Augusta National is a Depression-era course built when 250 yards was a respectable professional distance off the tee. Steel shafts were just being introduced and golf ball technology was still rudimentary. For decades, Augusta was a test that matched the capabilities of the day’s best golfers.
Cracks started appearing when Jack Nicklaus arrived. He played 420-yard holes with a driver and a pitching wedge, not a driver and a 6-iron.
When Tiger Woods came along thirty years later, the course had to be “Tiger-proofed,” because his length overpowered the cozy design. Now, everyone hits the ball as far as he did fifteen years ago.
The latest insult was Bubba Watson, whose length two weeks ago mocked August’s most difficult holes. In ten years, there will be fistfuls of players who hit the ball just as long. What then?
The Augusta membership is proud of its course, unique in the world and one of the world’s most challenging. Yet, the membership is trapped by it, too. The Masters has always been played there; it was meant to be played there. The Masters and August National are one and the same. There is no other place where the Masters can be held.
The USGA is rotating its championship to newer courses able to keep up with today’s golfers, Merion East notwithstanding. That course was tricked up beyond belief in order to stand up.
The R&A is doing its best to keep its legendary courses in the Open rotation, but cracks are showing up in that strategy, too. The Old Course at St. Andrews is nearing the same fate as Augusta — too short, and running out of room to add length for the sake for length, not for the sake of strategy.
The table has been turned on these ancient courses. Instead of challenging golfers, they are now being challenged by the golfers. Professional golfers will soon be dominating them no matter what is done.
It could easily be the case that in fifteen years Augusta National will have no more slack to give. Its only defenses would be the pin locations on its forbidding greens. The tournament could be won the by the golfer who has the fewest three-putt greens over the four days of competition. A sad fate.
At this point in the essay, I am supposed to present my proposal for a way out of this jam. How to salvage a seemingly lost situation. In this case, that might not be possible. The hard fact is that Augusta National was designed to play at about 6,800 – 7,000 yards. It has been stretched beyond that about as far as it will go. When its current 7,400 yards is no longer enough, the course might have to be retired.
That happens to everyone and everything. We have our heyday, we have our glory. The time comes when we are overtaken, and we must take a seat on the sideline. The question is, will the Augusta membership be able to retire their course with dignity when the time comes, which it surely will?
[ Note: A few weeks after this essay was published I got vilified on a golf forum by people who thought I was advocating shooting stray dogs and knocking down old ladies crossing the street. How DARE I say something less than reverential about a golf course that is more holy than the Vatican? Wow. ]