Jordan Spieth had barely rolled in his last putt when the Interwebs were lit up with all sorts of criticism of this year’s Masters; in particular, there were a lot of comments about how “easy” the course played and that the membership has tried to “neuter” or “defang” it. And of course, there were numerous allusions to how Jack or Gene Sarazen or Ben Hogan or countless other relics “would have had their way “ with the current setup. We’ll get to that in a moment, as well as young Spieth’s remarkable performance.
As a child, I used to resent the implication from my elders that their generation produced better athletes (never mind the empirical evidence otherwise), that their version of various sports was better, that the players of today have it easier and better than those of their youth, etc. I vowed that I would never strike that particular attitude (to which I lovingly refer as “old fart-itis.” ).
I have to admit that it’s been a bit of a struggle. Obvious rule changes have altered the landscape on which basketball and football are played. Other than the DH, baseball has remained mostly unaltered (although to hear National League fans talk, the DH is the equivalent of Satan’s Jewel Crown) except for the fact that strategies and specialization have stretched out game times to almost interminable lengths.
With golf, it’s been a number of factors – the technology constantly changes, not only for equipment, but with the way that courses are maintained. This latter factor cannot be overestimated. Mowing and grooming equipment has become much more sophisticated, and today’s greens-keepers are likely to have advanced degrees in turf-related matters – the superintendent at my current club has a Ph. D. in Agronomy and can wax poetic on topics like Accumulated Degree Days and Evapotranspiration.
Augusta National has led the charge in creating pristine playing conditions; of course, it has the financial wherewithal to do as it pleases. And it has done a pretty decent job of keeping up with the challenge of addressing technology advances. At the same time, Augusta National has never been intended to be a punishing golf course, at least not in the sense that a typical US Open course set up would entail. It has always featured deceptively wide fairways and greens that are usually of such speed that Curtis Strange used to joke that he would prepare for the Masters by practicing putting in his bathtub. It is a course that encourages golfers to take risks and applies the appropriate result based on how well the golfer executes – which explains how both swashbucklers (Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson, and Arnold Palmer) and methodical plodders (Nick Faldo and Ben Hogan) could win there multiple times.
Over the years, the course has undergone many changes – the 10th hole was lengthened to the point where the original protective greenside bunker is now virtually out of play (and remains one of the few remaining features of Alistair Mackenzie’s original design). The 16th was originally a pitch shot over Rae’s Creek; Robert Trent Jones was brought in to turn it into the treacherous hole that we see today. In the ’70’s, the greens were changed over from their original Bermuda grain to bent grass. Overall, the course has been lengthened from its original length of 6,800 yards to its current 7,435.
Having said all that – the most notable fact about Augusta National and the Masters tournament has been its almost uncanny ability to produce a wide variety of winning scores, regardless of era. Spieth’s winning score this year was more than twice the number under par as was that of 2014 winner, Bubba Watson. As recently as 2007, the +1 number by Zach Johnson was good enough for a win.
There’s all kinds of theories as to why there is such a disparity in scoring; my own is that it’s generally dependent on the weather. Springtime in Georgia is fickle – this year, most of the state was under a foot of snow and ice a month ago, and rain (which was in abundance before and during the tournament) can certainly impact the speed of the greens, which is the course’s major line of defense.
Nonetheless – to suggest that today’s Augusta is easier that past incarnations is laughable. Better conditioned, perhaps, but just ask Martin Kaymer, Padraig Harrington, and Jim Furyk, all major championship winners who missed the cut.
The obvious strength of Jordan Spieth is his short game. For all the hoopla over his performance over the weekend, the most impressive shot he made during the tournament was the tricky pitch he had to execute on 18 in the 3rd round (Dan Jenkins tweeted that Greg Norman would have killed for that shot at the conclusion of the 1986 Masters). He managed to get himself to a spot where he had a chance to make par, and purged the memory of an ugly double bogey on the previous hole.
The not- so-obvious, but equally impressive, aspect of his game is his course management. Spieth possesses maturity far beyond his years, and has a relationship with his caddy (a former 6th grade math teacher) that is similar to that of Phil Mickelson to Bones McKay. Similar, but different. Whereas Lefty is generally trying to convince Bones that he can pull off an impossible shot, the partnership between Spieth and Mike Greller seeks out the best possible option; oftentimes, that might mean not shooting at a particular hole location or even the green. It helps, of course, to have the aforementioned short game to have those options available.
The inevitable comparisons between Spieth’s performance and Tiger Woods in 1997 have cropped up, and I’ve gone back and forth between the two. Tiger’s was unquestionably more dominant, and famously introduced the phrase “Tiger-proofing” courses. But Spieth’s was at least equally impressive; his game is very well rounded, and that putting stroke is the genuine article. I’m not going to proclaim him the next Tiger, but the kid has game and fire. He stood in the ring with Justin Rose the final round and didn’t blink. Maybe at the US Open it’s he and Rory going toe-to-toe. Now that would be fun.