For the first time in years, controversial course changes will not be part of the chatter at Augusta National. In 2010, the buzz on how to play the course (rather than who is playing) is focused on how the new grooves rule will affect approaches into the par-5s and shots around the greens.
However, Augusta's wily Green Jacketed elders have continued their efforts to restore the "famous and revered roars," as Chairman Billy Payne put it in his annual State of the Masters conference on Wednesday. To do so, the club asked architect Tom Fazio to restore a measure of risk/reward to a pair of par-5s: Nos. 2 and 15. Zach Johnson's strategy of laying up on every par-5 proved winning in 2007, but for fans it was boring. This year, look for more second-shot attacks on the par-5s.
Chairman Payne explained the changes: "We rebuilt and re-grassed the greens on No. 2 and No. 15. The front of the second green was opened up slightly by decreasing the size of the greenside bunkers. We hope this will encourage players to go for this green on their second shot ... The right front portion of the 15th green, which previously was unusable under Tournament conditions, will now allow for a new pin position providing yet another exciting birdie or reachable or eagle opportunity on this reachable par 5."
Here's the bottom line: the masters of the Masters want exactly what the fans wantmore birdies and eagles.
Fazio points out that while the green entrance at the 575-yard second hole was widened, the bunkers themselves were deepened. This creates a small dose of the risk/reward process that Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones envisioned when they designed the course in 1932. It also restores the run-up option that both men so admired at St. Andrews. The result is that running approach has more room to wriggle onto the green, providing more chances at eagle. Failure to execute, however, means the deeper bunkers will be all the more punishing.
At the 15th, the new green reclaims a pin position that Fazio says "hasn't been available in ten, maybe 15 years. The tournament speeds had made it unusable. Re-grading the green has restored it." In recent years too many well-struck shots to middle and back hole locations had trickled over the green and forced players into a frighteningly delicate recovery, up a steep slope to a green that runs back toward the water. Sarazen's magical 4-wood would simply never have held the modern green. The re-created pin placement will allow more shots to find and hold the putting surfaceand again provide eagle opportunities.
That's not to say it will be bombs away on either hole. Padraig Harrington preaches patience on the par-5s: "You don't have to birdie every one of them." And Phil Mickelson admitted that the 2nd now plays differently for himbut he's treating it as a three-shotter. "The pin placement on the back of No. 2 will change the way I play that hole," he says. "It used to be that if you were short of the hole with that back-right Sunday pin, it was a very difficult shot to get close to the hole, but now it has more of a funnel effect and you can play behind the hole and it will come back to the pin. That will affect the way I play No. 2 because now it's much more difficult behind the hole so I may not go for the green in two, or if I do, I'll play it from the front bunker because it's an easier up-and-down."
That all sounds great sitting in the press center early in the week. But if Phil is in contention on Sunday, we're betting he'll take the risk. It's what the Green Jacketsand the fanswant to see.