Geoff Ogilvy lining up a putt on day three of the 2011 Masters.
Every time I go back to Augusta National for another Masters--this year will be my seventh--I'm struck by how much those in charge know about how to best present the course. The completeness of the club's approach is quite amazing, both in terms of conditioning and setup.
The various club committees have plenty of experience, of course. They've studied the best players in the world competing there for 78 years now. Nothing is new to them. They have it pretty much figured out, and occasionally offer a few surprises.
Some things don't change though, or at least they haven't in my admittedly limited experience. It is well known, for example, that the grass on the fairways is cut back toward the tees. Almost every blade of grass on the course is cut against the direction of the shot. The club says it is purely an aesthetic thing, and that is hard to argue with. The fairways do look better without the stripe effect you see so often at other courses. No matter where you are at Augusta National, the grass is the same uniform shade of green.
Still, there's more to it than mere appearances. Mowing the grass like that makes the course play longer because the ball doesn't run as far as it might otherwise. When you look at footage from the Masters of maybe 20 years ago, you see balls bounding down fairways. The players got a lot of run out of their shots back then, far more than we do today. But that's not all bad. Today's slower turf does have the effect of making the landing areas play "wider."
Actually, that slowness plays a much more significant role in the short game, especially chipping. Because the grass is always running against you, the fringes are much more passive than the putting surfaces. I'll bet the speed differential between fringe and green at Augusta National is bigger than anywhere else in golf. All of which makes judging exactly where to land the ball unbelievably tricky. It's why so many guys struggle from just off the greens at the Masters.
One of the toughest chips you can face on the course is from right of the 11th green, a spot where it seems at least one player in every group is playing from during the tournament. Bailing out away from the water is very tempting but no bargain. It is almost impossible to land a chip short on that green with any confidence; you just don't know what the ball is going to do after it pitches. Then when it does get on the green it invariably races away. It's such a subtle test, but one that gives the course much of its character.
The same is true behind the 15th green. It is so difficult to judge how much forward momentum the ball will have after it bounces and how fast it needs to be moving once it gets onto the sloping putting surface. And again, it is a shot that tends to come up a lot over the course of the tournament. Go for that green in two every day and you are likely to finish over the back at least twice.
The other big setup feature at Augusta National involves the bunkers. I'm sure it has happened, but I can't recall ever having or even seeing a buried lie. The philosophy seems to be that players should always have hard shots from good lies, which is what I grew up with in Melbourne. You can have a good lie every time, but you better be a really good bunker player if you want to get the ball close.
I find that refreshing. I hate it when officials try to give us bad lies for no good reason. They put too much sand in bunkers so that balls will plug. To me, that's a flawed mentality. All it does is bring the best bunker player and the worst bunker player to the same place. The whole idea of competitive golf is to let the better player separate himself. At Augusta they seem to "get" that concept.
Finally, don't believe all the stories about how Augusta National changes every year. Maybe it does, but it is done so completely and so seamlessly it is almost impossible to tell. To be honest, I'm never sure one way or the other, which I guess is how the club likes it. They want to be in our heads before we even start. It's just one more part of why this wonderful course is so cool.