April 5, 2006

Johnson rejects criticism over Augusta changes

By Steve Keating

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Club chairman Hootie Johnson
was again left to defend Augusta National on Wednesday, as he
came under intense questioning over controversial changes to
the course for this week's U.S. Masters.

While the interrogation was not as charged as the one
Johnson faced three years ago when he was publicly challenged
by activist Martha Burke to open the doors to the all-male
bastion to women, he was equally unflinching in the face of
criticism from the world's best golfers and media.

Tweaked and stretched to an imposing 7,445 yards, the
National Augusta layout that will test golfers this week is the
second longest in major championship history.

Six of the holes have been lengthened with the addition of
new tees and some of the fairways have been narrowed with extra
bunkering, trees and rough.

Torrential rains over the last four years have diluted the
impact of the alterations but with sunny, dry conditions
forecast for the week, Augusta National has finally started to
bear its teeth and many players are not happy.

Johnson, however, made no apologies and would not rule out
more changes.

"We are comfortable with what we are doing with the golf
course for the Masters tournament," Johnson stated.

"I said, we are comfortable," he fired back when pressed on
the criticism from top players. "They are entitled to their

Some of the most outspoken critics have been Augusta's
greatest champions, including world number one Tiger Woods and
Augusta members Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, who between
them own 14 green jackets.

Nicklaus, who played his final competitive round at Augusta
last year, has been uncharacteristically outspoken about the

"From a tournament standpoint, I didn't think it was a good
thing to do," he said. "But my feeling is exactly what I've
been saying at every press conference.

"I think their (Augusta National's) intention is to try to
end up having the players play similar clubs to what they were
playing 20 years ago in the same places. Their intentions are

Some players have complained that playing Augusta is no
longer as much fun as it once was, to which Johnson responded
championship courses were not supposed to be fun.

In an attempt to keep pace with the high-tech advances in
modern golf technology, Augusta's guardians insist the facelift
is part of an ongoing effort to maintain the course's integrity
and ensure it will be played the way it was originally

"I didn't know a tough golf course was supposed to be a lot
of fun," Johnson said. "I don't know that hitting a six-iron on
one would be any more fun than it was 20 years ago.

"There's been a lot of talk about 11.

"The hole was intended to be played with, according to
Bobby Jones, a three-iron or stronger club.

"I think it was in the 98 tournament I was out there and
Phil Mickelson hit a big driver and had a pitching wedge to the

"The hole was intended to play like that.

"You can say it's a bomber's course but if he's going to
really bomb it, if he's going to swing from the heels, if he
doesn't execute perfectly, he' going to pay the price."