AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --Much as the American public is split into political parties, the golfing nation is split into rival factions: those who prefer the Masters to the U.S. Open, and those who prefer the Open.
Casual fans might not be able to distinguish between majors, but there are differences. The Masters is spectacular theater, the Open a withering crucible. The Masters tests shot-making creativity, the Open tests survival instincts.
Masters golfers want birdies; Open golfers want pars. Masters champions make winning gambles; Open champions make fewer mistakes.
It comes down to personal taste, and give me the Masters any day. Since I started coming here in 1988, I've witnessed more unforgettable feats and moments than I can count. Greg Norman melting down in 1996. Tiger Woods obliterating the field in 1997. Sandy Lyle hitting the winning shot from a fairway trap in 1988. Ian Woosnam hitting the winner from the driving range in 1991.
The final round of this year's tournament might produce similar drama today, but don't be fooled if so. The 2007 Masters hasn't been nearly as exciting as its predecessors. It has lacked a key element that typically makes the event special:
Quite simply, fans haven't had anything to cheer about. Birdies have become rarer than pieces of trash on Augusta National's immaculate grounds. The cheers have been replaced by groans as another ball splashes into the water, another putt rolls well past the hole and another golfer crashes.
In beefing up the course to protect it from the game's ever-longer hitters, Augusta National has made it too hard. No golfer is below par after the tournament's first three rounds. The field is averaging 76.25 on the par-72 layout. Yesterday's average was 77.35, more than five shots higher than the third-round average 10 years ago.
That's not the "wild romp in the tall pines" that is the Masters; that's a reprise of the dour Open, which is played on tricked-up courses unfit for man or beast.
The Masters made its name as something entirely different, a soaring symphony crescendo, all brilliant strings and crashing cymbals. Tiger Woods shot 66, 65 and 69 in the last three rounds in 1997. When Norman collapsed with a final-round 78 in 1996, Nick Faldo shot 67 to win. Seven years earlier, Faldo shot 65 to win.
Those weren't gratuitous low scores. Augusta National was as fair as it was beautiful then; you tore it up if you played that well, and it tore you up if you didn't. What could be better?
People still talk about Gene Sarazen's miraculous double eagle on No. 15 in 1935, arguably the greatest shot in golf history. But Sarazen couldn't have made the shot yesterday; the hole is too long and the green is too slick to hold such an approach.
I'm a Masters loyalist and hate to say this, but the tournament has become dull. Fuzzy Zoeller, the 1979 Masters champion, compared the atmosphere at Amen Corner to a morgue after shooting 79 yesterday.
Why did Augusta National tinker with the course? Because today's golfers had become so powerful and club technology is so advanced that the layout was being rendered obsolete. Something had to be done.
Other major courses around the world have been made over for the same reasons, but Augusta National added 460 yards of fairway along with well-placed trees, layers of rough and other touches intended to frustrate.
In the club's defense, the changes, systematically added over the past five years, didn't seem so extreme until this year's cold, dry, windy weather enhanced the treachery beyond the point of reasonableness. Aside from being longer and tougher, the course is as hard as concrete.
Aggressiveness is a hallmark of Masters golf, but an aggressive golfer is headed for oblivion this year. The only choice is to play it numbingly safe and exhale with relief when the par putt drops.
Augusta National could have changed that by interceding and watering the course more frequently, which would have made the fairways and greens soft enough to hold shots and invite aggressiveness. Putts and scores would have dropped and you would hear the usual roars instead of comparisons to a morgue.
But the club is letting events unfold naturally, and the result is a demolition derby more than a golf tournament. Stuart Appleby is the 54-hole leader despite posting a triple bogey on the next-to-last hole yesterday. Neither of the 36-hole co-leaders, Brett Wetterich and Tim Clark, broke 80 yesterday.
If that's what Augusta National wanted - for the Masters to become as brutal as the Open - the mission is accomplished. Tiger Woods, one shot behindAppleby, probably will win his fifth green jacket today, but he will win it by struggling to save pars rather than eliciting roars with birdies.
The Masters is supposed to be more exciting than that. Louder than that.
More fun than that.