March 31, 2009

The Editor's Desk

In the latest issue of Golf World ...

Editor-In-Chief Geoff Russell

Editor-In-Chief Geoff Russell

Dear readers:

Last week, as Golf World was beginning to put the finishing touches on its Masters Preview issue, one foreboding question was nagging us: Why aren't more people talking about the Masters?

Today, thanks to Tiger Woods' astonishing, comeback-capping victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational over the weekend, that question is no longer relevant. NBC drew a 4.9 overnight rating for Sunday's final-round telecast from Bay Hill, the highest rating for a golf tournament since last year's U.S. Open, and today at office water coolers around the country, people are gabbing about golf at least as much as they are college basketball.

Of course, we have Tiger Woods to thank for that -- not necessarily the year's first major. The topic we've been debating at Golf World the last couple of months is this: Is the "new" Masters as exciting as the "old" Masters?

At the core of that debate is the dramatic transformation of the Augusta National golf course over the last 10 years. Concerned that the Bobby Jones/Alister Mackenzie masterpiece had been overtaken by Tiger Woods and his longer-hitting brethren, the club -- under the direction of its then chairman, Hootie Johnson -- embarked on a renovation program designed to toughen up the old layout. In three different projects over a seven-year period, the course was lengthened by nearly 500 yards, new groves of trees were added, and a second cut of rough was introduced.

The result? Augusta National is a lot harder. But the Masters has become -- and we don't think this is a coincidence -- a lot more quiet. Gone are the combustible elements -- generous fairways and reachable-in-two par 5s, mostly -- that used to turn the final round into a golf tournament that looked and sounded more like a rock concert (such as 2004, when Phil Mickelson's back-nine 31 edged out Ernie Els, who played the last 12 holes in six under par). Senior writer John Hawkins studied the situation, talking to players, tournament officials, course architects and a lot of other people who miss the old Masters, and came up with a four-point plan to make golf's first major also its loudest -- again.

Woods' victory yesterday certainly confirms his status as the favorite going into next week's event. But one of the most striking aspects of this year's Masters is the transformation of the field. Next week's gathering includes the most dramatic infusion of young talent in Masters history. We're talking about teenagers with a legitimate chance to contend: 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, 19-year-old Rory McIlroy of Ireland, and 18-year-old Danny Lee from Korea, by way of New Zealand.

Lee is the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, and recalling his dismantling of Pinehurst's No. 2 course in last year's championship, I wondered if he might be the cream of the crop. Golf World recently sent Max Adler (associate editor of our sister publication, Golf Digest) to New Zealand to visit Lee's hometown, hang out at his home club, and even play golf with the kid himself, to try and learn what makes Lee tick. Adler's very entertaining story is in this week's issue.

There are a number of other stories in our Masters Preview, but the third gem -- for me anyway -- is senior writer Bill Fields' profile of two-time champion Ben Crenshaw, who (as the story points out) has assumed the role of host of the Masters past champions dinner, an honor fulfilled for years by the late Byron Nelson.

As a story subject, Crenshaw perfectly fits our "old Masters-new Masters" theme. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Gentle Ben's first title at Augusta National, in 1984, and he relives the events of that breakthrough triumph, along with the memories of his second, even more emotional Masters win 11 years later. Crenshaw plays the Champions Tour these days, but is probably better known for his "other" career: as a golf course architect who has co-designed (with partner Bill Coore) some of the best layouts of the last 20 years (Sand Hills, Bandon Trails, The Plantation Course).

Given that occupation, Crenshaw seems eminently qualified to comment on the modifications to the Augusta National course over the last 10 years. Ben did just that during his interview with Fields, recounting the letters he wrote and conversations he had with Hootie Johnson regarding some of the course changes. As an architect, Crenshaw understands the club's desire to take action; as a historian (and a traditionalist), he admits to being somewhat perplexed at the results. But the bottom line is: He loves the place. The Masters -- new or old -- will always be Crenshaw's favorite week of the year.

And he is hardly alone in feeling that way.

Sincerely,

Geoff Russell