AUGUSTA, GA. -- A foggy morning has turned more ominous when a thunderstorm rolled through the area, forced Masters officials to close Augusta National to practice and patrons at 10 a.m. and eventually call play for the day just after noon. There was, however, a window earlier to scout things out as Masters week begins. Normally there is not much to see, but with the recent ice storm and the club’s well-known tendency to not acknowledge the negative, there have been questions about just how much damage Augusta National sustained.
A few impressions:
* The description of “shredded” by a few players regarding the damage the March storm to the course may have been appropriate a few weeks ago when certain trees had not begun to sprout leaves. In general, the place still is as beautiful as ever, just with a more airy feel on several holes and even a few vistas that accentuate the grand scale of the property again.
* The only obvious sign of the demise of the Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole comes in the form of a faint sod line where turf has replaced the loblolly pine needles of yesteryear. The story from the tee is different
* The 17th tee shot looks, well, better. I know, blasphemy. But Ike’s Tree had grown so large that when combined with all of the recent plantings, it gave the impression there was no place to hit a drive. Without the 65-foot tall tree, new strategic elements may have been introduced. The landing area tightens considerably at 300 yards, a product of mid-2000s tree planting. This is where most of the field will land a drive, but without Ike’s Tree, there may be a wiser option for some to lay back to a wider landing area “only” 280 yards off the tee. This route, however, leaves a semi-blind second shot to a fascinating green where there is a huge advantage to seeing what you are playing to. In other words, the tree’s absence creates just the kind of tactical dilemma Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie loved.
* The hill to the rear of the 12th green continues to have less and less of the ivy-like undergrowth that led to some high-profile lost balls over the years, including Greg Norman’s infamous lost ball in 1999. Whether this is the result of a storm damage or an intentional effort to reduce an excessive penalty for a shot caught in the 12th hole’s swirling winds, only the club would know. It’s not as if a shot ending up on the pine scrub is suddenly an easier recovery. Some might even say a lost ball was a blessing.
* The seventh hole was lengthened and narrowed most recently in 2006. Since then the seemingly excessive tightening of this once short par 4 has been overkill, but with this winter’s storm having damaged many branches and trees, the landing area feels more airy. I can’t be sure anything was taken out and while it’s certainly still excessively narrow, the hole feels a little less penal this year. Still too long and cluttered with pines that conflict with Jones' design philosophy, but better.
* The azaleas are blooming! It won’t be an all-time year, but the place should look pretty swell by the weekend. But for now, we’re hunkering down and hoping the storms don’t do much damage.