From The Archives: Just How Tough Is Augusta?

January 11, 2010

An undercover team first rated Augusta National as spectators outside the ropes at the 1990 Masters.

If adventurer Richard Halliburton thought it was tough hiding out overnight in the Taj Mahal, he should have tried getting past the guard at the Augusta National Golf Club. It's easier to get into Fort Knox. The Augusta National is America's best-known course, yet it is, paradoxically, one of the most private. Whether this attitude results from paranoia or an extreme desire for privacy doesn't matter. The important thing is that the attitude exists, and woe unto him who attempts to get information the club doesn't want revealed.

Take an innocuous item like the course rating. The U. S. Golf Association has be rerating the nation's courses the last few years to standardize handicaps and implement its Slope system, which became the law of the land on March 1. The USGA has ratings for virtually every course, including such ultra-private ones as Pine Valley, Cypress Point and Seminole. But does it have Augusta National? No way. The club's chairman, Hord Hardin, has said, "We don't need a handicap system. Our members already know each other's games."

To the editors of Golf Digest, this was like telling Edmund Hillary he couldn't try to climb Everest. We immediately began making plans to get the course rated on our own.

The first step was to contact those who had been rating courses regularly for the USGA. Then we had to find out which of them, if any, were planning to attend the 1990 Masters. It was obvious immediately that we couldn't pull the thing off at any other time--safety in numbers, you know--and it was equally obvious that we had to find official raters who already had Masters tickets, since getting tickets to the event is even tougher than getting the course rating. (We had a number of volunteers, most of whom thought we could get them tickets to the tournament. Fat chance of that.)

When the fateful day arrived (it was Thursday, the opening day of the tournament), our intrepid little group met near the big scoreboard and, with me riding shotgun, marched resolutely down the first fairway--outside the ropes, of course, along with several hundred others who were interested only in watching the players. We weren't doing anything illegal, but that knowledge didn't keep me from looking furtively over my shoulder while darting from tree to tree on the first few holes. As it turned out, nobody paid any attention to us, and the venture proved to be a pleasant exercise, during which our raters briskly went about their business.

Course rating, according to the USGA is the evaluation of a course for scratch players. (Courses are rated from forward tees, too, but that was beyond the scope of our mission.) The rating is expressed in strokes and decimal fractions of a stroke, and is based on yardage and other obstacles to the extent that they affect the scoring ability of a scratch player. It is done by considering 10 obstacle factors, each of them graded on a scale of 0 to 10, on each hole.

The rating criteria

1. Topography -- Difficulty of stance in the landing area and the vertical angle of shot from the landing area into the green.

2. Fairway -- The effective width and depth of the landing area, which can be reduced by a dogleg, trees or fairway slope.

3. Recoverability and rough -- The existence of rough and other penalizing factors in the proximity of the landing area and the green.

4. Out-of-bounds -- The existence of out-of-bounds in the proximity of the landing area and around the green.

5. Water hazards -- The existence of water in the proximity of the landing area and around the green.

6. Trees -- The strategic location, size, height and number of trees.

7. Bunkers -- The existence of bunkers in the proximity of the landing area and around the green.

8. Green Target -- The size, firmness, shape and slope of a green in relation to the normal length of the approach shot.

9. Green Surface -- The contour and normal speed of the putting surface.

10. Psychological -- The mental effect on play created by the proximity of obstacles to a target area.

Slope itself is a universal standard that enables a golfer to adjust his handicap to fit the difficulty of the course he is playing on a given day--i.e., at Pine Valley you'll get more strokes and at the local muny you'll probably get fewer. Obviously, to implement the system, it is necessary to rate every course in the country. Oh, yes. The Course Rating of Augusta National turned out to be 76.2, which puts it in the top ten toughest courses in the U.S.

How the course plays

Augusta National is a big, robust course with towering pines, dramatic elevation changes, broad fairways, and greens that are slicker than a bobsled run. The popular conception has always been that you can drive the ball anywhere; only the greens are a problem. On the contrary, the drives have to be hit to specific areas that will yield the best approach shots. If you don't hit the ball to the right spots on the greens, you can three-putt all of them.

How tough are they? The USGA calculates that adding the green surface ratings for each of the 18 holes on the average U.S. Open course produces a difficulty figure of 110, as compared with a figure of 72 for all U.S. courses. Augusta National's total is an astonishing 148, the highest in the country.

OK, so the greens are tough. Anybody who has watched Seve Ballesteros four-putt the 16th or has seen any number of players putt clear off the ninth can attest to that. But there is more to Augusta National. Let's take some examples.

The rating reveals that the toughest green to hit is the fourth, a 205-yard par 3 that has a wide, fairly shallow target guarded squarely in front by a large bunker. The hole resembles the 11th on the Old Course at St. Andrews, only longer. One wonders if Bobby Jones, during the building of Augusta National, recalled his won misadventures on the 11th, when he tore up his card and walked in during his first exposure to St. Andrews.

The difficulty in recovering from an imperfect drive is greatest on the 10th, a stunningly beautiful par 4 of 485 yards and a drop of 78 feet from tee to green. A well-hit drive, kept left of center, can put the golfer near the bottom of the hill with only a short iron remaining. A drive that stays right never gets down the hill and leaves the perpetrator with a long iron from a sidehill, downhill lie. The classic example was Nick Faldo in 1990, when he faced that shot twice the final day, one in the playoff. He missed the green both times and only once salvaged a par.

It doesn't get any easier, particularly at the 11th, which has a menace of a pond smack up against the left side of the green. For proof that it is the scariest water hazard on the course, one only has to recall Ben Hogan's famous dictum: "If you ever see me on this (the 11th) green in two, you'll know I missed my second." The most successful execution of this theory was by Larry Mize in 1987 when, lying safely off to the right of the green, he hit a little bump-and-run chip into the hole to beat Greg Norman in a playoff.

Then we come to the 13th. This may be the best par 5 in the world and it's no surprise that it ranks as the most difficult hole on the course over all. To begin with, it requires the most demanding drive at Augusta. It is a sloping dogleg left in which a hook puts you into th trees--if not the creek--and a push leaves you too far away to go for the green. A good drive, then, is essential, but only partially solves the problem, which is to clear a frontal water hazard and hit a green rated 9 for difficulty. Add all this together--and then put the tournament itself on the line--and one can see why the hole rates a perfect 10 in psychological difficulty.

Paul Azinger made a perfect 10 there in 1990 on his way to a first-round 80. He drove into the trees on the right, knocked it into the 14th fairway, then dumped a 6-iron into Rae's Creek. He dropped, chunked one back into the creek, dropped again, chunked it again, this time short of the creek, pitched on and two-putted. "I had to add it up three times on the 14th tee," he said. Other examples of 13th-hole disasters are legion. In 1954, after dramatically taking the lead with an ace on the sixth and birdies on the eighth and ninth, amateur Billy Joe Patton went for the green on the 13th, found the water, took a 7 and missed a playoff by a stroke. Curtis Strange blew the tournament in 1985 when he hit his second into the drink and needed two shots to get out.

Some holes don't have the glitz of others. The 14th, for example, is to most people a nondescript par 4 that only serves to get the contenders from the crisis at 13 to the crisis at 15. It doesn't even have any bunkers; as Gary McCord once said, "It is a green surrounded by grass." What it does have is a diabolical putting surface that includes the finest Valley of Sin this side of St. Andrews. For that reason the green is considered the toughest on the course, a green from which golfers pray they'll escape with nothing worse than two putts. The most tragic--and embarrassing--failure there came when Tom Watson, then in his championship prime, had a makeable birdie putt and wound up four-putting. Another was Mike Reid's missed three-footer in 1989 when it looked as if he might be a winner.

There is pressure everywhere at the Masters, particularly for those in contention, but it can be unbelievably intense at the 18th. This is a hole of 405 yards, playing out of a chute of trees to an uphill, slightly doglegging fairway leading to a well-bunkered green.

For many years players could drive well to the left, thus taking the trees on the right out of play. Then, in 1966, two bunkers were added on the left side of the fairway, forcing the players to place their drives.

There are countless memories of the 18th-hole victims: Arnold Palmer's double bogey in 1961 that let Gary Player slip through; Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller missing virtually the same putt that would have tied Jack Nicklaus in 1975; tragic missed shots by Hubert Green in 1978 and Ed Sneed in 1979; Greg Norman's badly pushed approach in 1986.

There also is a psychology that cannot be measured on a rating chart. How about that moment in the 1986 tournament when Nicklaus knocked the ball stiff on the par-3 16th to an incredible roar from the crowd? (Jack always seemed to be doing something heroic on 16.) Tom Watson was on the 15th green, only yards away from Nicklaus, facing a short putt of his own. And back up the 15th fairway stood Seve Ballesteros, who had hit a long drive and was preparing to go for the green with a 4-iron. Watson, who knew there would be another huge roar when Nicklaus putted out for his birdie, thought to beat the roar and rushed his own putt--and missed it. Ballesteros promptly dumped his approach in the water fronting the green.

In the end, our ratings adventure--surreptitious though it may have been--only confirmed what we had suspected: that Augusta National is a hall-of-fame course with awesome greens. If anything, having such a high bona fide rating raises the course in stature Now that the news is out, it wasn't all that bad after all, was it Hord?