have experienced in the last two years,” Payne said.

And anyway, as the days lengthen towards spring, who cannot feel the anticipation build for the first major of the year? Tiger will be back. As good as ever? We will see. Harrington is going for three majors in a row, Garcia could be ready, the English will be out in force, Rory McIlroy is making his debut.

And, just to rekindle that 80s feeling, Norman is competing again. Other than Palmer and Nicklaus, has anyone been involved with the winning and losing of more Masters? Sadly, with Greg, it has always been the latter, but anything seems possible these days.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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