'Tiger-proofing' golf courses yields surprises

September 6, 2009 

This year's golf majors were all won by surprise players. Only Stewart Cink at the British Open was ranked among the top-65 golfers before he won.

Not so surprising was the fact that the total yardage for the four majors was higher than ever before: 29,739 yards.

In a nationwide trend, many courses played by the top professionals have been "Tiger-proofing" their links over the past 10 years in order to account for the era of better equipment and stronger golfers heralded in by Tiger Woods.

Here are the trends during the past 52 years for each of golf's four major championships:

Masters

The Masters is the only major that's always played at the same course: Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. From 1958 to 2001, the length of the course never varied by more than 60 yards (between 6,925 yards and 6,985 yards). But in 2002, it was lengthened to 7,270 yards, and it's now at 7,445 yards.

Since Woods burst onto the national golfing scene in 1997, when he won the Masters by a record 12 strokes, the average length of Augusta has been 7,227 yards, which is an increase of 4.3 percent over 1958 to 1997. Maybe 4.3 percent doesn't seem like much, but considering that Augusta has always been a par-72 course, players in the Masters must now try to cover an extra 500 yards without taking one extra swing.

U.S. Open

While the U.S. Open has offered the shortest golf courses of any of the majors since 1958 (6,544 yards in 1971 and 1981), it also has had the second-longest of any major (7,643 yards in 2008). Out of the 10 longest U.S. Open tournaments, nine have been since Woods won the 1997 Masters. The only outsider was the 7,191-yard Bellerive Country Club in 1965.

The average U.S. Open course for 2002 to 2009 was 7,276 yards, which is 63 yards longer than the absolute longest course played from 1958 to 2001. Since 1998, the U.S. Open courses have increased their yardage on average by 3.1 percent. Despite the extra yardage and despite the fact that the U.S. Open is almost always a par 70 or 71 course, at least one player is still able to keep up: Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open by a record 15 strokes, the largest margin of victory ever in a major championship.

British Open

The British Open (or simply "the Open," as Britons refer to it) has been the laggard when it comes to playing mega-length courses. The 2009 British Open was a mere 7,204 yards; granted, it was longer than 50 of the 51 British Open courses from 1958 to 1998, but it was still 230 yards shorter than any other 2009 major.

As with the U.S. Open, nine of the 10 longest tournaments have been held since Woods turned pro; the one exception was 1968, when the length was 7,252 yards. Since 1998, the British Open has increased its yardages by about 3.4 percent compared to 1958 to 1997.

Perhaps the British Open's most-interesting layout quirk is that it hosted the last par-73 major championship, back in 1971. All majors since then have been par 70, 71, or 72.

PGA Championship

The 2009 PGA Championship had the longest course ever at a major: 7,674 yards at Hazeltine in Minnesota. The championship has always been the longest of the majors; from 1958 to 1997, its average length was 7,015 yards. Of course, if a tournament were a mere 7,015 yards these days, it would seem incredibly short. In fact, it's been 11 years since the PGA last held a 'sub-7K' tournament, way back in 1998.

As with the U.S. Open and British Open, nine of the 10 longest PGA Championship courses have been since Woods turned pro; the one exception was 1967 when the yardage was 7,436.

Conclusion

The last major tournament that didn't hit the 7K mark was the 2004 U.S. Open, which barely fell short at 6,996 yards.

Given that every major since then has been at least 7,131 yards, we may never again see a sub-7,000 yard major.

There may be a sort of arms race, where golfers must use better equipment and increased strength to handle longer courses, and course officials keep lengthening courses to combat the better equipment and stronger players.

Many golf analysts believe that Tiger-proofing courses has actually yielded the exact opposite effect: With such long courses now the status quo, only a few players in the world even have a shot to win any given major.

Of course, this year may prove to be the exception. With 2009 major champions like Lucas Glover (ranked 71st) and Y.E. Yang (ranked 110th), it's hard to argue that Tiger-proofing has significantly narrowed the field of possible major winners.

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