The Masters: A Tradition of Change

The tee shot at the 18th became more daunting when the tee was moved back 55 yards in 2002.
Robert Beck/SI

You know the official word of Augusta National. Tradition. If the people there could copyright the word, sell it in the gift shop with a Masters logo on it, they would. As is, they are more than happy to use it in as many ways as the dictionary allows. In just one eight-hour period a person can hear that the Masters is a "timeless tradition" and also the "greatest tradition in golf." Augusta National is a place that "celebrates tradition" and "values tradition" while always, of course, "respecting tradition." All of it, naturally, adds up to a "tradition unlike any other."

The funny thing is that while everyone might get distracted by the talk about tradition and the stateliness of the Eisenhower tree and the Sarazen bridge, the simple truth is that no major golf tournament — perhaps no major sporting event — has changed as much as the Masters in the last decade or so. That's the remarkable mystique of this place. Everything feels the same. But except for the recipe for the pimento cheese sandwich, the Southern stodginess that demands that fans be called patrons and the absence of a cardboard check for the winner, very little is the same. The Masters is wildly different from the tournament that Tiger Woods won by a staggering 12 shots in 1997.

Start with the course itself. Every hole — with the exceptions of number 3, the famed number 12 and the 16th — has undergone significant changes in the last eight years. Shoot, just look at the 1st hole. The thing has had four major changes over those few years.

• 2002: moved tees back 20 to 25 yards and reshaped fairway bunker

• 2006: moved tees back another 15 to 20 yards and added trees

• 2008: reduced the back of the tee to "ease patron movement"

• 2009: moved the tee up seven yards, rebuilt the green

That's just the 1st hole. At number 7 the tee was moved back 40 yards in 2002 and another 40 yards in '06. At number 18 a bunch of trees were planted and the tee was pushed back 55 yards and moved slightly to the right. At number 11 a forest of trees was added down the right side, and the par-4 was stretched to 505 yards. And so on.

"It's a very different golf course now," two-time Masters champion Tom Watson said before the week began. "They had to do it to keep up with the times. But it's definitely different."

Of course, there were always subtle changes being made — "Augusta National evolves but never changes," said Arnold Palmer as he narrated a video montage on CBS — but the key word was subtle. You could come back year after year and never notice the changes until somebody pointed them out. As Jack Stephens, the former club chairman, used to say back in the 1990s when asked about certain adjustments: "We don't interfere with the good Lord's work." Sure, they might rebuild a green here or reshape a bunker there, but they would never do anything that would dramatically alter the look of the course. They would never do anything drastic like, oh, adding rough to the place.

Then, in 1999, they added "rough" to the edges of Augusta National. Of course it's only 1 3/8 inches, and they cannot call it rough because Augusta National cannot have anything on its grounds as crude as rough and because the patron saint of Augusta National, Bobby Jones, who had this place built with St. Andrews in mind, was emphatically opposed to having rough anywhere near his golf course.

Thus the Augusta people dubbed the higher grass the second cut. And all was good. If the announcers at CBS Sports did their job right, then you never heard the word rough in their extensive coverage. More on that in a minute.

"They had to make changes," six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus says. "With all the advances in equipment and the way the golf ball flies now. . . ." Nicklaus can get rolling pretty good when he starts talking about the way the golf ball flies now. His point was that the Masters people really had to lengthen and toughen the course. People have called it Tiger-proofing, but it's obviously much bigger than Tiger Woods. The 300-yard drive is standard now. Just about everybody has the 140-yard wedge shot in his bag. Nobody wanted golfers to come in and overpower Augusta National. Everybody wanted Woods and Phil Mickelson and the rest to face the same shots that Nicklaus and Palmer faced, which are the same shots that Sam Snead and Ben Hogan faced.

"Certainly there was an effort — a successful effort, I think, during the tenure of my predecessor (Hootie Johnson) — to restore a lot of the shot values that had become obsolete with the equipment and the ball," says Augusta National chairman Billy Payne.

This cuts to the heart of Augusta National's surprisingly effective plan: change to maintain. Reshape to stay the same. Of course there are side effects. While everyone appreciates that the course did have to grow — literally and figuratively — all of the changes have altered another tradition: the tradition of past champions playing in the tournament. When I started to cover the Masters in 1992, the older players were a huge part of the fabric of the tournament. They were, frankly, the main reason that the Masters was different. Past champions like Palmer, George Archer, Gay Brewer, Doug Ford, Tommy Aaron and Billy Casper, among others, would come to Augusta, wave to the fans and, sure, usually miss the cut. But they brought with them history, class and, yes, tradition.

Then . . . they didn't. There has always been some grumbling among younger players that the old guys were clogging up traffic, but for a long time there was just grumbling. Then, in 2002, the Augusta National folks sent out a couple of indelicate letters to some of the past champions suggesting that maybe they no longer belonged on the more difficult course. The scarlet letter of golf. Then, to seal the point, a mandatory retirement age of 65 was hastily instituted.

That same year the most beloved golfer to ever play Augusta, Palmer, said he was done playing in the Masters because "I don't want to get a letter."

"I guess you might say that I overfixed our problem," Johnson said the next year — this was when Augusta National was facing protests because it had no women members.* Johnson asked Palmer to return, and he did. The mandatory retirement age was scrapped as well.

*Of course Augusta National still has no women members. So that tradition remains, at least for now, though there are always rumors.

Still, over time, the older players have stopped coming. This year 1976 champion Raymond Floyd announced two days before the Masters began that he wasn't going to play anymore. "I'm 67 years old," he said, "and it's getting to a stage for me that I felt like I wanted to leave with really fond memories. . . . I didn't want to go out and embarrass myself."

Maybe this is just the natural progression of things . . . sports are for the young. But this year Watson at age 60 was the oldest player in the field, and he shot an opening-round 67 (even while saying, repeatedly, that he was too old to compete on this course). He was tied for the lead until a 50-year-old, Fred Couples, shot 66. So the old guys can still show a bit of their local knowledge now and again.

Anyway, the point never was for the past champions to contend. The point was to have them out there because that was tradition. Parents could point them out to their children. Everyone could reminisce. That's mostly gone now. Three-time champion Nick Faldo was in Augusta to work as a TV analyst, but he did not play. Player, another three-time champion, did not play. Neither did Fuzzy Zoeller. The Masters is poorer for it.

Then there's the coverage. For years CBS begged for the right to telecast 18 holes on Sunday. CBS executive producer Frank Chirkinian — a man so serious about the Masters that he moved to Augusta full time — would remember the circular negotiations he would have with the Augusta National people. He would ask about extending coverage because there was so much interest in the Masters, and they would respond that there was so much interest in the Masters precisely because there wasn't a lot of coverage.

Chirkinian was at a huge disadvantage. The Augusta National folks, however anyone might feel about them, do not run the Masters for profit. They always bring the tournament to the people with "limited commercial interruption." And you will remember that when the protests over women members heated up — and there was pressure placed on some of the longtime advertisers of the Masters — Augusta National paid to air the tournament commercial-free.

They do not allow corporate tents. They would shut down the tournament before allowing a corporate sponsor to get naming rights. The price of food and drink is the lowest, surely, of any major sporting event. They limit ticket sales. The idea always has been to offer the perfect tournament experience, and for many, many years the Masters' idea of the perfect tournament experience meant no 18-hole coverage. Leave the people wanting more. Keep a little mystery in the place.

For years one of the great secrets of golf was what the 5th hole really looked like. It was never shown on television — the leaders were always on the 6th hole by the time coverage began — and it's very much out of the way for the spectators, er, patrons. The Augusta National people liked that.

In 2002, quite suddenly, Augusta National changed that too. CBS was allowed to start showing all 18 holes. This is one of the greatest things ever for golf fans, but again, it's different.

This year Augusta National unveiled a giant, state-of-the-art practice facility, a new entry gate and new free parking lots for the patrons (which has significantly cut down on the "wear an orange vest and wave wildly for people to pull into your mud pile" business that was always thriving during Masters week). There are new buildings and new TV camera positions and new flows of traffic for people to walk. They rolled out 3-D television, added a "featured pairing" on the Internet and expanded the web coverage on Amen Corner. It's a daily gold rush for golf fans. The Masters has gone from secretive and discreet to perhaps the most advanced media tournament in the world.

Most of these are great changes, but they are changes. The Masters is a very different tournament on a very different golf course with very different coverage from even just a few years ago. And yet — this is the magic of the place — somehow when CBS comes on the air and shows the azaleas in bloom and cues in that tinkling piano, it still feels the same. Maybe it's the magic of that piano music. You can be sure they're not going to change that anytime soon.

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