Ever since Gene Sarazen's double eagle in 1935, the Masters has been the epitome of golf excitement and daring brilliance, thundering crowds and barrages of birdies. Those cheers for the kings of the game were interspersed with gasps at car-crash wrecks as the greatest shot-makers tried to create the kind of breathtaking scores -- 68s, 66s, even 64s -- that were necessary to climb up the leader board which, come Sunday, almost always was awash in under-par red numbers.
No more. Cue the silence. Come to Augusta National now and listen to the birds sing in the pines. The crowds won't bother your meditation. The spectators are chatting among themselves, discussing the past (as recent as last year), when the Masters was still the Masters. Now it's the U.S. Open in April. It's pars and punishment, defensive strategy and grinding teeth. Who dreamed that the most talented players in the world would come to the course built by Bobby Jones expressly to examine a man's capacity for balancing risk and reward, only to gear back their games, crimp their hopes and aim away from the pins.
There's a consensus about the first two days of this Masters: It's unique, but not the way you'd like. After years of lengthening, redesigning, landscaping and basically doing what they darn well please, the Augusta National has done what was considered impossible. They're taken the most scintillating tournament course ever built and, for two days, made it b-o-r-i-n-g.
"Be aggressive? Here? On this golf course? Not in these conditions," Tiger Woods said Friday after his 73-74 -- 147 total left him just five shots behind co-leaders Brett Wetterich and Tim Clark at a humble, uninspiring 2 under par. "No, you just plod along. Try to put the ball in the right spot if you can. If you can't, somehow just don't have any wrecks out there."
By Sunday, this may be the first Masters without a single under-par score since 1966.
What happened? Everybody knows. Few want to say it, though Jack Nicklaus has harrumphed in recent years that all the changes to Augusta didn't look like improvements to him. But Tiger knows and he'll tell. For several years, heavy spring rains have allowed players to throw every shot at the flags and shoot what looked like normal Masters scores. Under the surface, however, trouble was building. All that was required to show the true U.S. Open-like menace of the new Augusta National was a reasonably dry spring that would make the National play hard and fast. Now, it's here. (Sneeze.)
"This is probably as dry as [it's been since] '99," Woods said. "Only difference is about 500 yards [of added length] and they put in about a billion trees. And now we have rough out there. Yeah, it's a totally different golf course."
Half the holes here have had their tee boxes jacked back so far -- to protect the course from the souped-up equipment that lets your grandfather hit 250-yard drives -- that they're almost unrecognizable. Trees, like those along the right side of the 11th hole, appear like a magic forest between one Masters and the next. When, on top of all this, hard greens won't accept marginal iron shots and eviscerate meekly struck putts, scores skyrocket and the desire to play boldly dies.
The result, so far, has been a leader board filled with the names of accomplished but not thrilling players. In other words, gentlemen for whom the puritan U.S. Open was created. Three of the rookies from last year's maligned U.S. Ryder Cup team are in the top 10: Wetterich, Taylor and Zach Johnson. "We all have something to prove," said Taylor, an Augusta native.
What they have to prove is that they have any business wearing the same kind of green jackets always identified with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros, Woods and Phil Mickelson -- the cream of the elite, the best of the swashbucklers, each of whom won multiple Masters.
None of golf's other major championships has ever favored the very type of player the public adores most. And who is that player? Why it's the brave booming driver who knows how to scramble, loves the surge of momentum that can produce a back-nine 30 on Sunday and never saw a 30-foot putt that couldn't be holed. The Masters exalts them, just as the U.S. and British opens often seem to try to clip their wings and bring them, and their outsized talents, back to the field. The core of the Masters' appeal is that it's unashamedly elitist. Some players hit it farther or can imagine more amazing escapes or have the touch to sink shots that terrify others. The Masters has always wanted to exalt them, not force them to "just plod along."
This is the course where Nicklaus incinerated the back nine with a 30 for a final 65 in his '86 victory. The first day I ever set foot on the course in '78, Gary Player went out early, shot 64 and stole a green jacket from Ed Sneed. Since then, the plot seldom has changed. Why mess with success? Nick Faldo's 65 ran down Scott Hoch and forced a playoff in '89. In '96, Faldo came from six shots behind to win, his 67 unnerving Greg Norman who soared to 78. And a decade ago, at 21, Woods set golf ablaze with an opening 40-30 -- 70, followed by scores of 66, 65 and 69 to break the course record with an 18-under-par 270.
Now, Woods says that even par may win this Masters.
"I'm right in the ballgame," he said. The leaders "are not going anywhere. They are not going to go low here. I played with Paul Casey today, and he played one of the great rounds of golf you'll ever see. He shot 68. You're not going to go very far here."
The National was never easy. Instead, Jones's layout demanded selective bravery and rewarded flawless execution. The result was a gargantuan 365-acre theater of holes, sprawled over a vast arboretum, which was built for roars and glory. Now it's a grinding ground.
So it's time for a memo to the green jackets: On the weekend, water the greens, mow the rough, put the pins in the hollows and pray that a few people with recognizable names finish this tournament under par. Right now, with the best of intentions, you've redesigned, lengthened and landscaped until Mr. Jones's course is being played exactly as eighth-place David Howell describes: "ultra defensive."
Four days of avoiding mistakes and stifling emotions is one valid form of golf. But that annual eat-your-spinach tournament, with all its glorious misery, is already played every year in June. It's called the U.S. Open. We don't need to duplicate it.
What we need is a weekend full of birdie roars, eagle bellows and double-bogey groans deep in the Georgia pines. We need the Masters. Can we have it back, please?