April 7, 2012

For Players at Augusta National, the Practice Range Is Perfect

Editor’s Note:

The following information was excerpted from an article that appeared in The New York Times entitled “For Players at Augusta National, the Practice Range Is Perfect”. The article was written by Sam Borden on April 7, 2012. To view the entire article…click here.

The most important place for players in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club has not been Amen Corner and may not be the back nine on Sunday. Rather, it has been a wide-open field behind the media center that fans stream past every day as they enter from the parking lots.

This is the site of the club’s practice range, which receives little if any air time during television coverage of the Masters. Yet its overhaul before the 2010 tournament made it an important tool for each player at an event that is, by design, unlike all others.

“It’s vital,” Aaron Baddeley said. “You can do anything there now — every kind of shot you need to practice to get ready to play, you can do it there. You can’t overstate it. It’s absolutely massive.”

Phil Mickelson added, “I don’t know of another place in the world that you can really prepare like you can on the practice facility here.”

The comparisons are relative; even the worst practice facilities on the PGA Tour are miles beyond the dilapidated driving range mats and backyard-style putting greens that many weekend players encounter at public courses.

But the quality of practice areas the professionals see varies greatly. Some, like the one at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., are palaces; others, like that of the Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami, are ancient and so cramped that the golfers nearly bump elbows.

Before Augusta National’s renovations, players used words like quaint and charming to describe the practice area. The old range, across Magnolia Lane, featured minimal short-game options and was hemmed in by a towering net about 200 yards down the fairway that kept the golfers from crushing their shots into traffic on Washington Road.

“It was — fine,” Lee Westwood said slowly. He brightened when asked for his thoughts on the new range.

“Let me just say that this is so, so much better,” he said.

First, club officials moved the range, setting it on 18 acres that used to be allocated for Masters parking. Then dual fairways were built opposite the teeing ground — one a dogleg right, the other left — to allow players to better visualize all types of on-course shots and shape practice shots around the trees that dot the landing areas.

Three greens — one for putting, two for chipping — are cut to the same specifications as the on-course putting surfaces, so players can simulate shots they may face during tournament rounds.

Ultimately, that is what has captivated players the most: unlike most ranges, where the landing areas or bunkers are clearly different from the course, the range at Augusta National feels as if it were lifted from the back nine.

The sand is similar. The fringe is similar. The greens — even the ones in the middle of the range that are not designed for putting — are similar, so players on the range can determine, for example, how quickly their short iron shots will spin back on the course.

In combination with the new chipping area, those features allow players to hone their shots from 120 yards and closer, before ever hitting a shot that counts.

“Especially with all the different things that can be thrown at you from a weather perspective out here, every round is really a ‘so what is it going to be today?’ kind of feeling,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “With a practice area like this, that question is easier.”

Some of those who have been to the Masters for years, while impressed by the new range, chuckled over the progress in practice areas. Curtis Strange, who played his first Masters in 1975 and now works as a commentator for ESPN and designs golf courses, praised the improvements but smiled wryly when recalling some of the decrepit practice ranges he and his contemporaries encountered years ago.

At the old Western Open at Butler National Golf Club outside Chicago, Strange said, “we practiced on the polo grounds which were nearby.” The worst range, he recalled, was at the Southern Open at Green Island Country Club in Columbus, Ga., because it was “basically a pile of dust.”

Even famous courses struggle to find room for a quality range. In many cases the problem is a matter of space, Strange said. Particularly for older layouts in the Northeast, course architects have had trouble completing the routing of the course while leaving room for a range.

Although Quaker Ridge Golf Club in Scarsdale, N.Y., is often ranked among the best courses in the country, it has no dedicated driving range. When the Walker Cup was played at Quaker Ridge in 1997, the players did what the members do: They warmed up by hitting balls on the 17th hole. (Course workers pick up the balls before anyone reaches No. 17 during play.)

A similar situation exists at Merion Golf Club near Philadelphia. Strange remembered playing the United States Open at Merion’s East Course in 1981 and being taken in a shuttle to a practice range “down the street,” though it was actually a makeshift range set up on the West Course.

Players would hit practice shots up the 9th and 16th fairways, then “you’d get back on the shuttle and go back and play,” Strange said.

When the United States Open returns to Merion next year, the West Course will be outfitted with a temporary locker room for the players and a practice area.

Such is the burden of courses placed in tight quarters, and situations like Merion’s only further the notion that Augusta National’s practice facility is unique, Strange said.

“You’d never see it anywhere else — the land is too valuable and the care is too expensive,” he said. “But that’s what they do here. They want to have the best, and now it seems like they do.”