AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Wake up, golf fans. Sure, it’s interesting that the length of the par-4 fifth hole at Augusta National has been stretched as noticeably as Jon Rahm’s pants.
However, there is more to this story. Much more.
Last year the yardage of the fifth hole was 450 yards, and this year it’s 495 yards. That’s an increase of – wait, don’t tell me – 45 yards, or the measurement of Jordan Spieth’s favorite putt.
What exactly are we trying to do here? Embarrass the world’s best players? The late USGA president Sandy Tatum could have provided some perspective on effectively shortening the length of any golf course. “Try growing grass,” he might have said, or “invent a golf ball with wing flaps.”
Asked about tortuous course conditions at the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot (the so-called “Massacre at Winged Foot”), Tatum uttered one of the most memorable quotes in golf history. “We are not trying to humiliate the best golfers in the world,” he said. “We are simply trying to identify who they are.”
Facing more humiliation than ever before on the fifth hole and its turfgrass brothers, plenty of players at Augusta National were ready to plead the fifth on this one. Through the first two rounds, No. 5 produced a scoring average of 4.310. That was second in difficulty behind another par-4, the 505-yard the 11th and its 4.333 average.
So what exactly is the position of the Masters and its membership on golf course evolution? This quote came from another former USGA president, Fred Ridley, who just happens to be chairman of Augusta National and the Masters: “My preference, as I stated, would be to see what happens, what the governing bodies decide is best for the game, and then we will take appropriate action in response to that.”
In other words, the Masters is waiting for the R&A and USGA to clarify their joint position on golf course and golf ball distance.
“We are aligned with the governing bodies on following the rules,” Ridley added, “and we certainly are free to have input, and our comments would have been respected.”
What? This sounds vaguely like a threat – respect us or we will take away your pimento cheese sandwiches.
It’s not just the length of the hole that was raising eyebrows. It’s the design features. For some time, this hole has been earmarked for restoration. Augusta National knew what it wanted.
In conclusion, Ridley attempted to add some detail to his position: “But please know this: The USGA and R&A do have the best interests of the game at heart. They recognize the importance of their future actions. You can be assured that we will continue to advocate for industry-wide collaboration in support of the governing bodies as they resolve this very important topic.”
Wow. Nobody expected a rules proclamation of such gravity. The projected future of golf equipment rules likely will take center stage and remain there for an extended period of time.
But let’s get back to the fifth hole. It’s not just the length of the hole that was raising eyebrows. It’s the design features. For some time, this hole has been earmarked for restoration. Augusta National knew what it wanted.
So here it came, a not-so-subtle attempt to return the hole to its 1934 roots. The heritage of Augusta National is a very big deal in this part of the world. Ridley touched on the club’s history when he talked about “protecting the shot values Mr. (Bobby) Jones and (golf course designer) Alister MacKenzie devised.”
The fifth hole was the perfect subject – driver or 3-wood to carry the bunkers or stay short of them, a mid- to long-iron second shot, with the objective of making a par and getting out of Dodge.
The other consideration here was the club’s desire to enhance the viewing opportunities for patrons. For example, the teeing ground on the fifth hole is surrounded by a huge spectator area. The separation between the fourth green and fifth tee has been greatly enlarged. This was made possible by a new tee for the fifth hole. This tee is located on land formerly occupied by Old Berckmans Road. Once again, the objective is to provide ticket holders with plenty of spectating freedom.
Fairway bunkers on the fifth hole are deep with tall faces. A carry distance of 313 yards is the magic number needed to fly the sand. More than 600 trees, plants and bushes have been added.
“In the past, if you hit it into the bunkers, you actually had half a chance of getting it up somewhere by the green. Now you’ve got no chance.” – Tommy Fleetwood
Meanwhile, the green has been shallowed and leveled to some degree, particularly on the left side. It is less severe than it used to be, and new hole locations appear to be possible in the back-left and back-right corners of the green.
What the players are saying:
Francesco Molinari: “The hole is considerably longer. I hit a 4-iron into the green. With the old tee, I probably would have been hitting a 7-iron.”
Dustin Johnson: “I thought it was a hard hole before. They just made it tougher. You’re coming in with a much longer iron. Once you get on the green, it’s so big that a back pin position can cause some real problems.”
Phil Mickelson: “There were subtle changes on the fifth green, subtle break changes, and it was important that I pick up on that and see that. The hole is so lengthy that I should have an advantage. A lot of guys will miss that green.”
Tommy Fleetwood on the depth of the bunkers: “In the past, if you hit it into the bunkers, you actually had half a chance of getting it up somewhere by the green. Now you’ve got no chance.”
The fifth hole is named Magnolia, but overall the bunkers are so deep there ought to be another name for the hole – Jail.
The biggest news, though, came from Ridley, who may have been signalling that new golf equipment changes are on the way. Would the R&A and USGA pull the trigger on reduced distance standards?
With 500-yard par-4s on the rise, it certainly seems possible. Stay tuned.
Brooks Koepka hits from one of the cavernous fairway bunkers on the Augusta National’s revamped fifth hole. Photo: Mike Segar, Reuters
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