Augusta National was in the news well before Masters week this year. Reports surfaced in February that the club would like to lengthen the par-5 13th hole by about 50 yards and is willing to pay $27 million to neighboring Augusta Country Club for the property to do it.
The cost and urgency for such a small parcel underscore the size and scope of the Masters, which has become the most lucrative, popular and important event in golf. The tournament is bigger and bolder than ever as it prepares for its 80th edition, starting this Thursday.
A generation or two ago, it is likely that a young golfer, practicing putting, would imagine sinking the big one that would win the sport’s greatest prize: The U.S. Open. But modern golfers have different priorities. For instance, 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel said, when he recently won the Valspar Championship, his first American victory since he put on the green jacket:
“Winning, back in 2011, the biggest tournament in our sport, you know, your expectations go up . . . ”
Jordan Spieth, at his Masters championship news conference last year, said, “I’ve watched guys come into this room with the jacket on and always dreamt of doing the same.”
At the Shell Houston Open this past week, Spieth said: “The Masters is within ten days away. Just saying that makes you just want to go out and do pushups or something.”
Or, it can make you want to sit down in front of the television. The final round of the 2015 Masters averaged 14 million viewers, as opposed to the final round of the 2015 U.S. Open, which averaged 6.7 million, despite being in prime time, also featuring a Spieth victory and having a much more exciting ending.
There are many explanations for why the formerly quaint spring-is-here get-together has become the preeminent force in golf. Laying the groundwork was Arnold Palmer and the television age when he won four Masters between 1958 and 1964. The Masters was the site of Jack Nicklaus’ epochal final major championship at 46 in 1986 and of Tiger Woods’ sea-changing first major title 11 years later.
Also, the Masters was the first tournament telecast in high definition (just as it will pioneer 4K, or Ultra High Definition, this year) and the new technology dramatized the stunning colors of Augusta National in April. Finally, there is the reality that the Masters is set up to produce birdies on the back nine, and current fans and golfers prefer low-scoring action to the challenge of meeting par.
In any case, the Masters clearly has struck and keeps striking chords.
“The older I get, the more emotional I get about it because it’s a wonderful place. It’s a hell of a tournament,” said Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who will work the first two Masters rounds for ESPN this week. “It’s the history, the tradition, the people, the ghosts of the Hogans and the Nelsons and the Sneads and all the rest.”
This year’s event has the potential to be as memorable as any. It starts with Spieth, who, despite having fallen out of first place in the world golf ranking, has finished second and first in his two Masters appearances. Then there is current No. 1 Jason Day, who has won six of his past 13 starts, including the PGA Championship of 2015, the most recent major.
Rory McIlroy is chasing the career grand slam. Bubba Watson is like the San Francisco Giants, winning in even-numbered years. Watson won the ’12 and ’14 Masters after having been runnerup at Doral earlier in those seasons. He finished second at Doral this year. Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, is at peak form. He won at Doral after having won the Honda Classic a week earlier.
Rickie Fowler has been knocking on the door of a major title. And Phil Mickelson’s solid spring has made him an intriguing figure, entering his favorite week of the year.
All of them will be playing No. 13, the last leg of Amen Corner, at 510 yards. But a proposal to eventually lengthen it is part of Augusta’s policy of changing to keep the tournament the same. That is, to force longer-hitting current players to face the same sorts of approach shot their forebears did.
Nicklaus is on record favoring the move, Scott believes they should keep the hole the way it is. One thing for sure is, the decision-makers at golf’s biggest tournament will not put it up for a vote.