Ten years after Augusta National introduced its 'second cut,' the strategy gets mixed reviews
As Masters anniversaries go, this one won't be as celebrated as Gene Sarazen's double eagle or Jack Nicklaus' record sixth green jacket. Yet 2008 will quietly mark the 10th Masters played with 13/8-inch areas of perennial ryegrass that reduce the width of Augusta National GC's once mammoth landing areas, a change that opened the club to a decade of criticism from many of its celebrated past champions.
Intended to create uncertainty for approaches after wayward tee shots, the club insists the "second cut" of flyer-lie inducing turf discreetly offsets a game transformed by technology. Still, plenty of green-jacket owners insist it was an unnecessary addition to a novel design. Most telling may be the failure of the second cut's Augusta-specific name to register with older past champions.
"Oh, you're talking about the rough," 1979 winner Fuzzy Zoeller says when asked whether the taller grass makes the course
harder or easier, the bottom line in a debate that includes matters of tradition, design philosophy and golf-course aesthetics.
"It has probably made the course easier," Zoeller says. "Especially up around the greens. The balls used to roll out and away, and now mis-hit shots stop closer to the green." The club asserts there always has been a second cut, and the 1999 Masters simply marked a change in the mowing lines and terminology. Two-time champion and noted course architect Ben Crenshaw does not agree.
"There was something regal about the place without rough," Crenshaw says. "It stood the test of time and separated itself from all others because it was different."
For as long as most players and patrons can remember, Augusta National astounded first-time visitors with a wall-to-wall cut that looked better than most putting surfaces. When then newly installed chairman Hootie Johnson decided in 1998 that the course was no longer placing a "premium on accuracy," he made the call to alter one of Augusta's most defining characteristics. An old 5/8-inch cut transitioning the course's turf into the "pine mulch" was brought closer to the fairway center lines and allowed to grow nearly an inch taller.
When the club confirmed course lengthening and tree planting between Nos. 15 and 17 in June 1998, there was no official announcement concerning the addition of rough. Instead, rumors abounded that fall about the possibility of narrowed landing areas. Confirmation did not come until February 1999 when two-time champion Bernhard Langer mentioned playing out of the tall stuff during a trip to the club.
"It was about this thick,'' Langer said, holding his fingers an inch apart for Associated Press reporter Doug Ferguson, who wrote that Augusta National's installation of rough would be "the most dramatic change since bentgrass greens were introduced in 1981."
Since the inaugural second-cut Masters, traditionalists have scoffed at the use of man-made fairway contours and manicured rough to seal off Alister Mackenzie and Bobby Jones' democratic, Old Course-inspired routes to the greens.
"You stand on a tee now and you don't really have a choice," says Crenshaw. "There is less thinking involved."
In The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club, longtime chairman Clifford Roberts described the freedom players enjoyed in reaching the "favored fairway location." Roberts wrote: "There are a number of holes that invite a draw or a hooked shot, but none that require it. There are several that invite a fade, but it is not necessary to play a left-to-right tee shot in order to score well."
Crenshaw endorses that summation of the Mackenzie-Jones philosophy. "The more intimate knowledge of how to play the contours, what flags to go at and where to attack them from is the difference between strategic and penal architecture," he says. "But in order to have strategy, you have to have width."