Ed. LINKS Magazine published this star-studded piece back in 2006, prior to the Masters Tournament claimed by Phil Mickelson. He prevailed over a course measuring 7,445 yards; Augusta National GC plays another 105 yards longer today. Yet the back tees continue to require but a single forced carry. Length would not be the issue: If our mythical 16-handicapper can’t make 5-footers, there’s no way he breaks 120.
Sitting in the sports book at the MGM Grand surrounded by hundreds of television sets and the milling masses of Vegas hopefuls, one has the opportunity to place any number of over/under bets. But here’s one you won’t find on offer in the Land of Neon, or anywhere else for that matter: If a verified 16 handicapper were to play Augusta National Golf Club under tournament conditions — from the newly lengthened tips, playing to Sunday pins, putting everything out — would that average, workaday chop break 120?
“That’s a very interesting question,” answered Greg Norman. “On the surface, it looks promising for a 16 handicap, because he has about 30 shots to play with. But I think those 30 shots would go away in a hurry.”
One hundred and twenty strokes: Over or under?
We put this proposition to a collection of tour pros, golf course architects and high-profile swing gurus. All agreed our mythical 16 (the average USGA handicap is actually 15.2) would post a big number. But how big, and why? Have the recent course changes at Augusta, engineered in response to technology-aided balls and equipment, put 120 — that’s 12 triples bogeys and six doubles — beyond reach of the common man?
One of golf’s great appeals is its ease of transference — that is to say, while we can’t readily imagine ourselves shedding 280-pound tacklers on the floor of the Rose Bowl, we can see ourselves playing Pebble Beach or Pinehurst no. 2. And on a good day, the average handicapper can expect to produce a performance that is at least recognizable beside that of a professional. The response to technology, however, has begun to render this transference less and less tenable, and no major championship venue illustrates the growing disparity between pros and average golfers better than Augusta National, where back-tee yardage has gone from 6,985 yards to 7,445 in just six years.
“I think the golf course is a lot harder than people realize, in large part because of elevation changes and uneven lies,” Norman added. “The only true level lies you get at Augusta are on the tees! You can’t really appreciate these nuances on television, and they make club selection very difficult. And it’s a whole different ballgame now that they’ve added so much length.”
That said, our panel of experts felt the putting surfaces — for years, the layout’s primary defense against scoring — would bedevil our mythical 16 handicapper most of all. Back-to-back 490-yard par-4s, like 10 and 11, might oblige an average player (a smart one, at least) to simply play them like par-5s. But this sort of damage-control isn’t possible on the greens at Augusta, where flat-stick marvel Seve Ballesteros once described his four-putt at no. 6 thusly: “I miss. I miss. I miss. I make.”
“People would be amazed at the number of putts they would take,” said architect Jim Hardy, himself a former Tour player and noted swing teacher. “The average 16 playing to tournament pins, with Sunday green speeds, could easily — and I know this sounds peculiar — take 55 putts at Augusta. If he normally shoots in the low 90s, he’s going to take 20-25 more putts than normal. That’s 117, so your over/under is right on the money.”
But would he break 120? “Just barely,” Hardy decided.
Rich Beem, PGA champion in 2002, has even more faith in the average player: “Every once in a while a 16 is supposed to shoot 88, so he can’t be that bad — and here we’re giving him another 32 shots. If the weather’s fine, our guy’s not completely intimidated by the course, and he can move it out there just a little bit, I’ll take the under.”
So would architect Rees Jones, “because he’s going to be hitting short of a lot of the problems. If he’s generally in front of the greens with a wedge in his hands, he’s better off than a longer hitter who must recover from the sides. And a 16 is used to hitting his wedge a lot.”
“His short game is going to be a key,” Beem concurred. “If he misses greens in decent spots, he can putt it up there and not waste too many shots. [Holes] 5 and 14 are going to kill him around the green, but he should be able to handle holes like 1, probably 2, and 8. At 16 he can flare it out to the right and be alright. I think if you average it out he’s going to be okay. How he plays 12 is going to be the key to the round. If he keeps dumping balls into Rae’s Creek, we’ve got a problem; he may not finish.”
This nightmare scenario notwithstanding, the Tour players we consulted were generally the most optimistic. (“He would break 120,” said Arnold Palmer. “The only thing that has really changed at Augusta is the distance… but that isn’t going to run a guy up to 120.”) Architects work to accommodate players of all abilities, but teaching pros probably know the average game best. T.J. Tomasi, for one, doesn’t like their chances at Augusta National.
“Put me down as an ‘over’. I think 130 or 140 is more reasonable,” Tomasi opined. “Let me hedge and say that there are 16 handicaps and there are 16 handicaps. If our guy was a 22 swing-wise and a 5 handicap when it came to putting, if you see what I mean, he’d have a glimmer of a chance to break 120. But the average 16 handicap would not.
“The real scary part of a Tour course are the greens. Let’s assume they missed a lot of greens or came up short a lot — people don’t realize that chipping to greens running 7 or 8 is completely different from chipping to greens running 11, 12 or 13. And as soon as he realized just how hard it was, he’d fall apart. That sort of thing gets in the head of an average player. I call it cumulative disreward. You play a few holes and it hits you: ‘I can’t play this golf course.’ I’ve seen guys play a course too difficult for them and, more often than not, they collapse. A 16 becomes a 26. Then the question becomes does a 26 or 30 handicap break 120? And I say, I don’t think so.”
In painting this grim picture, Tomasi echoed Beem’s thoughts regarding no. 12, adding that 16would be no picnic either: “He could make a million on that hole — block to the right, chip into the water, and so on. He could be there for two days.”
Architect Tom Doak was more sanguine, asserting that breaking 120 would depend almost entirely on whether the 16 in question was a reasonably good putter. “If he is, then I believe he’d break 120 easily. He might even break 100,” Doak said. “The holes are plenty wide, the rough isn’t deep, there are no big carries to make off the tees, and you can give most of the severe hazards a wide berth. But if you can’t putt on fast greens — which some high-handicappers can, and a lot can’t — well, remember how Tiger putted into the water on 13 last year? A poor putter could do that on four different holes!”
Doak has played ANGC, as an 8 handicap, the day after the 1983 Masters. He shot in the low 90s. “The course wasn’t as hard or as long then, and I was an 8, not a 16. But I wouldn’t have wanted to spot anyone with half a game 25 strokes there.”
Mark Mr. Doak down as an “under”, along with architect Chris Wilczynski, a partner with Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, who just happens to play off 15. “I fit the category and I believe I would break 120,” he declared. “From the back tees, there are some courses where there are forced carries on almost every hole. That’s not the case at Augusta. The only forced carries are at 12, 13 and 15, where you have short irons in your hand.
“If you gave me a good caddie, it would really help. At Pebble Beach it saved me at least six strokes on the greens alone. That would be important.”
Hardy agreed the caddie factor should not be underestimated: “That would be enormous help at Augusta. In fact, without a caddie, he would have no chance to do 55 putts. He’d be in the 60s.”
Masters Champion Tom Watson says 55-60 putts are a given. He believes the more salient question is, “Are they going to take 55-60 strokes to reach those greens? I don’t think so. They can negotiate that golf course reasonably well. From a penalty stroke perspective, Augusta is pretty reasonable.”
Would our 16 break 120?
Norman disagreed, and he offered specifics. “I think it would come down to needing a bogey on 18 to keep it under 120. My prediction: He’ll need to two-putt from 35 feet above the hole, and with that tricky left pin, I don’t think it’s likely — knock the first one six feet past the hole, miss the putt coming back on the low side, tap in and begrudgingly sign for a 121. But: He’ll still be happy.”
“Because he played Augusta.”
One of the reasons we set this discussion against a backdrop of Georgia pines is the Masters’ idiosyncratic field. Past champions have traditionally been allowed to play the tournament for as long as their ego might bear it, and this has resulted in a boatload of big numbers from older players. Watson doesn’t fall into this category, but Billy Casper does. Last year he posted a 104 on Thursday before withdrawing.
“And that guy can still play,” Tomasi pointed out. “He’s a lot better than a 16.”
Casper, one of the game’s best-ever putters, maintains that course length would bedevil a 16 handicapper as much as the greens. “I’m almost 75 years old and I don’t have the length you need to play that golf course. Even a good player would have trouble — on holes like 14 and 17 — because you’re playing the ball into the face of those hills. There are so many hills I can’t carry off the tee any more and that really magnifies the trouble approaching the greens, missing in a reasonable spot.”
Okay, Billy: over or under?
“It could be any score. A big number surely. A 16 would shoot 95 normally, and it would be 15-20 shots higher, a putt on every green. Easily. Could be as much as 25-30 shots higher if they played poorly. It’s hard to say, but I can tell you one thing for sure.”
“They wouldn’t enjoy it.”