AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before Bryson DeChambeau attempts to turn Augusta National into a pitch-n-putt, it’s worth reflecting on this moment in time in golf’s distance debate.
Azalea, the 13th hole at the home of the Masters, was designed by architect Alister MacKenzie and club co-founder Bobby Jones to be a tempting and dangerous hole. It invites the long driver to bend one around the corner on the left at the 510-yard dogleg hole. A tributary to Rae’s Creek winds in front of the green, and behind the putting surface are four bunkers. As Jones so eloquently put it, the second shot was designed to be a “momentous decision,” and it can produce eagles and big numbers with equal infamy.
This is where Byron Nelson in 1947 played the hole in six under par for four rounds as did Phil Mickelson when he won in 2010, and the likes of Curtis Strange in 1985 and Rory McIlroy in 2011 crashed and burned.
A light 200 MPH from @B_DeChambeau this morning.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) November 11, 2020
But as Bubba Watson and other modern-day long bombers have shown, No. 13 can be reached in two with a mere wedge, leading Fred Ridley, who was named the seventh club chairman in 2017, to concede last year, “Admittedly, that hole does not play as it was intended to play by Jones and MacKenzie. The momentous decision that I’ve spoken about and that Bobby Jones often spoke about, of going for the green in two, is to a large extent, no longer relevant.”
This year, he doubled down, saying, “It still provides a lot of drama, but its challenge is being diminished. We don’t think that’s good for the Masters. We don’t think it’s good for the game. But the issue is a lot larger than Augusta National and the Masters.”
Still, it’s not farfetched to assume its caused sleepless nights as Ridley and Augusta National officials have been thinking overtime on how to restore the inherent character of the hole, including purchasing land in 2017 from neighboring Augusta Country Club for the purpose of lengthening the 13th hole, which is one of the shortest par-5s in major championship golf. It raises eyebrows within the golf community among those who don’t want to see a mustache painted on the Mona Lisa of golf courses. Indeed, the club’s refusal to allow technology to render the famed course obsolete presents a doubled-edged sword as Ridley explained during a press conference Wednesday.
“I’ve been reluctant thus far to make any major changes regarding adding distance to the golf course,” Ridley said, forgetting, of course, that the club stretched the par-4 fifth hole, Magnolia, under his watch, to 495 yards in 2019. “I think sometimes when you do that, I mean, I think there are unintended consequences that come out of that. The scale and the scope of the hole, it changes when you add distance. It changes more than just adding distance. The look of the hole changes. And the design philosophy of the hole changes. And that’s something that we have always and I have always been very focused on is maintaining the design philosophy of MacKenzie and Jones.
“Having said that, I think we are at a crossroads as relates to this issue. We have always been very supportive of the governing bodies; we will continue to be supportive. We think that it’s good that the game of golf is governed by the USGA and the R&A. We think they are great stewards of the game. But I’m hopeful that with the work and the studies that have been ongoing for some time, and I understand that in April there’s to be some sort of publication of their conclusions, I do think that we’re coming closer to a call to action. And all I can say is that, as it relates to our golf course, we have options, and we will take the necessary action to make sure we stay relevant.”
The subject has reached a head as the U.S. Golf Association and R&A released a 102-page paper, its long-awaited Distance Insights Projects, in February, which concluded that distance is playing “an excessive role in the game and causing the sport to go in an unsustainable direction.” Next steps, however, were tabled this summer until March 2021 due to the global pandemic.
But in many ways the Masters this week can serve as Exhibit A for why action is needed sooner rather than later. It is central to the debate as the one major championship that returns to the same venue each year, where even the most casual golf fan knows that the 10th tee calls for a draw and that since the days of Ben Hogan the safe play at No. 11 always has been right of the green and don’t even think of aiming at the Sunday pin at No. 12. Nothing would serve as a greater wake-up call to the governing bodies more than seeing DeChambeau or one of the game’s other younger bombers turn 7,475-yard Augusta National into a par 68.
“We have options, as I said, we can make changes, but not every golf course can. Having said that, it’s a balance because the next question is, obviously, or should be, well, you don’t want to make the game harder,” Ridley said. “On one hand, we want to say we want to grow the game, and on the other hand, we’re saying we’re worried about distance. I think everybody just has got to get their head together and figure it out.”
Could changes come to Augusta National as soon as April 2021? Ridley said no.
“Our season is underway, and we would not make any changes in that time period,” he said. “Beyond that, I wouldn’t speculate.”
So, the distance debate rages on and, just like at the 13th hole at Augusta, the risk of tackling this longtime problem will be worth the reward of going for the green.