Dateline: AUGUS …
Sorry. Old habits die hard. I’ll start again.
Dateline: My kitchen counter (next to a TV).
That’s it. That’s my perch during this Masters week. Same as a lot of you, I’m sure.
Hello, friends. Except for a few club members, family, and some media members, we’re all watching this one from afar. So, in the words of the great Vin Scully (who called a lot of baseball and a few Masters from 1975-82), pull up a chair, I’ll brew myself a cup of hot tea in my Masters mug and we’ll do this.
At least there is something to watch. When the Masters was shutdown in April by the coronavirus pandemic, no one was entirely sure the tournament golf fans the world over adore like no other would definitely take place. As it turned out, golf’s most venerable championship, the British Open, had its plug pulled this year. See you in 2021, lads, and again, I will bring the tea.
While I’m thrilled to see the Masters played, I’m concerned about it, too. I don’t want to see hallowed Augusta National Golf Club, which has now been stretched to nearly 7,500 yards, brought to its knees by golf’s bomb and gouge set.
I’m looking at you most of all, Bryson DeChambeau.
The player dubbed the Mad Scientist, with his irons all the same length and his air density measurements, emerged from the PGA Tour’s COVID-19 break with about 30 pounds of muscle packed on (naturally packed, he says). He started hitting moon shots that would make Alan Shepherd’s golf shot on the moon during Apollo 14 look like a little half-swing pitch to the green. The Incredible Bulk battered scary Winged Foot into submission in September’s U.S. Open, finishing at 6-under par, the only player in the field to break par for the week.
DeChambeau isn’t the only long knocker on tour, of course. Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, even players of smaller stature like Justin Thomas and Matthew Wolff, can hit it the proverbial country mile.
Players are much more fit now than their pot-bellied, chain-smoking, plaid pants-wearing ancestors from the 1970s. But the equipment is a major culprit. As was the case in college baseball in the 1990s, equipment has gotten too much out of hand, threatening to reduce even the game’s most storied and difficult courses to pitch-and-putt layouts.
Or, more on the point, venues for long-driving contests.
If I want to watch a long-driving contest (which I never do) I will watch a long-driving contest. When I watch a major, I want to see a test where players have to hit every club in the bag. Nowadays, DeChambeau doesn’t have to use a 4-iron unless he tees off with it on a par-4.
The USGA and R&A (Royal and Ancient golf association) released a report in early February saying that ever-increasing length is detrimental to the game. Any action to curb distance advancements through limits on equipment was shelved for a year by the pandemic (the cynic in me says this was a convenient out for golf’s ruling bodies who haven’t wanted to tackle this bear of an issue). But at his annual pre-tournament news conference Wednesday, Masters and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley acknowledged that distance is much on his mind.
“I think we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue,” Ridley said. “I do think that we're coming closer to a call to action.
“As it relates to our golf course, we have options, and we will take the necessary action to make sure we stay relevant.”
I like the sound of that.
The immediate reaction for one could be to lengthen the par-5, 510-yard 13th hole. Augusta National is believed to have spent millions in 2017 to purchase land from adjoining Augusta Country Club, allowing it to push back the 13th tee up to 40 yards if needed. But that hasn’t happened for this Masters, and Ridley said it would not happen by the 2021 Masters either.
The folks who run the Masters are nothing if not a circumspect bunch, wary of making knee-jerk changes to their course which is rightly regarded as a world sports treasure. But the course has been changed and lengthened many, many times over the years, starting with reversing the nines back in 1934. They do what they must to keep ANGC a challenging but entertaining layout. Always have.
I have little doubt Augusta National could be lengthened to 8,000 yards if they wished, but when does it stop? And precious few clubs have the land or the means to continue tacking on length. This is an issue that extends beyond Masters week.
It’s time for golf to take college baseball’s lead when home runs got out of hand. It’s time to rein in equipment to keep our classic courses from becoming obsolete.
Augusta National could be at the forefront of that pushback. The club could say, “If you want to play in our tournament, here is the version of your ball that you may play. It won’t carry over 300 yards, which is plenty long.
“If you don’t like it, well, we’ll miss you.”
That would be a fun Masters to see.