Augusta losing its magic

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:36 AM ET

ORLANDO -- They come to Bay Hill every March to pay homage because, no matter how big you think you are in the game of golf, nobody is bigger than The King.

This is Arnie Palmer's game this week and his Bay Hill Invitational always attracts one of the great fields of the year. Anybody who's anybody in pro golf owes Palmer at least this much, and they know it.

Seven of the top 10 players in the world are here and while the Day One leaderboard features Dean Wilson and Bart Bryant at the top after matching rounds of six-under 66, most of the big boys still are within easy striking distance among the top 25.

That includes Canadian Mike Weir, playing for the first time in three weeks. When last we saw him, at LaCosta in California, he was blowing a four-up with four-to-play lead to Aussie Geoff Ogilvy at the World Match Play tournament.

Bloodied, but not bowed, by that unpleasant experience, Weir carved out a tidy round of 69 yesterday to stay within three shots of the leaders. Weir had five birdies against a double-bogey.

Up until Bay Hill, the golf season is about making money. Starting this week, it is all about making a career. Bay Hill is big, but next week's Tournament Players Championship is bigger. And two weeks after that is The Masters and it doesn't get much bigger than that.

Indeed, even this week, Augusta National and the changes that have been made there this off-season are casting long shadows over the proceedings here.

Once again the tall foreheads who run Augusta National have chosen to mess with God's golf course. For more than half a century, it was considered unique and beautiful and very nearly perfect in every way. Now those bright lights in green jackets have taken to tearing the place apart just about every year. Just because they can.

It used to be bad form for players to make anything but complimentary comments about the place but now these latest changes are getting trashed from all sides

"I'm sure if Bobby Jones was still around," Weir said, "it would be, like 'What are you guys doing?' "

Weir played Augusta on Sunday and Monday and is somewhat dismayed. They've added more yardage to bring the length up to 7,300 yards but in the process, they've started to tinker with the personality of the golf course.

"I don't know what they're doing," he said. "I don't mind them lengthening the course. That's fine.

"The thing that kind of disturbs me is they're getting away from the character of the golf course. Now they're bringing in all these trees. Besides lengthening No. 11, they pinched the trees in even tighter on the right side. It's like a tree-lined golf course now. Totally different from 10 to 15 years ago. It's not even the same place.

"I don't think Mr. Jones wanted that. I think he wanted it cut down so you could see creative shots from all over the place, into tough greens."

Hole No. 1, already a brutish uphill par-four has some added length that will turn the approach shot into a blind shot for many players.

The par three fourth hole now can be played as long as 257 yards, to a shallow green that was not intended to be approached with five woods.

No. 7, a par-four, has been lengthened and the fairway narrowed so that hitting a tee shot is like threading the eye of a needle. Now players are going to be hitting anything from a four-iron to a seven-iron to that difficult green.

Weir isn't alone in his criticism. Not at all. Most every player approached, including Ernie Els, Tiger Woods, Stuart Appleby and Sergio Garcia expressed alarm at the direction Augusta National is headed.

"If you can keep it around even par, you're going to win it easily," predicted Woods. This from the man who set the tournament record at 18-under-par in 1997. He shot a round of two-under 70 yesterday.

This weekend at Bay Hill will be considerably lower than even par, with ideal weather conditions expected. And you can count on one of those star-driven leaderboards come Sunday. The King wouldn't have it any other way.


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