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Masters Week Brings Warm Golf Spring to a Rolling Boil
This year, it's been a warm winter and a hot spring in more ways than just the weather report. The PGA Tour season has heated up like a microwave, with nearly every big name either winning outright or rounding into shape in time for the Masters. Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald, Bill Haas, Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, Adam Scott and, yes, even Tiger Woods, have kept the golf journalists' keyboards clacking ceaselessly with their remarkable and exciting exploits.
Usually the PGA Tour season merely meanders quietly along until April. There might be a great finish here or there, and fans might tune in to Kapalua or Riviera to break the monotony of a long winter or click over to the Phoenix Tour stop to watch the bedlam that is the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale. But, ordinarily, the golf season, like spring, begins at the Masters.
Only this year that's not the case. Wild finishes and crowded, star-studded leaderboards have been the norm since the January Hawaii swing, and any talk of professional golf being in some sort of doldrums because of the absence of a dominant Tiger Woods has been nothing but the empty, thespian-like bombast of television industry and media lunkheads who are preconditioned, afraid of change, and addicted to the last casual eyeballs left on the Nielsen ratings panels.
So instead of the Masters heralding the arrival of the golf season, this year it will bring to a close a rousing Act I of the Shakespearean-in-magnitude drama that has been the 2012 golf season so far. Rory is roaring, Phil's been a thrill, Luke is no fluke as the "Paper Number 1" in the World Golf Ranking, and no one has Tiger by the tail for the first time in two years. The Tour pros are simply waiting for the starter's gun to fire. It's that poignant silence before the battle - that moment when war veterans say if you listen with the right kind of ears, you could actually hear the Voice of God speaking to you.
As always, Augusta will play her part admirably. What few subtle changes to the course have - supposedly - made her slightly easier in places.
"It's nice to see the pendulum swing back to the exciting, birdie-laden Masters Tournament we knew and loved before Tom Fazio thought it was a good idea to turn it into Winged Foot circa 1974," explained one irreverent wag of a U.K. sportswriter, and he's right.
Augusta is perennially the most exciting tournament t of the year, not because it's played on the most beautiful course (which it is . . . how can it not be - it was built on one of the world's greatest arboretums) but because its excellent architecture tempts the golfer into that risky, but heroic shot: eagle or double-bogey, death or glory, green jacket, or black memories of what might have been.
Just ask Ernie Els about that. Or Billy Joe Patton, Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Scott Hoch . . . stop me anytime.
If you want excitement in golf, the Masters owns the freehold. Maybe Cary Middlecoff was right when he said, "You don't win the U.S. Open, the U.S. Open wins you," but nothing could be further from the truth at the Masters. You have to go out and seize it, and then engage in a hardscrabble fight to the death to keep it. Scores of 8-under, 12-under, 14-under and 16-under have won the last four Masters tournaments. In fact, other than the statistical outlier of 2007 (with a winning score of plus-1 289), the last 20 Masters tournaments have been won by scores of minus-7 or better, and 12 of those 20 wins featured scores in under-par double digits. You need to aggressively hunt birdies at Augusta National.
Take last year as an example. Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes on Sunday to finish off a sizzling 66 and smoothly power to a green jacket after breaking out of a logjam of no less than eight different players who held at least a share of the lead on the back nine.
Then there's Phil Mickelson. Anytime he's at or near the top of the leaderboard he causes heart palpitations in every fan from San Diego to Sarasota and from Fargo to Fort Worth. In 2004 he stole the Masters from Els with a Nicklaus-esque back nine charge from three back with six holes to play. In 2010 he put to shame a disgraced, surly and club-throwing Woods, (who was publicly castigated by Augusta National chairman Billy Payne prior to the event) with a performance highlighted by a downright iconic shot at the fabled par-5 13th hole: out of the trees and off a dicey lie of pine needles to a tucked pin with a major title in the balance.
Crazier things have been reported, but not by reliable sources. One more victory and he'll tie Woods and Arnold Palmer for second on the all-time win list with four green jackets. Nice company.
In winning the 2010 Masters with that heart-stopping defining moment of a golf shot, Mickelson played directly contrary to what I call "the Hogan-Jenkins Rule" of the back nine of the Masters on Sunday: "The driest ball wins," so play safe at 13 and 15. After all, Zach Johnson beat Woods head-to-head by playing safe at 13 and 15 on Sunday and still getting up-and-down from the fairway for birdie each time. Moreover, the hopes of countless competitors lie in a watery grave at those tantalizing, tempting yet dangerous holes. Yes, you have to go out and take the Masters if you want to win it, but you still must play smart, thinking golf as well.
"Jay, they put a plaque in the woods off 13 where Mickelson hit that shot from. They don't sink plaques in the ground to commemorate guys laying up," said prominent broadcaster Steve Czaban in a discussion with your author.
"Yes," I responded, "but they also don't hand out green jackets to guys who take their shot and miss." As one pundit noted decades ago, Step 1 in cooking rabbit stew is, "First, catch the rabbit!" Ask David Toms or Payne Stewart about that one. They both won majors at Phil's expense by playing smart when the situation called for it, something Phil rarely does. But then again, that's why we love him. He's our generation's Arnie.
After a few practice rounds at Augusta in past weeks, Mickelson also offered some thoughts on the recent "competitive enhancements" as course changes are called in Masters-ese.
"There's more grass coverage than in years past," he began, referring to the removal of the ridiculous rough instituted by Fazio during his misguided, though well-intended changes earlier this century. "Every year, two greens are redone with subtle changes, and this year those holes were eight and 16."
According to Mickelson, both holes now feature slightly easier pin locations. Mickelson astutely noted that, "the green on eight in the front was widened. The hill on the left was softened . . . I felt like the back-right pin on eight was made much more accessible. It's much flatter, a lot more room there. You can be a little bit more aggressive now into that pin."
Phil then had this assessment of the 16th hole: "There were bigger plateaus up on the top right on 16. One of the most dangerous locations was front-right, a tiny target. Anything too strong was over the green and into a bunker, while short meant the ball would roll down the hill. That area has been slightly expanded . . . Also, the bottom of the green toward the front has been built up, so that players who leave their shots on the top shelf don't have to worry about the putts rolling down the slope and into the water.
"After looking at them, I think that some of the more challenging pin placements on those greens were softened a little bit, and made to be not quite as difficult . . . I'm not saying it's good, bad, indifferent," he concluded.
With the exception of Rees Jones' work, that's about as much of a negative assessment as you'll get from Mickelson, who usually relishes being the friendliest quote in the house and always likes to help pass along the supportive party line regarding the home venue. My best guess is that in the case of No. 8, a short but narrow and severely uphill par-5, the hole may have been watered-down slightly, negating his advantage of having arguably the greatest short game in golf. In the case of 16, we'll have to wait and see how the changes play out. It is likely they will make the hole fairer by lowering the chance that a good shot might get punished.
As such, Augusta is still in a mild state of flux due to the perceived reversal of the sweeping changes instituted by Fazio in the '00s. Hole Nos. 1, 4 and 7, are much harder than before, primarily because of length. Nobody challenges the bunker off the tee on one any more, so now it's the second-hardest hole on the golf course. It played to a 4.24 stroke average last year.
The par-3 fourth is now a 240-yard brute that plays uphill to a shallow green. At a stroke average of 3.22, it's now the fourth-hardest hole on the course primarily because, in places, the green isn't designed to accept an approach that comes in as low and hot as long-irons or hybrids frequently do.
The exact same type of counterintuitive design concept is also apparent at the par-4 seventh, which used to be a drive-and-pitch hole, a bit of a breather. In lengthening it by close to 100 yards, Fazio now asks golfers to hit a green designed to accept a wedge with a long-iron or hybrid. As such, the hole went from being one of the easiest holes to one of the hardest - it ranked seventh in difficulty last year - and as we have learned in this Second Golden Age of Golf Course Architecture (or "Platinum Age" if you will) harder is not necessarily better.
Neither is longer better, as the tiny par-3 12th and short par-5 13th demonstrate year-in and year-out. Though a paltry 155 yards, the pint-sized 12th plays as the third-hardest hole in the Masters. Last year it clocked in at 3.22 strokes, putting to shame the laughably one-dimensional 15th at Atlanta Athletic Club, which at 265 yards promoted only machismo and mediocre, rudimentary, penal golf architecture. No. 12 also shows that smaller greens, not bigger, are the way to make a hole harder, not merely stretching it to an ungodly length. No. 15 at Olympic Club and No. 9 at Royal Lytham will do exactly the same thing this year (155 and 164 yards, respectively) at the U.S. Open and Open Championships.
"When I want to make a hole harder," said no less a personage than preeminent architect Pete Dye, "I shorten it, let 'em go for it, and bring double-bogey into play!" Nowhere in golf is this more evident than at the 13th, quoted by many as the greatest strategic hole ever designed in golf.
2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy agrees. "Few of the best holes in the world are really, really hard where everyone grinds to make par, neither are they the really easy ones," he explained last fall in an interview with your author.
"The best example is 13 at Augusta. An 18-handicap golfer can bump it up the fairway, bump it up further to get into position around the corner, get to a place to pitch on, and try to get up and down and have a putt for par every time. If you do that, you can almost never make worse than six. But the best golfer in the world will make eagle three or double-bogey seven. The more risk you take off the tee the easier the hole becomes. The more aggressive you are getting around the corner, the easier it is to lay up, or you can even go for the green. The safer you play, the tougher the second and third shot.
"It's thousands of shades of grey," he continued, speaking sagely about not only a favorite topic but about his second career as a designer with Australia's Mike Clayton. "The braver you are and the better you execute, directly results in your second and third shots being easier . . . the less brave you are, the tougher your approach and lay-up will be. But then even a terrible golfer who gets in trouble out of position can still recover and find a way to save a par, yet pros will struggle to make birdie. Those are the architectural principles that stand up."
Both Mickelson and Ogilvy are likely to contend, primarily because they are not only among the most talented golfers in the world but the smartest as well. Obviously, Rory McIlroy, on the rise for the last two years and the reigning U.S. Open champion, should be eager to wash away the detritus of his hideous final round last year where he threw away a four-shot lead entering Sunday and humiliated himself with a hideous quad on the par-4 10th hole in the process. He was so far off-line, he almost lost his ball in some executive's stock portfolio.
As for the other players, picking a winner these days is like journeying into the thickets of wildest guesswork, but here goes:
As usual, I am not sold on either Lee Westwood or Luke Donald. At major championships, Westwood either waits until he's out of it to play his best gol, or spits the bit on Sunday. "Lee doesn't have the same pressure to win as Americans because U.K. fans don't place so much life-or-death emphasis on winning," asserted our U.K. sportswriter friend from earlier, who obviously gave this quote on condition of anonymity. "U.K. fans are more concerned that he finish high week-in and week-out and have a long career, keeping English golf in the conversation at the highest levels of the game."
As such, it raises an interesting question: Which will happen first? Westwood winning a major or Westwood's thoroughbred horse named "Rerouted" winning a race? "It's interesting," confided a surprisingly serene and self-aware Westwood, laughing off the comparison earlier in the year.
Similarly, Luke Donald - although victorious at the blandly named "Transitions Championship" and reigning right now as the No. 1 player on paper - Donald does nothing for me come major championship time either. Like Westwood, he consistently under-whelms at majors, despite his perennially high ranking.
In fact, we've totally overblown all this "Who's Number 1?" nonsense. It's like the BCS in college football: nobody really cares what the computers think. Professional golf is not played on computers, and major championships don't care who No. 1 is on paper. They don't give out trophies for money titles.
"Actually they do, Jay," said one of my golf buddies. "You get a plaque or something."
Okay, fine. You don't get a relevant trophy then, all right? In the history books nobody keeps track of who the paper Number 1 was unless he won some serious hardware on the way. Show me a guy who'll take a money title trophy over a green jacket and I'll show you what's wrong with sports today.
And that brings us squarely to Woods, who's almost maniacal (some feel unhealthily) obsession with passing Nicklaus' major championship record has also encapsulated much that is wrong with competitive sports at the highest level. This year, however, Tiger is surging at the right time, rounding his game into shape in all facets. His driver, forever his bugaboo, has become a strength, he still boasts an unbelievable advantage on length "through the bag," he consistently plays as well at Augusta as the Golden Bear or Tom Watson at the height of their careers. Even Woods' putting is getting sharper. Still Augusta's curvaceous, undulating greens are the furthest things from the bland, flat tarmacs of boring old Bay Hill, and if Tiger's putter isn't sharp, he won't contend.
Moreover, Woods enters this year's Masters with two advantages he did not have last year: he is healthy and unencumbered by scandal. Yes, his old swing coach Hank Haney published a memoir about his time with Tiger, but it has proved to be both over-hyped and underwhelming. He disappointed both those who wanted a steaming vat of the freshest gossip and those searching for real insight and analysis into what makes Woods tick. Both groups are left to the same guesswork as before.
"Tiger thought he'd get special treatment to become a Navy Seal?" Big deal . . . who cares? "Woods is cheap?" Well, duh! We knew that ages ago. "Tiger likes porn!" Stop the presses? I think not.
We all know Woods is a practiced dissembler and a tyrant, part Nero, part Bonaparte, part Tambourlaine, and that his reputation is, at best, venomous and poxed. But after all the hype and interviews - a tempest in a teapot at best compared to what we already knew - Haney has succeeded in doing something Woods and all his handlers could never do: bring Woods a measure of sympathy and light enough of a fire under him to motivate him.
The book is just enough to make him angry and focused but nowhere near a significant distraction. Haney stole the spotlight from the pro tour, but in the offing may have seriously miscalculated both Woods' ardor (and wrath) and the public's reaction to the book, which delivered fewer earth-shattering revelations than promised or expected. Rather than a full broadside it was a flat poop, the powder fizzling in the breach, the priming doused, and Woods is not only unharmed by it but pitied.
As for the "3 Mistresses," the porn stars/hookers that were among the galaxy of harpies Woods bedded who just released a combination tell-all porn film, we don't have to wonder the depths to which some people will sink for revenge. Since one of them is Devon Lee, who idiotically released a video she claimed featured Woods but in fact starred an actor who looked so little like Woods that her credibility has disappeared forever, the other two, Joslyn James and Holly Sampson, must necessarily be painted with the same brush. Without texts or recordings to back up their stories, we can't and shouldn't trust a word they say.
"Galaxy of harpies?" my girlfriend Britt asked me bemusedly as she proofread this piece, "sounds like the name of one of your rock band clients."
Anyway, though controversies swirl once again, this time they miss the mark badly, and Woods enters Magnolia Lane with a clearer, freer mind than in many years past.
Finally, watch out for Webb Simpson and Tim Clark. Simpson will win a major championship this year. If he doesn't win here, he's one of the favorites to win the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. When you look at the list of winners Olympic has given us, you see that Bible-thumpers and odd ducks (and sometimes both at the same time) win there with alarming frequency. Clark is finally healthy after a year on the shelf with injuries and has reunited with his old caddie Steve Underwood, with whom he won the Players Championship in 2010. He's an excellent putter, has great course-management skills, and has the phlegmatic demeanor to stay cool in the white-hot crucible of the Masters.
And so, finally, Christmas has come for the golf world, and we all now assemble for the High Mass that is the Masters Tournament. It's wisteria vines and azaleas, dogwoods and magnolias, tasty pimento-and-cheese sandwiches and beers that cost a whopping two dollars. It's genteel behavior, grateful smiles, and buoyant hearts: a rebirth and revival all in one.
Class all the way, the Masters is the gold standard by which all other sporting events are judged. Though, sadly, corruption has destroyed so many formerly great sporting events, the most important thing that we celebrate this week at the Masters is that, thankfully, sport still has something pure and virtuous and inspiring to embrace.
News, Notes & Quotes
• When Gene Sarazen made his famous double-eagle at 15 and went on to win the second Masters in 1935, he actually won in a three-hole playoff, defeating North Country star Craig Wood. Interestingly, an "ageless" Sarazen also aced the Postage Stamp (the par-3 eighth hole at Royal Troon) during the 1973 British Open.
• Horton Smith won the first and only "Augusta National Invitational," as the event was billed in 1934, and then won a Masters Tournament in 1936, becoming the only person to effectively "win both."
• From 1977-1991 Tom Watson had 13 top-10 finishes in 15 tries, including two wins and three seconds.
• In 1989 not only did Nick Faldo close with a 65 to secure his first green jacket (winning on the second playoff hole after Hoch missed a two-foot putt for the win a hole earlier), he also set a Masters record by sinking a 100-foot putt earlier in the tournament.
Wotcher Everyone! (Things to Keep an Eye On)
• Keep a watchful eye out for the wicked right-to-left tilt of the green at the par-3 sixth, especially on the left side of the big fold that bisects the back-right from the rest of the green.
• Also check out the "reverse camber" at the par-4 fifth, where the hole doglegs to the left, but the entire landscape slopes to the right, requiring pinpoint accuracy in order to set up the best angle into the green. It's an architectural defense we'll see on full display at the Olympic Club for this year's U.S. Open. Inspired by the Road Hole at St. Andrews, this 455-yard par-4 features a 315-yard carry over bunkers at knee of dogleg.
• Though the 14th hole has no bunkers at all, the green terraces sharply from left to right and is remarkably shallow as well, again testing distance control.
• CBS Sports' Steve Elling tweeted that with perfect weather expected at Augusta this week, someone will break the major championship scoring record and post a 62 or better. I don't put much stock in that weather report though. Usually we get one day of rain, one day of cold, one day of wind and one nice day at the Masters. If you don't like the weather in April, wait about 10 minutes and it'll change.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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