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America's Classic Courses at Risk

By John M. Ross,
Augusta National
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Augusta National members have been wringing their hands ever since the 1997 Masters. (.)

The new technology in golf equipment and balls, which has made some golfers longer hitters and put them in better control of their games, is also causing considerable anguish for the so-called classic courses that have been staging most of the game's major championships for years and years.

"We need more length," has been a common reaction, especially after the Augusta National decided to lengthen its hallowed layout by 300 yards for the Masters. Unfortunately, many of these sites, which have hosted numerous U. S. Opens and PGA Championships over the years, don't have the additional land for such adjustments. With rare exceptions, they have been in place for decades and are locked into residential patterns and community structures that would be impossible or difficult to change after so many years. Frozen in place, many run the risk of becoming obsolete.

But some of them will be changed; make no mistake about that. The Augusta National has been locked in, too, but it managed to cut a deal with its next door neighbor, the Augusta Country Club, for additional yardage for its par-5 13th. The extra length will bring the creek in front of the green in play and that should discourage the increasing number of big hitters who have been getting on in two on this key hole.

The Augusta National members have been wringing their hands ever since Tiger Woods tore up the course in the 1997 Masters, won by 12 stokes and made several changes in the record book. Some adjustments have been made in the interim, including the growing of meaningful rough in 1999. And each time there's been a change, the cry has gone out that the famed course is being made "Tigerproof."

The club and architect Tom Fazio, who is overseeing the current renovation of nine of the holes, reject the charge. They point out that the course has been in constant change over the years in an effort to stay current and retain its reputation as an excellent test of golf. But the lengthening of the course has caused critics to charge that the big boomers, like Tiger, Phil Mickelson and David Duval, among others, will be given an even greater edge while the lighter hitters will find it tougher than ever.

The 18th, which many considered a weak closing hole for a test like the Masters, apparently has been turned into a near-monster. With an added 60 yards, it is now a 465-yard par-4, with expanded fairway bunkers now coming more into play. A stand of trees also has been placed near the bunkers on the left in what used to be a bailout area. Those who have seen the change feel a player coming to the last hole and needing a par to win will really have to earn his Green Jacket.

Ben Crenshaw, who has won two Masters and is currently heavily immersed in the course design trade, has come up with an intriguing response to the renovation at his beloved Augusta National. He suggests that it might have been better for the club to have developed an "Augusta ball" for use in the Masters only - a ball that would have had the built-in "controls" that fit the course that was. Everyone would have played the same ball and would have a chance to practice with it when they arrived at Augusta. It certainly would have been a lot cheaper than the renovation!

Many other classic courses could be interested in a similarly controlled ball when it comes their turn to host the Open or the PGA. But these events are the championships of their respective associations - the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America - and that could present problems in terms of getting ball approval. The Masters, of course, is an invitational event staged by a private club and thus has more independence.

While some of us may be enjoying this age of new technology, driving to places never reached before on the course, giddy over new scores, etc., it also is causing some confusion. As courses, especially the classic tracks like the Augusta National, make radical changes, consider what this is going to do to the golf record book. Comparative scores mean little unless, of course, we have a whole bunch of asterisks in explanation. Like what baseball had to do with Roger Maris's 61 home runs, after he broke Babe Ruth's long-standing record over an expanded schedule of more games.

Many fans booed Maris when he hit that 61st homer, considering it an unfair assault on the record book and the beloved Babe. He got the opportunity, some reasoned, because the inevitable expansion of baseball gave him more opportunities to swing the bat. But, as has been seen, it has been broken again and again since then as the expansion has gone forward.

That's the price of progress, of course, and we've had a taste of it with our golf records and comparative measurements. In pro golf, the yardstick for excellence was the money list for the longest time. In 1938, when the PGA Tour began, the total purse money for 38 events came to $158,000. It increased slowly over the next few decades, but with the coming of Arnold Palmer and televised golf in the Sixties, it began to soar and now there are young millionaires everywhere. And a comparative earnings list has no meaning at all.

The best example of this is Sam Snead. Slammin' Sam has won more PGA Tour events than any other player in history - 81 by official count. He was the leading money winner three times, and finished in the top ten on the money chart in 14 of his first 20 years on the tour. And yet on the chart for career earnings his $620,126 doesn't even place him among the top 200 on the list.

Sure, it's progress, but it is depressing to see the record book of golf lose some of its value.

In the confusion following the terrorist attacks of September 11, little attention was paid to a remarkable 58 shot by Jason Bohn of Atlanta on the Canada PGA Tour. Believed to be the first 58 ever recorded in tournament play, the 28-year-old Bohn put the dazzler together in the final round as he won the Bayer Championship at the Huron Oaks Club in Sarnia, Ontario on Sept. 16.

A former University of Alabama player, Bohn made the turn on the par-71 course in 9-under, after six birdies, two eagles and a birdie for an incredible 26. He picked up four more birdies on the backside for his 13-under 58. He was 24-under for the tournament at 260, and was a winner by two strokes.

Actually, it could have been better. His birdie putt on the par-5 final hole rolled by the lip of the cup. And that would have been a 57!

To its surprise, the media discovered in follow-up interviews that this really wasn't the biggest thrill of his life. In his days of college golf, Bohn won a whopping $1 million for a hole-in-one. His winning prize in the Bayer was $32,000, but it was his biggest ever.

"But it really means more to me," he confessed, "because it is something I earned on my own, as opposed to a lucky shot."

We should all be as lucky!

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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