Zach Johnson was chatting on his cell phone when he drove up Magnolia Lane last Thursday, wholly unprepared for the spectacle awaiting him through the passenger window. "I kind of did a double take," the 2007 Masters champion recalled today. "I was like, 'Wow, which hole is that?'"
It wasn't a hole, but Augusta National's new practice range, an 18-acre expanse that is so meticulously manicured and true to the Tao of the National that it looks like it was surgically removed from the course itself.
It's specs are impressive: dual 400-yard-long fairways that allow players to carve shots around strategically positioned trees; magnificent white bunkers and slippery greens that mimic the real things; and a short-game area with one green for putting and two more for chipping, pitching and whatever other skills players might want to hone.
"It looks like the golf course and it performs like the golf course," Johnson says, "which is exactly what you want from a practice facility."
All from a parcel of land that just a year ago was a dusty lot used for parking cars during tournament week (Vehicles now park across the street on 70 acres recently acquired by the club). "It's incredible the way they do things around here, they're so thorough," says Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner and one of the game's most respected designers. "I haven't seen too many places where specific acres are dedicated to practice like that. It's very difficult these days for clubs to give up that type of real estate."
Until this year, players were relegated to the cramped range on the other side of Magnolia Lane, a facility sullied by a towering net that defends Washington Road from high-flying golf balls. "Narrow and short," is how Bernhard Langer described it this morning. "But on the new range you could put 200 players out there and still have enough room. It's a big, big improvement."
And one that came at no small expense, not that the green jackets will say how many greenbacks were spent. Augusta National won't reveal the cost of constructing the range, but it was a significant undertaking. Builders moved more than 125,000 yards of dirt and some 2,000 trees and plants. "It took a lot of imagination," Crenshaw says.
But the sparkling new facility isn't just for players. Five rows of heavily cushioned seats "Observation Stands," in Augusta parlance run from one end of the bays to the other, and there are even viewing areas designated for the 16-and-under crowd. The only thing missing is a popcorn vendor.
"Along with TPC Sawgrass, it's one of the best practice ranges that I've ever seen," says two-time Masters champion Langer. "It doesn't take a nice range to make us practice but there are some ranges where it's just not as much fun."
Augusta National's is no longer among them.