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Masters Report: Thoughts From Augusta

The putting test offered by Alister Mackenzie's greens during the Masters is without compare

Augusta National in the morning fog

Augusta's greens have left some contestants in a condition resembling Thursday morning's fog.

April 18, 2008

Doug Ford, who won the 1957 Masters tournament and is 85 years old, has enjoyed a long golf life, from Otey Crisman to Scotty Cameron, if you want to mark time with famous putter designers of yesterday and today. When you've been around the game as long as Ford, you've seen it all on the greens -- monster putts made and itty-bitty ones missed, and as many kinds of strokes as types of grass. "George Low was the greatest putter I ever saw outside of Tiger Woods," Ford said before returning to Augusta National GC last week. "George could putt with his foot better than most guys could with their putter. That's the truth. I saw him beat a guy in Havana for $35,000 putting with his foot."

Low was one of the great characters of 20th-century golf. As Dan Jenkins described him in The Dogged Victims of Inexorable Fate: "He is, all at once, America's guest, underground comedian, consultant, inventor of the overlapping grip for a beer can, and, more importantly, a man who has conquered the two hardest things in life -- how to putt better than anyone ever, and how to live lavishly without an income."

While Low's father, a Scot named George Sr., was a formidable competitor -- a tie for second place in the 1899 U.S. Open is among his accomplishments -- the younger Low preferred money games on a putting clock to the grind of competition, although he was low pro in the 1945 Memphis Open when Byron Nelson's win streak was stopped at 11 by amateur Fred Haas. Regardless, his savant-like skills with a putter -- along with the largesse of his friends -- kept him afloat. Low was the rare golfer of his day who bragged about his ability to putt. Back then, when wristy strokes on hairy greens were the rule, outward pride in one's short game was the exception even though the best players always knew how critical putting was.

"Putting -- a game within a game -- might justly be said to be the most important part of golf," Bobby Jones wrote in Bobby Jones on Golf. "In almost every championship, or even in friendly matches, if the competitors are anything like evenly matched, the man who will win will be the one enjoying a definite superiority on and around the greens ... Among first-class competitors, it is hardly ever possible to gain enough in the long game to offset the least bit of loss in putting."

Although Low never played in the Masters, he was a friend and sometimes putting mentor of four-time champion Arnold Palmer, who gave Low some credit after finishing birdie-birdie to win his second green jacket in 1960. "The only thing I did on those putts," Palmer said at the time, "was keep thinking what my old friend George Low always says: 'Keep your head down and don't move.' " More infamously, Low called Palmer over to congratulate him on the 18th fairway during the final round in 1961 shortly before Palmer made a sloppy double bogey to hand the title to Gary Player, who just happened to be using a George Low signature putter manufactured after Palmer's win.

From the first Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934 (although "The Masters" was co-founder Clifford Roberts' first choice, Jones didn't let it become the official name until 1939), it was evident Alister Mackenzie's large, rolling greens were a key element in the overall design. In an article in The American Golfer previewing the 1935 event, Grantland Rice described the difficulty of a player solving the layout's challenges. "... Practice rounds and pressure under fire are two different matters over a course that calls for such delicate short-game stroking as the Augusta National demands," he wrote.

The greens were Bermuda overseeded with ryegrass. Comparing the turf conditions of the 1940s and 1950s to today is like contrasting the golf balls of the different periods (inconsistent quality control then versus perfect-by-the-dozen now, for one big difference). Suffice it to say, Augusta National's greens were quicker than most places the pros played. As Jenkins, who grew up in Texas where greens were coarse common Bermuda, says, "They were faster than anything back home."

And their shapes and slopes were more intriguing than almost any in America, where greens tended to be circular and, if anything, tilted uniformly back to front. Viewed from above today, Augusta National's greens have the outline of peanuts, hearts, kidneys, part of an exclamation point (No. 8), a flying saucer (No. 4) and a square drawn by a drunk (No. 17). All of them are about as flat as the existing tax code, with hard-to-discern movement between the sizable slopes.

"They were nowhere near as intimidating as they are now," said Vinny Giles, a career amateur who competed in nine Masters between 1968 and 1977. "When I first played, they had Poa annua in the greens; if you played late, they got bumpy. A couple of years ago I played here, and on the first green I told someone you could putt it off the green if you weren't careful. I was putting back toward the fairway and putted it right off the green after having warned somebody about it. I think they are the most fun greens I've ever seen because they are so challenging. But you never get cocky on them."

Raymond Floyd, who won the green jacket in 1976, played in his first Masters in 1965, and last week, at age 65, shot 80-74 in his 44th appearance. "Well, relatively they haven't changed," he said of the putting surfaces. "More or less, they were the firmest and fastest greens that we played in the 1960s. They're still almost that way with the evolution with agronomy. It's tough if you get on the wrong side of the hole. I three-putted the second hole Thursday from three feet. You see that on these greens. But that's what makes it what it is."

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