They came by the thousands to Augusta National Golf Club to watch the Masters this week, and a U.S. Open broke out.
Drives were sprayed all around wind-swept fairways. Greens wouldn’t hold approaches. Chip shots wouldn’t check up. Pars felt like birdies.
Where were the thrills? The roars of the gallery? The dramatic birdies and eagles on the back nine on Sunday? There was no red to be found anywhere on the scoreboards. You could barely even spot red on Tiger Woods, who wore a black V-neck sweater over his traditional Sunday red shirt. It was almost as if Tiger was mourning a tournament that died far too young.
This day was set up perfectly for a champion named Woods, Goosen or Mickelson. What did we get instead? Zach Johnson.
Strike up the bland.
No offense to Johnson, a capable player who is roundly hailed as a good guy on Tour, but this is a player who before this week had just one career victory to his name — the 2004 BellSouth Classic. (That’s not exactly known as the sixth major.)
At 31, Johnson has as many years on the Nationwide and Hooters tours (four) as he has on the PGA Tour. Sure, he was one of the better American players at the Ryder Cup last year, but isn’t that like being one of the better life-boat captains on the Titanic?
This week the course embarrassed the world’s best golfers far more than it identified them. Just three players were under par through 36 holes. Saturday’s 77.35 scoring average was the highest for any round in 50 years. Saturday, for the first time in 31 years, nobody broke 70 in a round at the Masters. Fuzzy Zoeller cracked that the greens were harder than Washington Road. Even Woods said, “You can hit a great shot and absolutely get hosed out here.”
Translation: Luck matters more than skill. That’s not the Masters, that’s the New Jersey state lottery.
How ironic that this Masters Disaster came exactly 10 years after Woods scared the satin pajamas out of the Augusta National members, forcing them to call Tom Fazio and inject the course with HGH. Now, the course is more than 500 yards longer and has countless more trees than the week Tiger obliterated it. But it wasn’t enough for the Men of the Masters to tweak the course once. They had to go back a second and third time. Why don’t they just go ahead and touch up the Mona Lisa with a little spray paint?
Hootie Johnson, who stepped down as chairman last year, always denied that he wanted to Tiger-proof the course. I finally believe him. He actually wanted to Tiger-Phil-Vijay-Retief-and-Ernie-proof it. Somewhere, Martha Burk is smiling.
I don’t mean to diss the U.S. Open, either. The identity for that tournament is centered around its brutality. But one brutal major a year is enough, thank you. Remember, the Open is the tournament that in the modern era gave us such decorous winners as Scott Simpson and Andy North.
You think it’s a coincidence that we got this yawner of a Masters the same year that former USGA president Fred Ridley, an Augusta member, is spending his first year as the chairman the tournament’s competition committee? I don’t.
In the past, the competition committee has aimed to get the greens here to dry out as the week goes on. On Sunday morning, the greens were wet and receptive even though it didn’t rain here on Saturday night. That’s what you call a concession, but by then it was too late. Even though Sunday was a relatively wind-free, balmy day, the average score was 74.33, and the lowest score was a 69 (and only three players shot that).
Don’t try to blame all this on the wind and the cold. They’ve been playing this tournament on this course every year since 1934. You think this is the first time they’ve had a little inclement weather? Johnson’s score of one over par was tied for the highest ever by a winner, and it was the highest since 1956. That’s not because of the weather. That’s the course.
The saddest part of all this is that we had absolutely no excitement on the back nine on Sunday. The only spine-tingling moment was Woods’s brilliant approach at 13, which led to an eagle that moved him to within two of the leader. That leader was Johnson, who had just 216 yards to the green on No. 13 but laid up. You have to give the plucky Johnson credit for making a 10-foot putt for birdie, but when you lay up from that close at 13 on Sunday at Augusta, you should be penalized half a stroke. (Johnson also laid up on every other par-5 this week.)
Goosen was still in the hunt when he got to the 13th tee. He hit an iron off the tee. Guess I picked the wrong week to quit drinking coffee.
Gary Player has been one of the biggest advocates of making the course tougher so today’s players use the same clubs on their approach shots that they did in Player’s prime. Yet even he said this was the toughest layout he had seen at Augusta in 50 years — and that was before the cold weather rolled in.
So no, things weren’t any easier early in the week, when the sun was out and the wind was quiet. After shooting an 83 in the first round, Larry Mize said, “I was out there practicing yesterday afternoon and there were no roars out there. No roars at all. I think they need to get the roars back, because that’s part of Augusta.”
Not anymore, Larry. This is the new Masters. The tournament ends on the front nine on Thursday.