Sunday, 26 December 2010

Augusta National


This is the 12th at Augusta

I won’t be in Georgia this year, but I’ll still write on Augusta all week, drawing on my experiences from last year. This post will talk about the evolution of the course, which is a good way to set the stage for the most common question I get about Augusta. Is it the best course in the World?

There is far less remaining of the original course than most realize. There are few golf courses that have evolved more than Augusta. The reason we don’t get the sense of such dramatic change is they have done a lot of work, but slowly over 80 years.

The one constant is the routing. No matter how much they tinker, most of the course remains as Mackenzie laid out the course. Much of what we admire goes back to Mackenzie and his use of natural terrain. Much of what I am critical about comes from the hands of the lesser architects who followed him. Some like Maxwell were able to enhance the layout. Many, particularly the last one, have completely ignored the principals of the course laid out by Jones and Mackenzie.

Looks a lot different now

There is not a single hole where change has not been made. Surprising isn’t it. Not even the famous 12th and 13th green sites are in their original form. Some holes like the 7th and 10th holes have a completely new green site by Maxwell. Other holes have undergone major changes like the arrangement of the 11th and the complete rebuilding of the 16th by Robert Trent Jones. All holes have gone through some alteration at some point.

There is not a single green surface, outside of the 12th, that has not been altered slightly since Fazio began working with Augusta. They have been slowly flattening out features and creating “new” pins every year since they began working at Augusta. But altering greens did not start with the current administration. In fact Maxwell rebuilt seven greens in the 1930’s! Many were victims of criticism from the tournament.

Here’s a run down of the changes to greens:

The 1st green was reduced in size but remains a Mackenzie green, The 2nd green was extended twice at player’s suggestions, the third green is a Maxwell green, the 4th was softened and rebuilt by Maxwell, the 5th was an original Mackenzie recently softened by Fazio, the upper plateau was done by Maxwell and the rest is Mackenzie, the 7th is a new green site built by Maxwell, the 8th was rebuilt twice with the second time largely being a restoration by Byron Nelson and Joe Finger, the 9th was rebuilt by Maxwell, the 10th was relocated to lengthen the hole and done by Maxwell, the 11th was expanded left by Jones but the right appears to be Mackenzie, the 12th green was raised two feet in the 1960’s (architect may not have been used), the 13th was softened extensively by Nicklaus, the 14th is an original, the 15th was extended left by Fazio but remains largely a Mackenzie, the 16th is a new hole and green by Jones, the 17th is a Mackenzie and the 18th was rebuilt by Maxwell.

The same goes with the bunkering. The course opened with 22 bunkers. The first green had no bunkers, the fairway bunker on the second was on the left, the 3rd hole had no bunkers, the 5th had no bunker at the green, the 7th had no bunkers and featured the valley of sin in front, the 8th fairway bunker was in the middle of the fairway, the only bunker on 10 was greenside (still in the middle of the fairway), the 11th had a central bunker in the fairway, the 12th had no bunker in front at one time, the 13th green had no bunkers on the left, the 14th had a massive bunker on the right of the fairway, the 15th had no bunkers the 16th had no bunkers in play, there was no bunkers on 17th and no fairway bunkers on the 18th although there was one in the mound leading to the green.

Understanding all the change that has been made, we are left with the following questions. Is it the best course in the world? Was it ever better than it is now? What would I change if I had the power to do so? This should make for an interesting week of writing.

Is it Best in the World?

The famous 13th

I’m always asked on Augusta week is Augusta national the best course in golf?

Here’s the argument for it…..

The raw setting is one of the best I have seen from the rolling topography through to the creeks and finally how all of this is framed in by stately pines. I believe Mackenzie found a terrific routing that manages to add tremendous diversity and challenge to the holes and the absence of many man-made hazards speaks volumes about the quality of the routing.

The initial concept of Jones and Mackenzie was to create a golf course that provides quite a bit of freedom for both professional players and the regular member. There is plenty of room between the tree lines and the fairways are quite generous throughout, but players must play for position if they want to score. The extensive use of short grass around the greens offers up multiple options and some interesting complications too. The concept is almost flawless.

Most courses are initially judged by the high points and in Augusta’s case the course has very few peers. Amen corner can be argued to be the best stretch of golf anywhere. As far as I’m concerned the 12th is on the short list for best par threes and the 13th is without a doubt the best par five I have ever seen. I think the 14th green may be one of the best 10 greens in golf too.

The greens in general are some of the most aggressive in golf, and do a wonderful job of making the golf course about angles and lines of attack, and limiting the need for bunkers. Landforms in the fairway have more strategic importance than most of the fairway bunkering and do a wonderful job of placing more premiums on location off the tee for the elite player.

Augusta is a very special place, one I would love to play some day in the future.

The approach to the 3rd
Here’s my argument against….

The recent work has been awful. The lengthening of the course has taken away a lot of a variety in yardage with only the 3rd hole playing as a short four. The increased planting of trees in many locations has begun to compress the corridors and remove the options from the tee and eliminate many of the alternative lines that were once available. The addition of rough has further damaged the original spirit of the design and removed some of the creative options from the tee. Even the additional bunkers do more to explain the course than create strategy. The golf course is less than it was 15 years ago.

The bigger argument involves the front nine. While the back nine at Augusta is unquestionably one of the games very best, the front nine is not near as strong as the back. While it does contain standouts like the incredible 3rd and brilliant 5th, the two par fives fail to inspire. The holes are solid and interesting, but everything at Augusta from the tournament to the architecture really picks up the pace at the turn.

Augusta National is clearly a Top 10 course in the World and that’s pretty high praise. I even understand why some people would select it as their favourite course, but I still see a series of other courses with a greater collection of holes than Augusta National. There is no denying this is one of golf’s shrines, but the question was whether it’s the best course in the World and in my opinion it is not.

If I were the Architect?


The new trees on the 7th approach

There isn’t an architect alive who wouldn’t want the job to help Augusta National. So if they called me tomorrow here is what I would recommend:

I honestly think it’s time to stop tinkering with the golf course. They have changed the course so much lately that they need to take a break for a while. It doesn’t mean that I would leave things exactly as they are, but it does mean that I would not suggest any more modifications. If I were the consulting architect I would look to change the direction.

I would recommend they remove all the rough to bring back all the options from the tee so that players could play for a position in the fairway that opens up the greens or pin positions. I would return the ability to plan your round and open up the ability to attack the golf course through angles. I want the players to attack the course at their own peril, just like Jones and Mackenzie had intended.

Surprisingly I would not remove all the back tees, but I would return a series of the older shorter tees to create the ability to play holes from different distances depending on circumstance. I would give Billy Paine more flexibility in his set-up for each day. I think he has shown the foresight to make excellent decisions and I would trust him to use the options available. I think holes like the 7th and 15th need to be played shorter become about making tough decisions. I think a slightly shorter course will bring the entire field back into contention making for a more exciting Masters.

I would begin a tree removal program to eliminate most of the new plantings. I would remove every tree planted on the 7th and remove at least the first line of trees on all the other holes. The new trees are encroaching on the fairways and forcing the player’s hand. The goal would be to allow the players more opportunity to play to a side to gain the best angle into a pin.

I actually think Billy Paine is doing all the right things. I also believe he doesn’t want to embarrass anyone involved in previous changes and is making the changes slowly to bring back more of the aggressive play and drama we used to associate with the Masters.

If I were the architect at Augusta I would go to sleep every night with a broad smile on my face.

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