When golf courses get super-sized

By now, everyone who follows golf has heard about the new wrinkle in this year's Masters at Augusta National. The course is substantially longer, measuring 7,270 yards compared with 6,985 last year. And it will be made significantly more difficult with the addition of new obstacles, including trees and enlarged sand traps.

The changes may raise scores and alter strategies at some key junctures. But, probably, the new Augusta will produce more of the same: Heading into this weekend's final two rounds, Tiger Woods should still be the man to beat, with a dozen or so other elite players also having a legitimate chance to wear the green jacket.

What we don't know, however, and what is perhaps more important, is how the lengthening of Augusta National Golf Club – and similar alterations made to hundreds of other courses around the world – will affect a sport that has seen rapid change in the last 10 years. That question – rooted in the greater distance that balls now travel – has become the source of great concern in the normally staid world of golf.

"We're all pretty traditional, and it's hard to say that it's a good thing that so much has changed in the past 10 years," says Tom Marzolf, a golf- course architect who worked with Tom Fazio redesigning Augusta National. "Honestly, I don't know what can be done about it."

Fazio and Marzolf have been hard at work lengthening courses all over the country. Such alterations have become standard for any course that hopes to host a major tournament.

This year at the annual International Golf Conference at St. Andrews, Scotland – the "home of golf" – one of England's leading golf-course designers, Donald Steele, ominously warned that new technology, which allows nearly every player to hit the ball farther, is taking over the game and distorting scores. Courses are being lengthened to compensate, he says, but pretty soon there simply won't be enough land to go around.

"In [the past] four years," Steele said, "the advance in the realms of the manufacture of clubs and balls has perhaps been more dramatic than in any other four-year period in the entire history of the game.... There is no wish to be overdramatic, but there is a definite fear that the situation is riding out of control."

In the United States, where golf has gained immense popularity since Tiger Woods burst onto the scene in the late '90s, the issue has led to a confrontation between those who make the new technology and those who make the golf courses. At some point, one of them has to give. So far, it has been the courses.

The technological changes have been led by companies like Titleist, which made waves two years ago with the introduction of the Pro V1, a large-core ball that, at the time, claimed to travel farther than any other "conforming" ball.

At around the same time, golf-club manufacturers, most notably Callaway, were bringing to market new drivers, in which a thin face creates a springlike action, allowing the ball to leave the club at a greater speed. One of Calloway's clubs, called the ERC II, was so springlike that it was deemed "nonconforming" by the US Golf Association (although it is allowed on the European Tour and in the British Open).

Manufacturers say that these new technologies in balls and clubs make the game more accessible to the everyday player, and thus increase the sport's popularity.

Yet, golf is a game of delicate balance.

In just the past four years, the average driving length on the PGA tour has increased by 3.7 percent (from 267.6 yards to 277.5) – a figure that in all likelihood included stronger players as well as better equipment.

Perhaps more significantly, when recreational golfers use the new balls and clubs, their games not only get longer, they get wider – as in out of bounds and through the window of a nearby house. "You get a lot of amateurs who can hit the heck out of the ball with their driver," says Damian Pascuzzo, the president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "But when they hit it badly, it goes several houses deep. It's not just houses bordering the fairway, it's houses all the way across the street."

According to Pascuzzo, golf courses built 15 years ago covered about 150 acres. Today they are built at 170 to 180 acres – and growing. Professional-length courses have grown by an average of about 400 yards, he says. Furthermore, Pascuzzo says, developers are becoming less likely to build courses around housing developments because the courses take up too much space. And many already-existing courses, particularly ones near water, are unable to expand enough to accommodate the long-ball mania.

"The game is suffering," Pascuzzo says.

Ultimately, the problems facing golf fall into the hands of the sport's two main governing bodies, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Association in Britain. At the moment, the two have different technology limitations, but there is hope that they will reissue rules in 2004.

One of their greatest challenges could be in dealing with the multimillion-dollar companies that research, develop, and sell golf equipment. Their new technologies usually develop faster than the governing bodies can redesign the rules. And they have deeper pockets than anyone else involved in the fight.

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