When this year’s Masters champion finally makes his way up to the Butler Cabin in the gathering Georgia twilight this Sunday evening, much will be made of the green jacket presentation’s pomp and circumstance. There will be lots of discussion about the winner’s having forever etched his name into the record books and cemented his place among an elite fraternity of golfers. And commentators will, no doubt, pontificate at great length about his performance, measuring it against legendary ones from tournaments past and invoking names like Ben and Arnie and Jack and Tiger. All of this is part of the Masters mystique, just as much as the azaleas and Amen Corner.
But make no mistake, whoever triumphs at Augusta National this weekend will not have won the same Masters tournament that Hogan or Palmer or Nicklaus or even Woods did during his first win in 1997. That’s because, over the past eight years, “a tradition unlike any other” has steadily succumbed to a more common winning strategy prevalent on today’s PGA Tour:“Grip it and rip it.”
The easy thing might to blame Tiger for this. After all, his record breaking, 12 stroke victory at Augusta nine years ago—fueled by massive, 300 plus yard drives—served as a kind of coming out party for power golf and, no doubt, gave many stunned Augusta National members “the vapors.”Not coincidentally, that next winter, the Masters increased its course length for the first time in 40 years. In fact, Tiger’s four victories at Augusta have sparked something of a new Masters tradition: he wins and they make the course longer and tougher the very next year. So much so that come this weekend, those players who made the cut will have done it on a course roughly one par 5 longer with nastier bunkers and tighter fairways than the track Palmer first triumphed on in 1958.
As might be expected, Palmer and others are not exactly enthused about these changes. “I love the place, just love everything that happens there,” Arnie recently told Golf Digest, “but now, I’m not so sure.” Six time Masters champion Nicklaus was even less diplomatic. “I think they’ve ruined it from a tournament standpoint,” he said. “They’ve totally eliminated what Bobby Jones tried to do in the game of golf.”
Jones, one of the Augusta National’s founders, originally designed a course that could be played many different ways but that rewarded those who hit precise shots and putted well. But with the 2006 version of Augusta National now playing at a monstrous 7,445 yards (the second longest layout in major championship history), the Masters is turning into a tournament where the biggest and least accurate hitters on tour like Tiger and Vijay Singh have a built in advantage over shorter but more accurate hitters.
But aren’t these changes merely a recognition that the game has irrevocably changed? Or do they constitute a sacrilege against one of golf’s holiest shrines? What’s more important to preserve: the records or the playing traditions that set them? For the Masters, the answer to these questions appears to be the former and I, for one, applaud their increasingly enlightened approach. And who knows, maybe one day soon we’ll see the most long overdue addition to August National yet: a women’s locker room.