Masters of Progress

The arrival of golf’s first major means it’s time to examine how the world’s classic courses need to evolve in order to test the best players in the world

By: Ernie Els

I’ve been playing in the Masters since the early 1990s and a lot has changed in that time. Augusta National Golf Club used to be the most fun of the major venues. Now I think it is fair to say it’s probably the toughest all-round test of golf in the world.

In some ways it’s become more of a U.S. Open-type challenge, mentally at least. You often need to play the percentages. That’s not negative, just realistic. You have to play away from some of the pins and try to give yourself the easiest first putt to make par. If you’re going to attack, you have to choose your moments and you had better execute properly. The club may have lengthened the course, but one thing hasn’t changed: Nowhere else is there such a fine line between making birdie or bogey—or even worse. The challenge just never lets up.

I really like the changes to the course over the past several years. But then again, being one of the longer hitters, I guess in theory it’s supposed to play into my hands. I remember talking to Tiger a couple of years back and we agreed that there’s a real chance the long hitters could separate themselves from the field if they get their games together.

One thing that has intrigued me is how some purists have a kind of “don’t touch” attitude to Augusta and many of the other great courses. These updates are not an unsightly stain on a masterpiece, but rather a successful restoration that brings back some of the original shot values that the designers intended for players. I support that philosophy.

You will sometimes see rough added, but that often goes against the initial design. If there are steep-faced bunkers, the ball should be allowed to run into the hazard, rather than being caught in long rough around the bunker and having a nearly impossible shot.

I prefer it when great courses play firmer, like one of my old favorites, Royal Melbourne in Australia. It plays hard and fast, with run-off areas around a lot of the greens and hazards. The tight lies around the greens give you shot options: pitch and run, lob, 3-wood bunt. You can use pin locations to dictate shot selections. You don’t always need that thick rough, which just forces you into playing just one shot.

I had some personal experience with this during the modernization and refinement of Wentworth Golf Club’s famous West course, located in the suburbs of London. Harry S. Colt did a great job, but that was in the 1920s. By the turn of the 21st century the course wasn’t playing the way Colt intended. We aimed to restore a lot of the original shot values, while at the same time staying true to Colt’s intentions. Holes like Nos. 6, 12 and 15 really now play like they did back in the 1950s.

That’s the key message here. Great architects like Colt, Donald Ross and Alister MacKenzie were designing courses for decades. Their designs evolved during that period and they even amended their own courses. For example, Ross lived at Pinehurst, North Carolina, for years, tweaking the famed No. 2 course endlessly. Jack Nicklaus has done the same at Muirfield Village Golf Club near his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, constantly updating the course to stay in step with the modern game.

I think the R&A has also done a great job maintaining shot values at major championships. They use natural hazards rather than penal rough to test the players, and I think it works well with the winning scores always around a similar mark.

They made some great changes to the Old Course at St. Andrews. In the late 1990s, we started bombing it over the Beardies bunkers down the left side of the 14th fairway. A few years ago they moved the tee back 40 yards and the bunkers are in play again now. Simple but effective.

This is major championship golf. Nobody ever said it was supposed to be easy! 

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