Originally created 03/10/02

National changes are Masterful



Sixty-three.

On the grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club, the number 63 is held in high esteem. Sixty-three is the standard of excellence.

Nick Price shot 63 in the 1986 Masters to set the course record. Greg Norman matched that 63 in 1996.

On Wednesday, under ideal skies and comfortable March conditions, it was another 63 that signaled all is well at Augusta National.

Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, shot a 63 on his get-acquainted tour of the lengthened and strengthened course. He shot 63 from the tips - covering every inch of the 7,270 yards. He shot 63 with maverick Masters chairman Hootie Johnson as his gallery.

What does a 63 in a casual round in early March mean? It means that despite all of the angst wasted on theories about changes altering the dynamics of the world's most fretted-about championship venue, nothing's really changed at all.

The greens remain Augusta's greatest line of defense against the best players in the world. That's the way we want it. That's the way it should be. All the added length and pinched fairways do is turn the clock back a few years on technology.

Singh's 63 simply proves Augusta will still allow a good score to a worthy player.

"He'd love to put that round in the can for April," said Clarke Jones, Singh's agent with IMG who played with him Wednesday. "But when you crank up the green speeds, it will be a different course."

It will be exactly the kind of course Johnson and the club wanted to present. They moved some dirt, planted trees, expanded bunkers, shifted driving angles, stretched yardages and made it a priority to play smartly or risk disaster.

Upon inspection, the changes appear perfect. They look good. They feel good. They were brilliantly designed and executed. They look like they've been that way for 30 years. Not a scar showing. They are nothing anyone should worry about.

Singh, for one, loved them.

"His overriding comment was the changes were done well and make you think when you play those golf holes," Jones said. "You better drive the ball well there. The best players in the world will be thinking more off the tee."

What a novel idea. Augusta has always favored the long-ball hitter, and it still does, no matter what inane comment comes out of Charles Barkley's mouth. Tiger Woods will always have an advantage there.

But you better not try to simply bomb it around the course any more. The distance won't kill you. The subtleties will. Accuracy is finally the premium it's never been there - not in a U.S. Open-kind of overhanded way but in the usual Masters understated fashion. The trees are more in play than ever before. Players will have to shape shots more precisely. The fairway bunkers are lethal guardians of the no-fly zones.

Everybody claims the changes only play into the hands of the longest hitters, but reality is likely to prove very different. Augusta and course architect Tom Fazio carefully studied data and weaved in subtle advantages in landing areas to accommodate the medium-length players. Before everyone starts reducing the field to 10 players, don't count out the middlemen yet.

Final judgment will be reserved for when the players show up in April and put the course to the test. Until then, Mr. Johnson, this is one critic who loves what you've done with the place.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.