AUGUSTA, Ga. — Which Augusta National is going to show up at this week’s Masters? The kinder, gentler National that yielded a back-nine 30 to Jack Nicklaus in 1986 and is the home of frequent roars and eagles? Or the mean, unrelenting National of the last two years that featured wind, cold, all-too-rare birdies, eagles as an endangered species and a back nine on Sunday quiet enough to be a library?
The answer is, we won’t know for sure until Sunday. One thing we do know, however, is that Masters chairman Billy Payne has heard the complaints and while he believes the weather and firm conditions of the course were responsible for the last two difficult finishes, he remains optimistic that this year will be different.
Indeed, this week’s forecast looks favorably pleasant. A cold front went through on Monday, dropping some much-needed rain and bringing blustery winds. But the sun came back out on Wednesday and temperatures should be into the mid-70s the rest of the week. The greens at the National, which have high-tech sub-surface technology beneath them, should be as firm as ever. The fairways already were firming up on Wednesday afternoon and should have some run-out on tee shots.
So it appears that weather won’t be an issue this week and Augusta National will be left to its own defenses, which are substantial enough.
Here’s what to watch for on the course this week:
First down: The opening hole may not be quite the killer it was last year, when the tee was back and it played into a strong headwind or crosswind. The tee has been moved up ten yards, ostensibly to improve gallery traffic between the back of the tee and the putting green, which in 2008 were crowded together too closely when the tee was backed up. The bigger problem last year, though, was that in trying to lengthen the hole, the back tee was a bridge too far. While it brought the gaping fairway bunker on the right into play, it left some players landing tee shots on the upslope of the fairway and facing an awkward and long second shot. That’s not what Alister Mackenzie had in mind. So the first hole, which ranked fourth-hardest last year, may be kinder this week.
Sucker pin: Watch for a potential new pin position on the course’s most overlooked hole, the par-4 fifth. The green has been modified — a mound was flattened — to allow for a front-left position on what has traditionally been one of the most awkward holes here. “You can’t fly it at that hole because if you go long, you’re going to hit on a downslope and go in the trees,” said Phil Mickelson. “You can’t miss left because the shot will be going away from the hole on your approach. So you have to be either short or right of the pin. The best place would be anywhere on the green and try to two-putt. That would be ideal. It’s not an easy pin but I don’t know of many easy pins out here.”
We Like Ike: The famed Eisenhower tree, known for jumping in the way of errant tee shots at the 17th, may loom slightly larger this week. The tee box was extended forward ten yards, bringing Ike’s tree even more in range than it was last year.
Iron eagle: The par-5 15th tee was also extended forward ten yards. “We’re hoping to encourage more players to attempt their second shot to this historically exciting green,” Payne explained. Only three eagles were made at the 15th last year. Look for that total to rise this week.
Speed racer: No surprise here but look for the greens to be at Daytona 500 speeds tomorrow, a few notches up from the practice rounds. It’s kind of a Masters tradition that the course gets juiced up, somehow, overnight from Wednesday to Thursday.
“I remember my first time around here,” said Camilo Villegas. “Putting Wednesday afternoon and then getting on the putting green Thursday morning. I was like, Whoa, the second you drop the balls on the green, it’s just a lot firmer and more brown and a lot quicker. So we all know it’s different. The golf course is totally different from Monday through Wednesday, to Thursday. Then come the weekend, it’s going to be even harder. You’ve just to go be patient and try to adapt.”
The course clearly played harder the last two years than it had previously, although defending champion Trevor Immelman likes to point out that he was 11 under par through 54 holes last year before Sunday’s difficult finish in which he shot a 75. And 11 under par means the course was giving up some birdies, at least. But even Gary Player, teeing it up this week for his record 52nd Masters, and last, appearance, noticed a difference.
“There is definitely a slight edge off the golf course as far as excitement is concerned,” Player said. “If you think back, the cheers you could hear through these trees time and time again with lots of eagles, birdies. I don’t know how many birdies and eagles have been made since the change of the course as compared to before. To me, you’re not seeing as many birdies and eagles on the last nine holes. I don’t know whether I’m imagining things. But I’m such a fan of this tournament. Even if 290 won the tournament … it’s still exciting.”
There was one optimistic sign. Those standing around the clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon just after 3 o’clock heard a loud roar roll up from the far end of the course. It continued for more than 30 seconds. It had to be a hole-in-one and it had to come from the 16th green. In fact, it was Vijay Singh. In a practice round trick-shot tradition, he tried skipping a ball off the pond — and knocked one into the cup for an ace.
Was it the first of many such roar-producers this week? Check back on Sunday.