Once dubbed 'Tiger-proofing,' Augusta National's course changes now praised by Tiger

February 25, 2020

David Cannon

As far as championship golf courses go, few have evolved with the times quite like Augusta National.

Despite equipment and player advances, the Masters venue plays significantly longer than it did when Tiger Woods overpowered the course in winning his first of five green jackets by 12 shots in 1997. In the debate over the distance gains in professional golf and their effect on classic layouts, the venue serves as an exception, rather than the rule, the course having been a step ahead of tour pros in the distance race.

On a conference call with reporters to preview the upcoming Masters, the defending champion detailed just how different the par 5s play now than when he first started competing at Augusta two decades ago, when the course measured less than 7,000 yards. It now plays 7,425.

“I’ve hit driver and wedge into 2,” Woods said of the early days. “To the back-left pin, I’ve hit 9-iron over the green a few times. That shot doesn’t exist anymore—trying to carry that bunker, it was just a no brainer. Drive it down there and then I would have some kind of 7-iron down to wedge on there.

“Eight, just try to keep it left of that bunker or hit it over that bunker and then have an iron in there. Thirteen was a 3-wood and 8-iron. And 15, as you saw in ’97, I hit driver-wedge in there. So the par 5s have changed dramatically.”

Indeed they have. It’s a product of a few things. The fact that Augusta hosts a major every year creates the need to constantly update the course. In turn, the club’s unparalleled resources (financial and otherwise) allow it to purchase nearby land and regularly undergo construction. The result is a living, breathing golf course that looks a little different every April. The course serves as a time capsule for what’s en vogue in the ranks of professional golf—turn on a Masters from the mid-1980s and you’ll see an entirely different course, and players navigating it entirely differently.

Back then, the fairways were tighter, so trying to nip a wedge was tricky. It’s why more players used to hit bump-and-runs with irons. Now, the grass is longer and bit more overseeded, Woods says, so wedges around the greens are more common. Augusta National has also redone most of its greens over the years, making them, according to Woods, collectively a bit flatter with contours that are less severe and landing areas that are more generous. This has happened concurrently to the rise of urethane golf balls and changes to grooves, resulting in a different approach to playing the course.

“Augusta National has been at the forefront of trying to keep it competitive, keep it fair, keep it fun, and they’ve been at the forefront of lengthening the golf course,” Woods said. “Granted, they have the property and they can do virtually whatever they want. They have complete autonomy. It’s kind of nice.

“But also they’ve been at the forefront of trying to keep it exciting as the game has evolved. We have gotten longer, equipment changed, but they’ve been trying to keep it so the winning score is right around the 12- to 18-under-par mark, and they have.”

The irony, of course, to Woods’ praising the changes to Augusta is the perception that many were initiated in order to “Tiger-proof” the course following Tiger's landmark win in 1997. In some respects it worked, Woods winning four Masters titles in a eight-year span, then needing 14 years to eventually grab his fifth.

The latest significant tweak came at the par-4 fifth, which was lengthened roughly 40 yards ahead of last year’s Masters and played 495 yards from the championship tee. By tournament’s end, the hole ranked fourth hardest, with Woods making bogey all four days.

Meanwhile, many wait to see if the club might similarly lengthen the par-5 13th to give the hole some of its teeth back. Most players can get home with a 3-wood and a mid-iron; Woods hit 8-iron into the green with his second shot during Sunday’s final round last year. Recent aerial photographs showed construction happening behind the 13th tee, on land Augusta National purchased from neighboring Augusta Country Club, but the hole is listed at its same 510 yards in the recently release 2020 Masters media guide.

Woods was asked his thoughts on the club beefing-up the dogleg-left hole and stopped short of either an endorsement or a dismissal of the potential plan: “They’ve done it before, and what they do with the tee markers over the years—sliding it more to the left, and it seems like every year the trees get a little taller. They’ve added more pine straw up the right side over the years, planted a few more trees in there.”

If the club decides to go ahead and stretch the 13th, it will be just the latest change to a constantly evolving course.