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No further room for expansion at Augusta

It's not often you find yourself rooting for the golf course.

But make an exception this week.

The people who own Augusta National stretched their course to the edges of the property trying to contain Tiger Woods and an army of 20-somethings armed with the latest in fitness routines, sports psychologists and technology. And if one of the best architects in the business, millions of dollars, 300 more yards, a few extra trees and bigger, badder, reshaped bunkers fail to turn the trick, they're not the only people who lose.

The game could be in for a lot of trouble.

Because Plan B involves putting restrictions on how far a golf ball can travel, a very unpopular option.

And there is no Plan C.

``We can't do this again five years from now. We don't have the room,'' Hootie Johnson, the club's chairman, told The New York Times recently. ``We couldn't do it again. Many golf courses can't do what we've done.''

Fans like to say records are made to be broken, but when they're broken too fast, the novelty disappears in a hurry. Look at what happened to the single-season home run mark over the past few years. Grand as every one of Barry Bonds' 73 blasts must have been, most of the joy was wrung out before they had a chance to land.

Soon, the grumbling about juiced balls, pumped-up athletes and bandbox-sized venues could spread to golf. If scoring records keep dropping as precipitously as they have since Woods arrived on the scene, no course will seem worthy of holding a tournament, let alone a major championship.

Woods owns or shares the record for lowest score in relation to par for all four majors -- the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship -- but having your course laid low by Woods is practically a badge of honor. Still, imagine that same place getting knocked over every other year by the Joe Durants, Brad Faxons and Mark Calcavecchias of the world -- 30- and 40-somethings, each of whom claimed at least a share of a scoring record last season. And then you have some idea of what sent Johnson and the boys at the Augusta National back to the drawing board in such a hurry.

Those thoughts have already scared plenty of other people who care about golf.

It made the U.S. Golf Association stretch Southern Hills to the limit when it set up the course for the U.S. Open this summer. The 16th hole became, at 491 yards, the longest par-4 in Open history, too long for a par-4, according to the USGA's own guidelines.

As a result of Tom Fazio's redesign, the par-4 11th at the Masters will play only a yard shorter. At 7,270 yards, Augusta stands as the fifth-longest track in major-championship history. But how much time the changes buy the course is still anyone's guess.

At last year's British Open, the people in charge of setting up Royal Lytham & St. Annes were saying privately that the course was likely playing host to its last major. They'd run out of room years earlier and were hoping the new breed of golfers didn't humiliate the venue too much. Its reputation was saved at the last minute when some familiar allies -- wind and rain -- showed up, and whoever came up with the idea of adding 14 bunkers to the 182 already on the course probably has been proposed for knighthood.

But Johnson and his pals at Augusta don't need any more titles. Besides, part of the appeal of their course is its familiarity to viewers and carving more bunkers like just so many booby-traps into the fairways at Augusta would look as out of place as azaleas on an English seaside course.

What Fazio did instead was extend a few of the bunkers already there, and lengthen nearly every hole he could. That was nine in all, and he saved the longest stretch for No. 18, turning it into a 465-yard theater with its dramatic possibilities still intact.

When Woods set the tournament scoring record of 18-under-par in 1997, he never hit more than a 7-iron into a par-4 green. Last year, en route to another win, Woods hit sand wedge into the 18th green on the final day and made birdie. The first time he played the redesigned Augusta, Woods hit 6-irons into four of the par-4 holes, including 18, and a 5-iron into another. It's a significant change, but hardly enough to throw Woods out of his element.

And if the weather doesn't act up and conditions are soft, the shot selection for most players won't be disrupted all that much. In practice rounds last month, Vijay Singh shot 63, Calcavecchia 65 and Kevin Sutherland, on his first go-round ever, shot 67.

So hope the winds stir and the rain rakes the course. For all the changes, Fazio and Johnson could use some help, something like greenskeeper John Philp got at Carnoustie during the British Open in 1999. Already under criticism for a tough course setup, he was practically celebrating when gale-force winds pounded the coast in time for the opening round.

``They've got titanium and psychologists,'' he said about the complaining golfers. ``All I've got is nature.''


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