Saturday 20 April 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Augusta is a paradise for power hitting, and the blazers could yet make the course even longer'

 

Justin Thomas drives on the 14th during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National. Photo: Getty
Justin Thomas drives on the 14th during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National. Photo: Getty

Dermot Gilleece

Nowhere in golf do the sights and sounds quite match those of Augusta National. The renowned beauty of the place will be accompanied this afternoon by unique sounds reverberating through the pines as eager voices respond to contrasting deeds on the treacherous homeward journey.

As a kind of rehearsal, I witnessed the reaction a few days ago of two black women in the role of security guards at either end of the clubhouse veranda. To the sound of a loud "Ahhhhhh" from the course, one of them looked at the other and suddenly they began giggling.

One said: "He missed it. I don't know who he was, but he missed it." And they proceeded to giggle some more, clearly amused by the strange happenings which captivate this place during Masters week.

Mind you, Augusta sights weren't especially appealing on Monday and Tuesday when rain storms lashed the area, turning pristine walkways into slippery mud. It was reminiscent of 2003 when, on approaching the entrance gates, I was met by dispirited souls heading in the opposite direction, marking the loss of the opening practice day for the first time in 20 years.

Happily, such a fate was averted on this occasion, though rain returned on Thursday night and Friday morning to make unusually receptive greens even more inviting. And on Friday afternoon, play was suspended because of lightning.

Meanwhile, even a simple wooden bench can adopt special significance in this remarkable place. There, in front of the locker-room, Sergio Gomez sat earlier in the week and remembered events of 25 years previously when Jose-Maria Olazabal won the first of his two Masters titles.

Probably the longest-serving manager in golf, Gomez is back at Augusta after a year's absence because of serious illness. At 74, he seemed as cheerful as ever and happy to talk of the only player whose fortunes he has guided.

It was late morning on the final day in 1994 and hardly a word passed between the pair as they sat there for about 20 minutes, killing time before Olazabal set off in the last pairing with Tom Lehman at about 2.50. "We watched Tom Watson teeing off," Gomez recalled. "Then in Spanish, 'Chema' said to me it didn't get any better than that. Soon it was time for him to get ready . . ."

As heightened tension became etched in the faces of most competitors, Tommy Fleetwood managed to lighten the mood. Only a matter of yards from that bench, under the spreading oak in front of the clubhouse, the BBC's Andrew Cotter was doing a piece to camera with all the earnestness he could muster.

At which point, Fleetwood moved in behind his left shoulder and stood there, while the crew became increasingly amused. It was only when the player had been there for quite a few seconds that Cotter eventually realised what was going on. At which point, Fleetwood quietly moved away, pleased with his mischief.

There was a more dramatic sight to behold on Thursday evening as a thrilling sequence of shots climaxed the day's play. Among them was a magnificent six-iron approach of 196 yards from Bryson DeChambeau to the final green, where the ball ran up the putting surface before making flush contact with the pin. Going at a brisk pace, it bounced slightly before coming to rest inches short of the hole, so allowing him to finish with four successive birdies, the last of them a tap-in.

The player they call 'the professor' because of his quirky, scientific approach to the game, didn't quite understand what the rumpus was about as he negotiated the elevation of 70 feet up onto the green. Even the sight of his ball didn't provide the full picture. It was only when shown a TV re-run afterwards that his face lit up with the full realisation of what he had done.

Did he not consider it a little unlucky that the ball failed to obediently drop down between pin and hole? "No," he replied. Then, where most people would have suggested it was simply going too fast, DeChambeau remained strictly in character by adding: "Obviously too much terminal velocity to drop." No point in creating an image unless you maintain it!

As it happened, I came upon another player, now spectating, who executed a similarly sensational shot to the 18th hole of a Major. In 2003, Shaun Micheel - "I'm Irish from way, way back" - hit a stunning seven-iron to within a foot of the 72nd at Oak Hill to capture the PGA Championship.

"Hitting to the 18th here is much more difficult," he said. "It's straight uphill with nothing to frame the shot. In my case, grandstands tended to narrow your focus, making for an easier visual target."

If admiration is to be measured by the status of the admirer, then Jack Nicklaus captured the essence of an astonishing achievement back in 1997, when Tiger Woods had his first victory here by a crushing 12-stroke margin. "Tiger is out there playing another game," said the six-times Masters winner. "He's playing a golf course he'll own for a long time."

Ownership rights have been seriously interrupted since Woods won the last of his four titles back in 2005, yet his understanding of the course continues to shine like a beacon. Cast in the role of elder statesman, with a receding hairline to match, his capacity to thrill the galleries is undiminished on the evidence so far. And he's relishing every minute of it.

Augusta's status as a paradise for power hitting was effectively endorsed this week by the club chairman, Fred Ridley. When asked if there were plans to tackle equipment technology with anything other than course lengthening, he replied: "I think it's very unlikely that we would ever produce a Masters ball."

Reining in the ball has long been viewed as the logical solution to one of golf's most stubborn problems. And no organisation is better placed to do so than Augusta National, the only one of the Major championships capable of exerting control over such matters.

Given Ridley's background as a former president of the US Golf Association, his reaction carries more weight than might normally be attributed to an Augusta chairman. "There are a whole lot of reasons, but I think you can be pretty assured that that's the case," he added.

Though he pointed to the option of making the course more difficult without lengthening it, additional yardage has been the preferred route since so-called Tiger-proofing was undertaken in the wake of truly prodigious striking by the 1997 champion. And its position as the first option seemed to be confirmed by Ridley's admission that if the need arises to further lengthen the course, "we can do it".

Nobody would dare question this last assertion from a club which recently caused Berckman's Road, a prominent suburban thoroughfare, to be relocated, so as to expand their grounds.

All of which is bad news for shorter hitters or the majority of past Masters champions who still relish an annual outing at their own special field of dreams.

Champions like 61-year-old Ian Woosnam, whom I vividly recall from late on the Masters Sunday of 1991, swigging a bottle of beer and smoking a cigarette in a decidedly incongruous green jacket, while an unopened bottle of champagne stood close by.

His 86th and 87th Masters rounds on this latest visit were the source of considerable torment for the little Welshman. Which had an interesting dimension, given that his power hitting, when smashing his drive on the 72nd hole out over the bunkers on the left in '91, led to the hole being reconfigured before he defended the title.

"There's not many seniors who can hit it past me and Sandy [Lyle]," he said. "I'm now hitting the ball as far as, if not further than, I did back then, but I still can't cope. I play with club amateurs and I'm 40 yards past them. And I try to explain to them that I'm 50 yards behind Rory McIlroy. And that's just the tee-shot.

"With the way they've lengthened the fifth [495 yards], it's a driver and a five-wood for me. Even seven, which used to be a driver and a sand-wedge, is now a four-iron second shot. And the 18th is a drive and a five-wood. It's just ridiculous."

Then he paused before adding: "But I still love coming back. Absolutely. I love the challenge, even with the way the game has changed. I always look forward to the next visit. I've been here for more than a week. Went down to Savannah and played a bit of golf with friends. It's worth all the effort."

Without realising it, Woosnam highlighted a significant difference between fitness levels among seniors on either side of the Atlantic. While the Welshman was despatching average drives of 266 yards and Lyle's were 10 yards shorter, Bernhard Langer revived images from a brilliant past, when he twice won this title.

With average drives of 280 yards, arrow-straight, the German carded a second-round 72 which included three birdies in the last four holes, to be one under par for the tournament. More significantly, he was set fair for the weekend while his former European Ryder Cup colleagues both departed the scene.

All of which had ensured splendid viewing for spectators across the generations, while a revered layout remained the centre of attention. As Ken Brown, here commentating for the BBC, put it: "The course is the star of the show. No doubt about it."

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