Originally created 03/30/03

Augusta National bounces back from poor choice

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. - Golfers bogey. It's a fact of the game. Nobody's perfect. Not even Tiger Woods.

How you handle the bogeys is what separates the bad golfers from the good, the good from the great. The PGA Tour even measures it statistically. It's called "bounce back" - following a bogey with a birdie or better. No surprise, Woods leads Ernie Els on the bounce-back leaderboard.

And so it seems that Masters Tournament chairman William "Hootie" Johnson has effectively bounced back from at least one recent public relations bogey. With judicious use of a mulligan, Johnson's Masters age limit that was to go into effect in 2004 will soon be stricken from the record. Lifetime means lifetime again. You don't abuse it, you don't lose it.

It's a change of heart that not only will be well-received by the 60-somethings approaching the cut line, but also the 40-something and 20-something champions who hope to have many more April afternoons playing in the Masters.

"I think it's a great move," said three-time champion Tiger Woods. "As we all know, a couple guys abused the privilege. They'd play one (hole) and withdraw or play nine and withdraw. But if you can actually play all 36 holes, why not? That's the beauty of it. Send them all off first so everybody can watch them play. I think that's cool."

The living history museum that is part of the Masters is certainly one of the coolest aspects of the tournament. Walk onto the Augusta National grounds and you feel as though you've stepped into a time warp. That only a few years ago you could go see Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els teeing it up on the same ground as Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead was a mind-bending thrill.

That this year and in the near future we will be able to watch Charles Howell, Adam Scott and Justin Rose compete on the same fairways as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player continues the cycle. It's what makes Augusta National and the Masters special.

"When I first went to Augusta, one of the thrills for me was knowing I'd have the chance to see Sarazen and Hogan and Nelson and Snead ... so many wonderful players there," Player said. "I know there are so many young people who go there and look forward to seeing Arnie and Jack. The Masters becomes an integral part of your life and I try to be an ambassador for that tournament wherever I go."

When Johnson threatened that tradition and goodwill by imposing an age limit of 65 and a minimum participation requirement of 10 events per year, it stung. It hurt the patrons, it hurt the tournament and, most of all, it hurt the past champions.

"Saddened" was a word used by players such as Player, who would have been forced into retirement after this year had the rule gone into effect in 2004. "Thrilled" was the word most heard Saturday when past champions competing at The Players Championship heard of the expected rule revocation.

"I think that's a wise choice," 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples said. "I think guys are smart enough to know they don't want to embarrass the tournament. ... I'm glad Hootie changed that because most guys I think have a nice feeling for Augusta and a few people lost it last year."

Johnson recognized that and acted. It's not often Augusta National admits it made a mistake, but when it does, it should be commended. The Masters sent a strong signal when it delivered now-infamous letters to past champions Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper telling them the 2001 Masters was their last. The age limit was simply a step too far.

"I think they got the message across that guys who can't compete shouldn't play," two-time champion Bernhard Langer said. "I think that's what's going to happen in the future. I'm not going to play when I'm 80, but I'm going to play as long as I feel I can make the cut and hit the ball."

He can if he wants. That's what is important. At Augusta National, any past champion should always feel welcome. They earned that.

"I look forward to going back there like Gene Sarazen with a walking stick," said Player.

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


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