We like to think that our athletes are getting better. And they are. But in golf, especially, we’ve seen the role that equipment has played beyond training—the influence of advanced materials like graphite and titanium—in producing longer drives and lower scores.
Every year, companies like Callaway and Nike give pros a new wave of equipment that isn’t even in consumers’ hands yet. So how can an antique golf course, like Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, stay relevant year to year? How can they counter better training and better equipment?
The earliest changes were "the green areas, which were modified fairly extensively in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s," Younker tells Co.Design. Specifically, the greens went from welcome mats to bunker-fortified oases, to thwart "bump and run" style play.
As players became longer off the tee in the early '80s, Augusta responded by switching the grass of the greens, from Bermuda to Bentgrass. It "made for faster greens," says Younker, "a defense to players being longer off the tee, enabling them to hit high, soft approach shots at the pins." Because of this shift, the greens at the Masters are still some of the most notorious in the world today.
But the biggest, most controversial changes happened between 1999 and 2006, in what many have referred to as "Tiger-proofing"—an era that coincides with one of the most controversial technological upgrades in sports: the solid-core golf ball, which had the capacity to lengthen drives by roughly 20 yards.
The golf ball had shifted from what was essentially a wad of rubber bands to a space-age sphere surrounded by dimples. And the players shifted with them. At the 2000 Masters, 59 out of 95 players hit with wound balls. A year later, only four players used wound balls.
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Historical preservation be damned, Augusta had to upgrade or become a quaint old playground to the pros. They narrowed the tee shot landing areas, and to the gasps of the gallery, added a second cut of grass.
"Had the course been changed to the point where the original design was no longer recognizable? Had the course been toughened to the point that a player couldn’t make a back nine charge on Sunday afternoon, thereby sucking much of the drama out of the Masters tournament? There’s no consensus, but it makes for great debate," writes Younker.
In his work on the graphic, Younker concluded that, while we focus on the most recent changes, Augusta had actually been evolving all along. And while the historians inside all of us may cringe a bit, the Masters can keep its identity as one of the hardest, most beautiful tournaments in the world. Though with the most recent winners quickly approaching Tiger’s -18 record from 1997, maybe it’s time for the Masters to get harder again.