AUGUSTA, Ga. — Not even 24 hours had passed after last year's Masters ended, and the preparations for this year's tournament were underway.
It started with heavy equipment — brought onto Augusta National to remove a massive tree from its former home near the 15th tee.
While some traditions at Augusta National are hardly ever altered and some rules are downright absolute, the course itself has a long history of evolving with the times. And the process of changing some things for this year’s Masters, which begins Thursday, started immediately after last year’s tournament ended. The primary changes this year: making the par-4 11th and par-5 15th both 15 to 20 yards longer and lowering the tee boxes on both holes.
“I think this place changes a little bit every year,” world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler said.
He’s not wrong.
Golf balls simply fly farther now than they did years ago because of technology. Golfers are bigger and stronger. These are not new developments, of course. Courses had to adjust with all of that, and most have, Augusta National certainly among them.
Augusta National makes no secret it looks at possible changes every year, and usually tweaks something at minimum to ensure that it remains a tough but fair test.
“That’s what this place is all about. It’s as much of a chess game as anything else,” said Rory McIlroy, who needs a Masters win to complete the career Grand Slam. “It’s just about putting yourself in the right positions and being disciplined and being patient and knowing that pars are good.”
It’s not like the 11th and 15th holes were screaming out for change. The 11th was the second-toughest hole in relation to par at last year’s Masters, with the average score about 4.4 and birdie being made only about 5.3% of the time.
And now it figures to be even more difficult, with not only added length but changes to the contour of the fairway. Some trees were removed from the right side of the fairway, though that alone won’t make it play any easier.
“We thought the Larry Mize shot is gone,” five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods said. “Now it’s really gone.”
The 11th hole — White Dogwood, as it is called at Augusta National — played at around 455 yards in 1987, when Mize holed out a chip from well off the right side of the green for birdie and the Masters title in a playoff over Greg Norman. It plays at 520 yards now.
Mize once said he never tried to replicate that chip. He couldn’t now if he wanted to; the right side of the green has been raised, so the shot he played wouldn’t be the same now under any circumstances.
“Some of the changes, some of them more drastic than others,” Woods said. “Others are very subtle.”
The 15th was the fourth-easiest hole on the course last year — average score 4.77 — but the toughest of the four par-5’s. It’s the hole where Gene Sarazen hit a 4-wood from 235 yards for double eagle in 1935.
The tee got pushed back about 20 yards this year and, earlier in the week, Lee Westwood was hitting his approach from 267. A hole that the Masters touts as “famously reachable” isn’t so reachable anymore.
“It certainly makes you think now,” Westwood said. “Even if you hit a good drive, it’s not an immediate, ‘Yes, I’m going to go for it.’ ... It’s really a juggling act and an evaluation of whether it’s easier to hit a 100-yard pitch shot into a green that’s sloping slightly against you than it is a 20-yard through the back with it running away from you towards the water. It certainly makes you think.”
While the changes to 11 and 15 get most of the attention, the greens on three other holes also were redone in the last year, which isn’t uncommon.
Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said one byproduct of that was the potential for perhaps a new pin placement than the usual spots on those greens. Put simply, even golfers who know — or knew — every nuance of Augusta National have had to re-learn some things on the fly for this week.
“That’s really what we were trying to incorporate, the risk-reward element into some of these changes we made,” Ridley said.