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The eagles at Augusta are no longer landing

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Tiger Woods tees off at the first hole for his practice round for the Masters golf tournament on Wednesday.
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Ian Poulter, Larry Mize and D.J. Trahan were all standing over their drives, halfway down the 13th fairway of Augusta National during Wednesday’s practice round. They were all eyeing the green, still over a couple hundred yards away, protected by Rae’s Creek in the front, surrounded on one side and the back by large bunkers.

The 13th is the end of Amen Corner and these days the golfers don’t have a prayer.

It was once a 465-yard par 5 that was conducive to thrilling eagles that could lead to dramatic comebacks. Now it’s a 510-yard dogleg that forces golfers to lay up safely unless they just uncorked the most magnificent of drives.

This threesome was trying to figure out exactly just how magnificent was required. They all had good drives that in years past would have left no doubt – grip it and rip it. Now they wound up hitting a combined seven golf balls at the green. Four died in the creek and one went short and to the left. Only two managed to find the dance floor.

This was in perfect weather conditions with no pressure. Come Sunday, if the wind is swirling, the scoreboard tight, the gallery huge, forget it. They, and just about everyone else, will play it safe, play for birdie.

Safe should be reserved for the U.S. Open though, where survival is the goal. Back-nine shot making, incredible runs and come-from-behind drama are what the Masters is supposed to be about.

The last few years we’ve seen nothing of the sort. Whether it is two separate lengthenings of the course, adverse weather or a combination of both, where the roar once raged, it’s been ambivalence by the azaleas.

Did they Tiger-proof this place or thrill-proof it?

“It’s not the same,” Tiger Woods said. “The golf course is so much longer and so much more difficult; you just don't have the same amount of birdie opportunities that you used to have. The scores reflect it.”

In 1999, for example, No. 13 produced 23 birdies and three eagles on Sunday’s back nine. In 2004, it delivered 15 birdies and four eagles. Last year, there were just eight birdies and one eagle.

Why this is happening and who’s at fault (or if there is any fault at all) is the debate du jour here in Georgia. It wasn’t just front-page news in Wednesday’s Augusta Chronicle; it was practically the entire front page.

Everyone seems concerned that by toughening the course, the Masters might become just another major.

The old adage was that the championship didn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. The event built part of its rep on brilliant play during that stretch. The deafening decibels through the dogwoods were part of the lore.

“If you were six or seven shots out of the lead, you actually still felt like you could win the golf tournament,” Greg Norman said. “Because somebody could stumble with a 36 or 37 and you could pop in with a 29, and boom, there you are.”

The performances are legendary. There was Gene Sarazen hitting a double eagle on 15 to force a playoff in 1935; Arnold Palmer eagling 13 in 1958, leading to sportswriter Warren Wind to name the 11-12-13th hole swing “Amen Corner;” Gary Player shooting 30 on the back nine in 1978; Jack Nicklaus making five birdies and an eagle to win it in 1986; Nick Faldo in 1990; Tiger Woods in 2001; Phil Mickelson in 2004.

The romance associated with those specific memories has clouded reality though. As the Chronicle’s Scott Michaux pointed out, back-nine heroics are actually rare here. Only six players have shot 33 or better to win the Masters while 22 won despite failing to break par 36.

Everyone remembers Nicklaus’ back-nine 30 to win in 1986. They forget his 39-limp-home-to-a-green-jacket in 1972.

Not since 1994 has the winner made a back-nine Sunday eagle and in the last two decades only Zach Johnson (2007) won from outside the final pairing.

Besides, the biggest issue of the last few years may have been weather, not course layout. Most recently the final rounds have played in cool, windy conditions. Some players are urging caution, saying that given the right conditions the action will return.

“I think there's been a little bit too much made of it,” said Trevor Immelman, last year’s champ. Of course, Immelman is just the kind of safe, straight player who benefits. The fans want Tiger or Phil.

Woods says the course is dramatically different, which, almost by definition, means the tournament is different.

“It's certainly not the same experience,” said Woods, who is playing this event for the 15th time. “When I first played here, good drives would leave you short irons. You don't go out there looking to shoot super-low rounds because they are not out there anymore.”

There’s a sense that this is a particularly strong Masters field, with a number of top golfers on top of their game. The weather this weekend is expected to be near perfect – sunny, in the 70s and with little wind.

Those were the conditions on Wednesday, though, and Poulter, Mize and Trahan weren’t the only practice pairings to give extra attention to the approach on 13. Group after group took extra swings – some finding pay dirt, some finding water. There was no consensus on what was possible, none on what might happen.

Everyone is waiting to see if the new Augusta can still deliver its old magic.