— AUGUSTA, Ga. - The Augusta National course that Tiger Woods devoured in his “Honey, I shrunk the Masters!” win back in 1997? It measured 6,925 yards.
The Tiger that won that year? He had 158 pounds spread over a frame best described as wiry.
The check he cashed? $486,000.
The driver he used? A Cobra with a head that was about 200 cubic centimeters — about the size of a normal man’s fist.
Ten Masters have been played since and, in case you haven’t noticed, everything’s bigger. A lot bigger.
Tiger is now 198 pounds of twisted steel and ad appeal.
This year’s winner will get about three times what Woods got in 1997 (the purse for 2008 hasn’t been revealed but last year’s winner made $1.26 million).
His Nike Sumo driver has a head that’s about the size of a toaster — the maximum of 460ccs.
And Augusta itself — the tableau on which Woods hopes to carve another line of history — now measures 7,445 yards.
In 1997, Tiger Woods’ win at Augusta changed everything for the bigger. Is it all for the better?
Standing under the massive oak tree just off the 18th green Wednesday, Tom Watson thought long and hard about that question.
“It’s hard for me to say that it’s bad,” said the two-time Masters winner. “We play on beautifully manicured courses every week, we’re treated like royalty, we’re making fortunes and the popularity of golf worldwide is exploding at a time when so much of the pro sports arena is losing its allure.”
And there is a “but” that both Watson and three-time Masters champion Gary Player voiced emphatically Wednesday.
The golf ball is too hot, drivers are too big and the resultant lengthening of courses — with Augusta as a prime example — is bad for the game and bad for the environment.
Speaking immediately after his practice round, Watson said Augusta was “beyond my capabilities as a player.”
Player described Augusta as, “Unbelievably long.”
“Par for me out there is 80,” he added. “There are par 4s out there, 17 and 18 you’re hitting a 3-wood into the green and they were never designed to hit those long clubs into those greens.”
Has the lengthening of Augusta excluded a portion of the field from having a chance at winning?
“Yes,” said Watson. “All courses exclude some players, and on this course it’s length. I know in my case, seven and 17 are par 4s (450 and 440 yards, respectively, in 2008; 360 and 400 yards in 1997) and if I made eight pars on those two holes over the course of a tournament I’d be very happy with myself. Seven? Give me a break with that hole.”
What Woods and his big-hitting peers have wrought (with equipment makers as prime accomplices) portends a crisis, according to Player.
“The length of golf courses from Timbuktu to Augusta National is growing. This is doing immeasurable harm,” he declared. “Every time you make a course 1,000 yards longer, the costs go up enormously. Particularly with the price of oil and manpower and machinery? It’s very common to have golf courses costing $2 million per year to maintain. How do golf courses make $2 million a year to stay in business?
“I’m all for technology, but you want to have technology for amateur golfers who are the heart of the game,” said the 72-year-old South African. “The pros are a mere pittance. In professional golf we’ve got to cut the ball back 50 yards instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars — hundreds of millions! — on changing all the golf courses. It means more water, more fertilizer — it’s frightening what the costs are doing.”
For the game in general, the exponential growth has been positive, said Player.
“More money? Great. I’m delighted that TV ratings are up. And look what this tournament does — it’s so global, they’ve invited [Chinese], an Indian, an African — the whole world. That’s very smart and that’s promoting golf. There are plusses and minuses. But what concerns me is the lengthening the courses and the fact that they won’t be able to sustain themselves.
“Let me tell you right here and now,” Player continued. “Certain things are happening in sports today and with human beings that in 30 years, 450 yards with a driver will be common. Tiger Woods told me last night on that veranda, that when he hits his drive (fellow pro) J.B. Holmes carries his drive over Tiger’s ball. Now J.B. Holmes is not a big man. The day will come when 450 yards will be nothing. How will you play golf then? It’s not a question of when we have to change the pro game. It’s got to happen.”