As golf endures a surge in driving distance, Augusta National struggles to answer the question of what comes next
Golf is experiencing a renaissance because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The game is a natural for social distancing, and the fact that it takes part outdoors is a huge positive while ticking so many of the boxes outlined by federal health authorities.
In the third quarter, golf retail sales in the U.S. exceeded $1 billion for the first time ever in that quarter, underscoring a resurgence marked by rising participation worldwide.
So, when Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, stated Wednesday in his annual pre-Masters news conference that a certain aspect of golf is “at a crossroads,” the comment seemed to throw cold water on golf’s 2020 positives.
But in reality, he was addressing an issue that has been under discussion and research for years and might be the biggest obstacle that the game faces: distance.
Ridley didn’t say it, but as the face of the membership, he must be on the edge of his seat this week, waiting to see whether a new generation of free-swinging players will tear up one of the best courses in the world with drives soaring far past 300 yards.
Designed by club co-founder Bobby Jones and renowned architect Alister MacKenzie, Augusta National opened in 1933 on a former nursery. The next year, the Masters debuted. By the end of World War II, the tournament had become one of golf’s most significant events. Traditionally played in early April, the Masters was postponed seven months this year because of the pandemic.
The course stood the test of time until Tiger Woods appeared in the late 1990s. After Woods won his second Masters title in 2001, at 16 under par, Augusta National summoned the bulldozers for significant changes. Architect Tom Fazio lengthened nine holes, adding 285 yards to stretch the course to 7,270. Subsequent renovations by Fazio brought the course to its current 7,475 yards.
The changes, though substantial, were done with the original design integrity of Jones and MacKenzie.
“I've been reluctant thus far to make any major changes regarding adding distance to the golf course,” said Ridley, the 1975 U.S. Amateur champion and a former Walker Cup player who competed in three Masters, in 1976-78. “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.”
Ridley indicated that unlike many other courses, Augusta National has the land and financial wherewithal to attempt to overcome distance, but the club also is concerned about the effects of increased distance on other courses and the game.
Yet, how do golf’s leaders make courses longer yet try to attract new players into a game that is being made harder because of the increased yardage?
“We have always been very supportive of the governing bodies,” said Ridley, noting the role of the USGA and R&A in policing the game. “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.”
Ridley and the governing bodies hope that the USGA and R&A’s “Distance Insights” report, which is expected to be released in the spring, will be a springboard toward addressing the issue.
But with the PGA Tour, European Tour and PGA of America seemingly uninterested in any restraint on distance, Ridley might need to act alone, be it with a Masters-specific ball, more lengthening of Augusta National or both.
“I do think that we're coming closer to a call to action,” Ridley said. “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.”
During the next four days, we will see whether the perceived onslaught from a new generation of power players will minimize a masterpiece that has fought to remain relevant.
Whatever changes the club might opt to implement, nothing would be in place before the 2022 Masters. That will give the bombers two more shots at Augusta National.
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