You already know this blog post is covering the most over-covered golf course in history, so bear with me while I touch upon ideals that have been cemented across similar forums for years: Strategic golf is good. Courses that give golfers multiple routes to reach either the same or varying conclusions (depending on execution) are good.
These principles are often over-simplified as “risk/reward.” But risks and rewards only tell half the story. We often forget that the alternative is “low risk/acceptable outcome.”
All too often we glorify the big risk taker and executor, while ignoring the conservative player who succeeds in a less sexy manner. This is ironic; Old Tom Morris, perhaps the very base of what we call “strategic golf,” was notoriously conservative. He lay in wait during matches, making decisions based upon the errors of his rivals. Considering he had largely designed the course where most of these matches took place, he forecasted when his opponent would be in trouble and took the safest route afforded to him (by their play). He often won passively, which is a win all the same.
The aforementioned course, of course, was the Old at St. Andrews, which was also the prime inspiration for Augusta National.
Jumping topics, I recently saw a tweet from Andy Johnson of The Fried Egg fame, praising the WGC Matchplay event at Austin Country Club. “Match play is the best format of golf,” he wrote. “There is so much more raw emotion shown by players and it’s easier for the casual fan to understand and follow. More match play please.”
Many have called for a match play-based major, which would up the ante for both “raw emotion” and “easier for the casual fan to understand.” The most popular candidate is the PGA Championship, only because it’s the skinny kid brother to the U.S. Open and by far the less popular of the two. The logic against such a decision is that the PGA is also the least-likely to host at matchplay-friendly courses. The last three occurred at Bellerieve, TPC Harding Park and a Bethpage Black that’s gotten way too skinny for meaningful match play.
But what if there was a consistent host built upon such principles…a course designed to mimic Old Tom’s stomping grounds?
You see where I’m going here.
Fred Ridley leads a club that has been waging the war on par for so long that it refuses to step back from the trenches, even as modern players continue decimate the scoring standards of old. Even if the club introduces mandatory equipment rollbacks, the biggest guns will still out-fire Augusta. It, and the professional golf associations, have lost the war on par.
The nuclear option is to remove par from the equation altogether, as match play does.
Granted, modern Augusta National is not in shape for the format. Suggesting that Augusta National needs to be restored is not much of a hill for woke golfers to die upon because nobody (besides Brandel Chamblee) is going to kill you for making such a claim. The premise is a woke golf standby. On the other side of the coin, The Masters has such a chokehold on our golf fascinations that not even the most woke will suggest switching from stroke play to match play.
I’m not the most woke, so I’ll do it: Make The Masters match play. I haven’t the frankest why Jones didn’t call for it from the onset, but I also don’t care very much. I have a hunch that Cliff Roberts is to blame (or at least he’s easy to throw blame at). Fortunately, Augusta now has a chairman more sympathetic to Jones and MacKenzie’s intentions than any before. Ridley may be more the best shot we’ve had to take back Augusta (at least in the sense that it will be cool to see on television, even if we never get to play it), and doing so in the name of match play is as good a reason as any.
If he does, in my daydream fantastique, here are five holes that will be joys to watch.
I recommend seeing Golf Digest’s recent feature that shows the changes to each hole at Augusta National over the years; I had already begun working on this post prior to Digest’s piece being published, but I found it immensely helpful in justifying the decision to feature the following five holes.
No. 7: “Pampas”
Few holes reflect the Fazio forest mindset better than No. 7 “Pampas,” and few holes are as accordingly uninspiring. Faz alone can’t take all the blame, as even Jones was disappointed in the original par four, lamenting both its short length (340 yards) and the severity of the green (it’s an entertaining frustration, trying to putt the classic hole during Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2014).
This original green featured a distinct “L” shape, somewhat mirroring that at No. 4. The shape, and it’s range of pin placements, disappeared soon afterward when Jones and Roberts opted to move it back 30 yards, with two fronting bunkers. More bunkers would appear, both at the back and ultimately removing opportunities to run the ball up the center. The thinning of the fairway, combined with the forced carry to the green, has resulted in a largely one-dimensional hole: Play to the left side from the tee and approach accordingly. The hole recorded the fewest birdies during 2020 along with the fifth-most pars, suggesting that playing it safe was the winning strategy. Quite tame tournament golf.
We’ll handicap this post’s “restoration” theme by suggesting a renovation instead. Bring back the “L” and move it back to the original position…and adapt the original design by adding a bunker to the inside of the “elbow.” We’re not going to bring it back to 340 yards…that sets up a drivable par four, and not a great one. Leave the current tees, creating a final product playing 420 yards. It will be a pitch in but if players are going to head for the left off the tee, the new bunker will give them something to think about.
Further damaging our restoration argument, we’ll suggest an entirely new green be dreamt up within that “L” frame. Although many consider MacKenzie among the greatest green designers of all time, he’s not without occasional loony putting surfaces that have been softened over the years, and indeed Pampas may have simply been too stiff. There are many modern architects who could create more reasonable options (we hear that guy at Renaissance Design is a MacKenzie fan).
It’s important to note that “reasonable” only applies to Bobby Jones’s thoughts on the matter: It should absolutely be the kind of green that professionals will gripe about. Match play, for mere mortals, can be about any number of things — ranging from daring the dogleg or trying to cross that creek in two. The professional game…not so much. Put them in a position where one must putt to win. That’s MacKenzian thought, even in the hands of a third party architect.
No. 9: “Carolina Cherry”
Roberts quickly found himself dealing with an issue that has troubled tournament organizers for generations: players being too smart to play the hole as you intended them to. Where some found a singular tree to block the shortcut and protect the architect’s intent, Roberts instead removed a MacKenzie trademark…and perhaps the most distinct green at Augusta National.
The hole originally featured a “boomerang”-style green, with two tongues separated by a bunker down the middle. This differed from the traditional “long” boomerang a la Crystal Downs, creating more of a “Lion’s Mouth” green, similar to No. 13 at St. Andrews. This forced players to choose the correct side of the fairway depending on the day’s flag position. Sassy players realized that driving left to the No. 1 fairway often left a better lie for approaches to almost all areas of the green.
Here’s an instance where the pines should perhaps remain, even if MacKenzie’s green returned. Would this leave an unlikely approach to holes places on the left of MacKenzie’s original green? Yes. Are unlikely approach angles and awkward lies the way to challenge players at this level? Also yes.
If greens are maintained at a reasonable speed (that’s an entirely different conversation), skilled players have a chance at the left side of this green if they feel bold during a match. Stroke play gives no reason to take such risks. Let’s give them a reason to take more risks.
No. 11: “White Dogwood”
Here’s a novel concept for you: a golf course architecture hobbyist suggesting that White Dogwood needs tweaking.
The hole reflects a similar trend to No. 7, where players would rather survive than take a risk and thrive; it featured the third-fewest birdies during 2020, and featured similar bogeys as No. 7. The difference is that No. 11 also offered the second-highest number of double-plus scores (behind only Golden Bell), which would be alright if these players were boldly attacking dangerous pins and falling victim accordingly. Realistically, however, they probably just suffered for the intense approach required of the hole’s pine forest, largely added during 2004.
Ironically, the forest does provide a “risk/reward” option of sorts. As noted by The Fried Egg a few years back, hitting into the woods actually creates the best angle of approach into the green. You know, if you trust that there won’t be a tree in between you and the putting surface.
The first move toward redemption, as has become a theme in this post and the restoration world in general, is restoring the original shape of the green. Although plays to the most dangerous pins were still better accessed from the right of the fairway, a left tongue gave an accessible route to the center for those who chose to make the easier tee shot to the left. The big asterisk here is that in order to recreate this green/strategy, the dammed/damned pond will need to be restored to its original creek as well. Not quite as daunting as the pond, but still able to catch a hot one from the right and intimidating for those firing on a straight line from the left (those playing from that side could take advantage of the bumps at the front-right of the green to create a strategic bank toward the flag).
Too easy for Augusta National’s membership? We’re not opposed to adding Jones’s centerline bunker to offer more challenge in sticking the now open right side. The pro added the bunker soon after MacKenzie had left but it was removed relatively quickly as players complained about its relatively blind nature. Here’s one where we’ll steer away from typical woke opinion and absolutely embrace the blind nature of the bunker. It’s Augusta National and you’re playing in The Masters. If you’re not willing to trust your line and confront the risk of firing into the void, are you gonna walk away with a green jacket at the end of the day?
Not at the newly match play Masters.
No. 13: “Azalea”
No hole better represents the distance wars, at The Masters or elsewhere, better than Azalea. Augusta National has continued to buy land from neighboring Augusta Country Club, and will probably be forced to negotiate with that club to convince it to convert No. 9 to a par three so that Augusta National can build a championship tee on the current green. Even then, the par five will remain eminently reachable.
A par on this hole during a late green jacket push is a bad sign. Technically, a birdie here is equally valuable to a birdie on Golden Bell…but going for birdie on Golden Bell is a rare flex when attempting to survive Sunday. Similarly, going for eagle on Azalea seems bold.
Match play makes the more majestic bird desirable again.
And, again, the solution lies in the green. No one would argue that a one-putt on Azalea is “easy,” but a two-putt doesn’t seem especially intimidating. An expansion of the green to its original scope, with another tongue skirting the eastbound curve of the creek, offers a new challenge for those who can easily find the dance floor in two. In fact, new pin positions offer new reasons to question the wisdom of reaching in two. Holes at the front-left, for example, offer more reason to attack the creek off the tee in order to have an angle at the pin. Those who play up the right will have a very dangerous shot should they choose to risk it. A better move will be to play deep into the green…or or maybe not? Perhaps laying up to the foot of the creek will offer a better pitch and, accordingly, a better birdie opportunity.
Many among us celebrate No. 13 for aesthetics, and perhaps its strategic considerations for average joes. There is no excuse for laying up for professionals, outside of having wrecked one’s tee shot. Restoring the original green complex offers a return to Old Tom’s dream of many routes to one goal.
No. 18: “Holly”
It’s tough to imagine a more frightening tee shot than Holly…a 300-yard tree pipeline to Masters glory. It’s interesting that no one has lost the tournament by going right into the trees. More interesting, it seems as if the treeline has always been part of the plan. Although the trees have gotten more dense over the years, the distance to the end of the treeline has not changed significantly, and every generation has featured a green angled to reward those who hug the right side of the fairway.
Who are we to argue against that?
That said, the density of trees along the right seems unnecessary. A player who chooses to stay left is well aware that reaching the green in regulation won’t be realistic. There’s always been a bunker on the left side, further complicating a shot that must travel 45 feet up from the typical landing area.
The green, as you’ve probably assumed by now, has changed dramatically and again we call for its restoration. The change, I’ve learned from the aforementioned Golf Digest feature, came at the suggestion of Bobby Jones, who told Robert Trent Jones after watching Ben Hogan’s Masters-losing three-putt that the green was simply unfair. Perhaps he was correct when discussing the slope but it’s tough to justify the current size of the green. If there’s a flaw in Perry Maxwell’s career, it’s surely his role in rolling back the green sizes at Augusta (If he didn’t agree with it, he shouldn’t have taken Cliff Roberts’s money to do it). The current putting surface is well below half of the original scope, including the removal of yet another tongue.
Bobby Jones may not have found it fair that a hole be decided by a three-putt. We disagree and so, reportedly, did Hogan, who acknowledged admiring the intensity of the putting surfaces despite it costing him his first major championship.
Both of these dreams are admittedly crazy. It’s tough to imagine Augusta National moving to reestablish MacKenzie’s design now, and it’s near impossible to consider that the tournament may consider the more intriguing match play concept. But 88 players are sleeping right now with an equally crazy dream that may be true come Sunday. Keep on pushing.