News & Opinion

Augusta takes long view of iconic 13th

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Known as “Azalea” for the colorful spring blooms that frame the hole, the par-5 13th at Augusta National Golf Club has been lengthened only 30 yards over the years, to today’s 510.

Azalea has not undergone major changes to counter modern technology compared with the rest of the Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie-designed course, which opened in 1933. Oddly, in 1950, the dogleg-left 13th, for some unknown reason, was shortened by 10 yards, to 470, before being restored to its original length a year later. The 13th was stretched to its current length in 2002 but often is reached in two strokes with short-to-mid-iron shots by modern professionals. The 13th, with the par-4 11th and par-3 12th, plays a pivotal role in the renowned “Amen Corner,” some of golf’s most hallowed ground.

“Admittedly, that hole does not play as it was intended to play by Jones and MacKenzie,” club chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday during his annual pre-Masters news conference. “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.”

Ridley, who has served as chairman since October 2017, recently inaugurated the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, one of the club’s most innovative ideas.

Now, after having lengthened the par-4 fifth hole by 40 yards, to 495, for this year’s Masters (“5th hole bulks up as brawny Masters test,” April 9), Ridley is talking about significant changes to the 13th.

Last year, in his first news conference as chairman, Ridley positioned himself as conciliatory among the governing bodies of the USGA and R&A, the PGA and European tours and the major equipment manufacturers.

“We do not think that additional length should be the immediate or only reaction to what we continue to observe in the Masters,” Ridley said on the eve of last year’s Masters. “We have been consistent in expressing our confidence in the governing bodies, and we will continue to support their efforts. Although differing views may well, in fact, exist on the subject among golf's major stakeholders, we hope and strongly encourage all who are a part of our sport to work together in the best interest of the game as this important issue evolves.”

Now, Ridley, 66, a former USGA president and the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion, seems to have taken on a new role. He tacitly supports the governing bodies while awaiting the results of the USGA/R&A Distance Insights report, a conclusion which he seems to anticipate.

The results might not hold the collective anticipation for golf as well as, say, the recent Mueller Report gripped the nation’s capital, but the report could be one of the most crucial conclusions in golf.

The USGA and R&A have been in the throes of the Distance Insights project since May 2018, with the focus on three questions:

  • What are the key contributors to distance in golf?
  • What have been and might be the key impacts of distance on the game?
  • What does distance mean to golf’s key stakeholders?

The fact-gathering phase was completed earlier this year, and the report is expected to be issued jointly by the USGA and R&A later this year.
“Although we now have options to increase the length of this hole, we intend to wait to see how distance may be addressed by the governing bodies before we take any action,” Ridley said Wednesday. “In doing so, we fully recognize that the issue of distance presents difficult questions with no easy answers. But please know this: The USGA and the R&A do have the best interests of the game at heart. They recognize the importance of their future actions. You can be assured that we will continue to advocate for industry‑wide collaboration in support of the governing bodies as they resolve this very important topic.”

If, in fact, the report finds distance to be an issue and the major professional tours and/or the equipment companies are unwilling to budge from their position of not wanting to rein in equipment, specifically the ball, then Ridley would be faced with taking unilateral action.

“I think it's very unlikely that we would ever produce a Masters ball,” Ridley said. “As it relates to other things we might do, I mean, there are numerous architectural enhancements, if you will, that have been made to the Augusta National course over the years, and there are a lot of options we have for making the course more difficult that don't necessarily translate into distance or to lengthening the course, but we have to face the reality that quite a few of these players hit the ball prodigious distances, and we do have to deal with that.”

What those additional options that Ridley generally mentioned were unclear, but it’s safe to say that the 7,475 yards that Augusta National will play this week could change in the near future.

And after the to-and-fro between the governing bodies and everyone else involved after the report has been issued, Ridley will initiate a plan that likely already has been drafted. Two years ago, in fact, Augusta National acquired land from neighboring Augusta Country Club that could be used to lengthen No. 13.

The timing or extent of the plan could be as wide-ranging as the changes in 2002, when the course was lengthened from 6,985 to 7,270 and then extended further, to 7,445 in 2006. Ridley invoked the principles of the late Clifford Roberts, who served as the club’s chairman in 1931-76.

“We maintain Mr. Roberts' philosophy that nothing stands still,” Ridley said. “We have committed to always move forward, and we always will strive to do it in a manner that serves the competitors in the Masters, our patrons, consumers of our content, and the game of golf as a whole.”

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli