A MAJOR TOURNAMENT is not a major tournament without some drama running up to it. This year at Augusta we have had the minor sideshows of eventual winner, Danny Willett, not being certain to enter with his wife due to give birth, Chris Woods losing his clubs and Tiger Woods withdrawing; but the real excitement was provided by the news that Augusta plans to lengthen its iconic par five 13th hole (pictured above).
Once again golf’s governing bodies’ refusal to do anything about the compression of the golf ball played in tournaments means that a course is being lengthened to cater for a tiny percentage of the world’s golfers in order to defend par. Augusta National is negotiating a $27m purchase of the adjoining Augusta Country Club’s ninth hole to take the tee box on 13 back a further 50 yards.
There has been outcry. Jack Nicklaus, a long time advocate of changing the golf ball’s compression, said, ‘Augusta National is about the only place, the only golf course in the world that financially can afford to make the changes that they have to make to keep up with the golf ball. I don’t think anybody else could ever do it.’
John Huggan, veteran golf writer for The Scotsman, is even more incensed, ‘If what might be the best hole in all the world is to be scarred forever, then it is simply another in a long line of outrages golf has endured because of the incompetence, arrogance and indifference of those supposedly charged with its well-being.’
The constant defence of par has led to some sorry developments worldwide. The likes of Sunningdale Old Course, one of the world’s finest, are now deemed far too short for major professional golf tournaments and we are seeing monstrous creations designed simply to test players who can routinely hit a tee-shot 350 yards.
Robert Trent Jones junior’s ‘Fighting Joe’ course in Alabama is over 8,000 yards from the back tees. The shortest of the four par three holes is 200 yards whilst the par five 12th is 716 yards, with two other par fives being over 600 yards and the shortest, at 17, a mere 592 yards.
Last year’s US Open at Chambers Bay in Washington State was a nightmare for spectators with five holes where there was no access. Hardly good value when day tickets were US$110. Similarly Finca Cortesin, one of the top courses on the Costa del Sol and three times host to the Volvo European Masters, is built in a valley where tournament players and caddies need to get a buggy to be transported from certain greens up narrow winding tracks to the next tee box. For spectators these are simply no go areas.
And whilst new designs might sit well in an appropriate setting there is no way historic courses can be continually stretched without fundamentally altering their nature. The tennis court has not got any bigger, the governing bodies simply changed the compression of the ball to cope with both climatic conditions and bigger, fitter professional players.
That is what golf’s ruling bodies should do too but so far, if they are routinely ignoring Jack Nicklaus, there is no likelihood of them listening to anyone else. The only other alternative is to stop regarding par as sacrosanct. Watching a US Open championship on TV can be almost as arduous as being there in the flesh with courses set up to be brutally tough with little likelihood of birdies or eagles.
So why not allow today’s top players to break course records on a regular basis. The lowest score will still win be it 288 or 248 and a riot of birdies and eagles makes great viewing for both armchair and paying spectators. So stop growing rough waist high, narrowing fairways or shaving greens, which only takes the current professional golfer even longer to play. Let them take on the course as it was meant to be played and the best score wins.
In closing, the good news from Augusta is that club chairman, Billy Payne, has confirmed that no decision has been made regarding extending 13 and is merely one of many holes under consideration. It may not be happening now but, unless something is done soon there is no alternative to ever longer holes and an even longer time out on the course deterring ever more people from taking up the game.