AUGUSTA ? You can talk about length all you want during this week's Masters, but the real masters of the game know it's still about placement.
While the men in green jackets added another 155 yards by stretching a few more holes to the max here at Augusta National, they also added more pine trees and pinched the fairways that changed the angles on this famous golf course.
That, the old veterans say, is really what makes this course play different and more difficult than in the past.
Because there was a time when Augusta National was not that tough a test tee to green. The fairways were wide, the landing areas ample and the sightlines to the greens were clean.
Back in the day, as they say, the trouble did not begin until you reached the lightning-fast surface of the greens. Now, it starts on the tee box. And nobody knows that better than Ernie Els, one of golf's best players who has yet to figure out how to win here.
In his 12 previous Masters, he's had two second-place finishes and been in the top 10 four other times. With Saturday's third round interrupted by rain, Els is only four shots off the lead going into today's conclusion.
So maybe, just maybe, all these changes will play right into his game plan this year.
That's because Els knows how to play tough golf courses. He has proven that by winning two U.S. Open titles and one British Open along the way. Els' first U.S. Open victory came in 1994 at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, and the second in 1997 at Congressional in Maryland.
And while Augusta has always been unique, he believes it now plays more like U.S. Open courses he has seen in the past.
"Obviously, I've played some good tournaments in U.S. Opens," Els said. "And that's the way I want to play this week. You know, not hammer your driver out there."
In the past, Augusta National was so wide open with no rough, golfers knew they could just blow their drives left or right and still be in position to reach almost any green on the course.
But with the addition of what members like to call "the second cut" in 1999, rough changed the way certain holes were played. And the continual addition of big trees that have tightened the fairways have certainly gotten the golfers' attention.
"That little bit of rough, it's rough now," Els said. "You've got to be careful how the ball comes out there."
Careful is a word you hear more often now when players talk about driving the ball at Augusta.
At any U.S. Open, that's the byword that echoes for four full days. Players know par is a good score.
That's the way the USGA sets up courses for our Open championships. Now Augusta is evolving in an effort to protect its integrity.
"I think we've got our lines that we need to play off certain holes. You've got to be very disciplined in that."
Els said several times during this tournament he's hit 3-wood on certain holes just to make sure he was in play.
"I've hit a couple of 3-woods that I just wanted to get the ball in play, so we do that at U.S. Opens," he said. "You also play away from flags here like you do at U.S. Opens.
"The only difference is the rough is not has high. But give that some time, we'll probably get there."
Reach Ken Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-5598.