Tag Archives: Augusta National

Post-Lottery Bounce for Augusta National

I fully intended to provide final-round coverage of the Course Designers Championship in Augusta, Ga., won by Phil Mickelson of Dallas-based Phil Mickelson Design. Unfortunately, I learned on Sunday that I was one of 28 winners of the Masters media lottery, my prize being a Monday round at seventh-ranked Augusta National Golf Club. With only 24 hours to prepare for my 11:40 tee time, I had no choice but to race through a column for Golf.com, rearrange my travel schedule, and then scarf down a few calories at T-Bonz with Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie.*

*The joint was so crowded that Bones and I had to communicate across several tables using hand signals, but I could tell from the way he mimicked my thumbs-up gesture that he had learned of my good fortune.

It is customary, I know, for writers playing Augusta National for the first time to file self-deprecating accounts of the experience. (If that’s your cup of tea, I highly recommend the breezy, self-flagellating reportage of Chicago Tribune golf writer Teddy Greenstein, who was a member of my foursome.) I, however — mindful of how little space a blog affords the writer — must confine myself to a few highlights. My booming drive on No. 1, for example, which produced whistles of awe from the starters and caddies, carrying far up on the flat. (See my privately-published monograph, “Conquering First Tee Jitters.”) Or my 7-iron on the watery par-3 16th, a tightly-drawn flier that hit the spot I had picked out on the green and funneled down toward the flagstick, stopping two feet from the hole.

Augusta National No. 12

The par-3 12th at Augusta National. (John Garrity)

I was at my best, however, on the par-5 15th, one of the most famous risk-reward holes in golf. Drawing upon my inner Gary Van Sickle, I pounded a long drive up the right side. When I got to my ball, which rested on a relatively flat patch of fairway looking down on Rae’s Creek and a flagstick planted back-right on a wide-but-shallow green, I paused, feigning indecision. Then, with a tight-lipped smile, I turned to my caddie. “Bruce,” I said, “I didn’t come 5,000 miles to lay up.”

Heartened by this display of bravado, Bruce told me I had “195 to the front and 205 to the flag.” Nodding, I pulled the headcover off my hybrid-4 Rescue club, brushed the grass a couple of times with nonchalant practice swings, and then made a Tour Tempo-perfect pass at the ball. The feel at impact was sublime. I watched the shot trace across the distant pines with a feeling of deep contentment — similar, I imagine, to what Mickelson felt on Sunday, when he hit his instantly-legendary 6-iron off the pine straw and twixt the tree trunks on No. 13. My shot was probably struck a little better than Phil’s; it flew precisely 205 yards and landed by the flagstick. Unfortunately, the hole was cut pointlessly close to the back fringe, allowing my ball to skip off the back and run down the tightly-mowed bank. I had to settle for a par.

Was I upset? Not at all. I have studied Alister MacKenzie’s work long enough to know that he labored long and hard to achieve a certain capriciousness in his designs. Sometimes the perfectly struck shot will be punished. That’s how it should be. That’s how you want it to be if you’re a Scotsman fed up with Highlands winters, scratchy kilts and dour neighbors.

Anyway, I found Augusta National to be immaculately groomed and eminently fair from the members‘ tees. I was so impressed, in fact, that I filled out my Top 50 rating sheet in the Champions Locker Room and faxed it off to the Cal Sci number crunchers. A few hours later, they sent me their reply by text: “Augusta National climbs 5 rungs to second! Pebble slides to 7th!”

The Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Range, meanwhile, holds on to the 47th spot, permanently displacing Oakmont Country Club.


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Tiger, Phil Lead Designers’ Flight

The Course Designers’ flight at the Masters may not get as much attention as it used to, but what a leader board! Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson share the lead at 6-under par heading into the weekend, and Tom Watson is three back after a second-round 74. Ernie Els survived the 36-hole cut despite a Friday afternoon run-in with Augusta National’s 15th hole; he’s at even-par and T21.

The twist at the Masters, of course, is that the designers are ranked according to their golfing ability, not their design proficiency. That leads to amusing results. Top-ranked designer Ben Crenshaw (Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19, Kapalua Plantation Course, No. 34) shot rounds of 77-78 and missed the cut by eight strokes. But Woods, who has yet to complete a golf course after three years in the design business, gets to play on the weekend. It may not be fair, but that’s what makes it fun.

Anyway, here are the two-round cumulative results:

Position Player Total Cumulative
T-1 Tiger Woods -6 138
T-1 Phil Mickelson -6 138
3 Tom Watson -3 141
4 Ernie Els E 144
T-5 Bernhard Langer +5 149*
T-5 Mark O’Meara +5 149*
7 Vijay Singh +10 154*
8 Ben Crenshaw +11 155*
9 Ian Woosnam +20 164*
*Missed Cut

Top 50 on TV: The Course Designers’ Tournament is being played at Augusta National, No. 7, but the CBS cameras can’t get enough of the new Tom Fazio-designed Augusta National Practice Facility. The new range, which replaces a foreshortened lawn that ended in a 200-foot vertical net, is more than 400 yards long and lined with azaleas (reminiscent of my back yard). The short-game area, on the golf course side of the range, is roped for spectators and features white-sand bunkers and tournament-ready greens. I’ll review Fazio’s work in more detail in a subsequent post, but for this week only his Augusta National range cracks the Top 50 at No. 47, replacing Oakmont Country Club.

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Are Artificial Trees in Augusta’s Future?

Every year at the Masters, an old folk song plays in my head: “In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines ….” There are better tree songs, I suppose — Hoagy Carmichael’s “A Dogwood Died in Dallas” comes to mind — but Augusta National’s famous 18 meanders through a pine forest. In fact, when founder Bobby Jones gave course designer Alister MacKenzie his first tour of the Fruitland Nursery property, it was to point out that skinny Georgia pines, unlike Britain’s massive hardwoods, could be felled with a few strokes of a hatchet. And if for some reason you wanted more trees, pines were easy to transplant, having root balls about the size of a duffle bag.*

*The portability of pines is demonstrated annually on the National’s eleventh hole, where trees come and go with the nonchalance of guests at a high-end resort hotel.

The downside of the pine is its propensity for shedding pollen in the spring. A single loblolly pine, according an Audubon-knock-off pamphlet I can’t put my hand on, can produce two to three kilograms of yellow powder overnight — enough to cover a fleet of rental cars. Bees carry some of this pollen to flowers, but the rest drifts up against curbs and doorsills or is inhaled by guileless visitors from the north.

“The official Masters color might have to be changed from green to yellow,” Ron Green Jr. wrote in Monday’s Charlotte Observer. “There’s a soft yellow haze in the air and a heavy coating on most static surfaces around the golf course.”

Relief is promised in the form of thunderstorms, which are expected to rumble through Augusta in the next hour or so. Until then, the  Augusta National Golf Club’s No. 7 ranking is suspended (subject to review by the executive committee).

Golf Cart at 2010 Masters

Georgia farmers hail record harvest of sneezables. (John Garrity)

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Fighting Words Over Brookline Ranking

“I have to disagree with Swope Memorial,” Dan B writes. “This is a decent local municipal course, but it does not belong in any national discussion, regardless of who designed it or what tournament it may have hosted.”

Dan’s spirited rebuke is music to my ears! The whole point of the Top 50 is to get students of great golf design to come out of their shells and start squabbling like litigants on Judge Judy. If you were to visit us here at Catch Basin, you’d find Top 50 staffers shouting in hallways, hurling logoed caps at each other and throwing the occasional punch over the most arcane disagreements. Tempers flare because most of these disputes are, at their core, matters of individual taste. Are the greens at North Dakota’s Medicine Hole, No. 38, better than the greens at Augusta National, No. 7? I would say no — particularly during Masters week. But my assistant with the frayed knuckles asks: Better for whom? The average Badlands golfer will take four or five putts on Augusta’s 9th green — which, Omar will argue, is proof of faulty design.

17th at Ballybunion

Ballybunion Old: Better than TPC Scottsdale? (John Garrity)

Similarly, there are those who, like Dan B, wonder how a midwestern muni like Swope Memorial, No. 45, can topple a legendary layout like The Country Club. We are all prey to this “we know who or what is best” attitude. It’s the same conventional wisdom that told us that a 20-year-old American street urchin named Francis Ouimet couldn’t possibly outplay the British golf titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray for the 1913 U.S. Open title.

The Top 50 algorithm, I’m proud to say, does not look down its nose at underdogs. When you take a closer look at a mutt like Swope Memorial — give it a flea bath, say, and a good brushing — you may find that it has a pedigree to compare with that of any Brookline Pomeranian. Did you know, for instance, that the legendary newsman O.B. Keeler, Bobby Jones’s mentor and Boswell, was a regular at Swope Park during his brief tenure at  the Kansas City Star? Keeler wrote about the parkland gem in its 9-hole, pre-Tillinghast iteration, circa 1910, but you could easily apply his words to today’s 6,274-yard championship layout:

It was as simple and straightforward a golf course as nature could devise, uncomplicated by fancy architectural notions. An intermittent sort of stream with trees guarded the first green, and another stream in a steep-walled valley, with a spread of swamp to the right, had to be crossed on the one-shotter, No. 4. … The fairways were good enough, and the rough wasn’t particularly rough, though the putting surfaces never seemed adequate and we were forever complaining about them. Withal, they were not to be despised as excuses. ‘You know how those greens are,’ you could tell your friends.

That sounds a lot like the Swope Memorial I play on my senior-discount, weekdays-and-weekend-afternoons annual pass — particularly that passage about a “steep-walled valley with a spread of swamp,” a spot I seem to find with some regularity. The greens, of course, have improved greatly since Keeler’s time, though they may not be as “sophisticated” as those at The Country Club.

As I recall it [Keeler continues], the original public course at Swope Park ought to have been about as easy a nine holes as the most gingerly neophyte could have asked on which to start cutting down his medal average of 7 strokes to the hole. Yet the shameful confession may as well be made, that not only did I fail to achieve the average of 4 that originally was established as my Ultima Thule*, but also that I cannot recall ever playing a single round of nine holes at an average of 5 — certainly not the full round of 18 holes — in the three years I fought, bled and courted apoplexy about that course.**

*The Latin words Ultima Thule, in medieval geographies, denoted any distant place beyond the boundaries of the known world. The term was later appropriated by the Swedish Viking-rock band, Ultima Thule, which sold one certified platinum and three gold albums in the 1990s.

**From O.B. Keeler’s The Autobiography of an Average Golfer, Greenberg, 1925.

I could go on quoting Keeler to my advantage, but the proof is in the playing, so to speak. I happily invite any Country Club member out to Swope Memorial as my guest, on the understanding that I get a round at The Country Club in return. Who knows? If it impresses me, Brookline might find its way back to the Top 50.*

*Golfweek’s latest course ranking (3-12-10) has The Country Club at No. 20 on its list of so-called Classic Courses. That sounds impressive until you notice that Golfweek excludes all courses built since 1960 — they have a Top 100 of their own! — and totally ignores golf courses outside the U. S. If I were The Country Club, I’d find a second and challenge Golfweek to a duel.

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Challenge to Turnberry, Augusta National Rankings Rendered Moot

“One point concerning your algorithm,” writes Rick Boule, yet another New Englander frosted by the absence of northeastern courses in the Top 50. “I’m hoping I didn’t miss some nuance in the methodology, but if 10 is the ideal, wouldn’t Turnberry at 10.68 and Augusta National at 10.70 (rated 6 and 7 respectively) fall below your rankings 8 through 12, which have scores of 9.48 through 10.63?”

Boule doesn’t give his occupation, but I’m guessing that he’s a grad student at MIT, where they stay up all night eating pizza and dreaming up ways to punk their rivals at Cal Sci. Which is not to say that he is — what’s the word? — wrong. Turnberry and Augusta National are 0.68 and 0.70 from a perfect 10, while the courses ranked 8 through 12 fall between 0.52 and 0.63 short (or long) of perfection. Which means that for the last 2-½ years they should have been ranked higher than those two famous courses.

I could plead “typo” and simply correct the scores, but Apple’s “Time Machine” software backs up our hard drives on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. I’m confident that a look back in time will reveal that some hacker — possibly Boule himself — guessed our password and planted a number-tweaking bacterium in the list. To which I can only say: “Well played! The joke’s on us.”

I would have addressed the issue yesterday, but I spent Sunday afternoon at the elbow of SI’s Gary Van Sickle in the press room of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson, Ariz. (Gary looks to me for advice when his laptop starts to shake or buzz.) And now, writing early Monday morning in my room at the Williams Center Marriott Courtyard, I find that I don’t have to address the problem at all.

Why? Because I’ve gotten a voice mail from Cal Sci informing me that all our hardware and software issues have been resolved, the numbers have been crunched and, at long last, WE HAVE A NEW TOP 50 RANKING!

“One highly-regarded golf course, one of your top ten, has fallen completely off the list,” says the excited voice (which, to be honest, I don’t recognize). “What’s more, a brand new golf course has made an unprecedented first appearance at No. 10. Can you guess which one?”

I hate to admit it, but I can’t. So I am eagerly looking forward to this afternoon, when a FedEx envelope with the results will be waiting for me at the front desk of a different Arizona hotel.* If all goes as planned, the new Top 50 will be posted here tomorrow night. Or Tuesday afternoon, at the latest.

*We normally transmit the Top 50 by e-mail or facsimile, but I’m told that the entire Cal Sci campus suffered a power blackout at 6:48 p.m., local time. Authorities are investigating.

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