You don’t need to prove you have been vaccinated to get into the Masters this year, don’t need to show a negative test or wear a face covering. “Feels like a normal Masters again,” said Rory McIlroy. And he’s right, around about here it’s almost like the past two years never happened.
Almost. There is one big little difference. They’re all out of Georgia peach ice cream sandwiches at the concession stands. Serious business this. The sandwiches were the outstanding achievement of the last Augusta National chairman, Billy Payne, and all the justification needed to explain his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Payne’s successor, Fred Ridley, was asked about them on Wednesday morning, and replied, with appropriate gravitas: “We have encountered supply chain issues, just like everyone, in everything we’ve done.”
Ridley talked through a couple of other changes, trivial things in comparison, such as the major renovations to the course. According to McIlroy, the 11th “is basically a new hole”, and the 15th is different, too. The club have lengthened both. At 11 they have extended the pond, removed one group of the trees and planted another further down the right side of the fairway and at 15 they have reshaped the green. They often tinker with the course, but these changes are a little more drastic than usual, the idea, as always, is to make sure it is still a course that offers the right balance between risk and reward.
What the club have not done is the one change everyone was expecting them to make at the 13th. The club’s co-founder Bobby Jones loved that hole, which he said offers players “a tempting and dangerous” decision about whether to bend the tee-shot around the corner so they can reach the green in two.
At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do. These days the 13th feels toothless. The players hit it so long off the tee they are left with a short iron into the green. The club brought a patch of land behind the tee-box off the neighbouring Augusta Country Club, which everyone assumed meant they were going to be able to lengthen the hole. They haven’t done it yet.
Ridley knows there is a problem. The club have been talking for years about fixing it and he reiterated it on Wednesday. “The 13th hole does not have the same challenges that it had historically.” The reason they are reluctant to do anything about it, he said, is that it’s such a classic hole. “Probably along with 12, and maybe 15, those three holes are where the most history has been made at Augusta National.”
It is where Arnold Palmer made an eagle with a second ball after a long dispute with a rules official when he won in 1958; where Curtis Strange blew a two-shot Sunday lead by hitting it into the creek in 1985; and where Jack Nicklaus picked up a crucial birdie in ’86.
“I can just remember as a young guy watching the Masters, some of the triumphs and tragedies there,” Ridley said. “So that probably has been a counter to doing anything.”
The worry is they will end up like the one of those amateur artists who decides it is a good idea to try to touch up a fading masterpiece.
Ridley is clearly daunted by the prospect of tampering with it. And maybe he is right to be. The club have always caught between the old and the new, the desire to do right by the traditions, and to keep improving, too.
There are times when they do get it wrong. Ridley’s recent decision to allow the media group Dude Perfect to shoot a YouTube film with Bryson DeChambeau at Amen Corner felt like a misstep.
Ridley was asked how he imagined Jones would feel if he came back to see Augusta. “I hope he would be proud,” he said. “I hope that he would feel that we continue to carry the tradition and values we thought were so important in the game.”
Just so long as he wasn’t here the day DeChambeau was tossing Frisbees around Amen Corner for the sake of a viral video. But Ridley said, Dude Perfect “has 57 million followers on YouTube and that got my attention”. The clip ended up “the No 1 YouTube video at the time”.
That is quite a change for a club who refused to televise the front nine for so many years.