AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Bob Jones and Alister Mackenzie didn’t design the 465-yard par-4 18th hole at Augusta National to be played driver, 3-wood. But that’s what William McGirt went with during Friday’s second round of the Masters.
McGirt didn’t intend to play it that way, either. He tugged his tee shot a few yards left from the narrow, tree-lined chute above the fairway, his ball clipping a branch and dropping down, barely reaching the fairway.
“It’s so tight,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is whiff it over there to the right.”
Or still have 234 yards up a hill that rises 70 feet to the house in cold, windy conditions.
McGirt smoked a 3-wood at one of the television towers behind the green and ran after it like he was a 19-year-old Sergio Garcia. The ball still didn’t make it, splashing into the left green-side bunker, from where McGirt made bogey on what has become one of the most demanding closing holes in golf.
“That tee shot is flat out hard,” McGirt said of the dogleg right that is protected off the tee by a pair of deep bunkers at the left corner and trees to the right. He finished with a one-over 73 and is just two off the lead. One back sounds and feels a lot better. “Wow, what a finishing hole.”
The finish. It’s the last impression, where a player can sneak into the weekend, miss the cut, maintain momentum or, on Sunday, win or lose the tournament.
Lord knows this one has seen some doozies.
— Phil Mickelson’s 18-footer for birdie and six-inch vertical after edging Ernie Els by a shot in 2004.
— Mark O’Meara’s 20-footer for birdie -- one of three over his final four holes -- to beat David Duval and Fred Couples by one in 1998.
— Sandy Lyle’s 1-iron into the second of two fairway bunkers, followed by a 7-iron to 10 feet and birdie for the narrowest of victories over Mark Calcavecchia in 1988. — Greg Norman’s 4-iron from the fairway that sailed right and into the gallery before an eventual bogey that gave Jack Nicklaus his sixth green jacket in 1986.
Other holes are more iconic and more memorable, but none has perhaps produced more memories. It’s the finale, and it’s a dandy.
Nicknamed Holly, a deciduous, flowering tree that is shade tolerant, the last at Augusta is anything but the latter. Historically, it’s the seventh-most difficult hole with a scoring average of 4.16. Through two rounds of this year’s tournament, it ranks fourth with the average ballooning to 4.319 in the wind-whipped conditions.
“It’s probably the most difficult tee shot on the course right now,” said Ryan Moore, who made par there both of the first two days this week. “There’s a lot of bad places you can end up with as narrow as it is and with that much of a cross wind.”
Try to flare one out to the right, it’s rattling in the trees and blocked out. Blow it left and there is more timber. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and no chance to make up for a mistake as the last hole of the day or tournament.
It wasn’t always that way.
In the first Masters, in 1934, the 18th was actually the ninth and played to 420 yards from the tips. A year later, the nines were flipped and it has been the closer ever since.
There have been other changes, too.
In the early days it featured a mysterious cross bunker about 100 yards shy of the green -- too far off the tee to be problematic for drives and too far from the putting surface to get in the way on approach shots. It stayed until 1956.
In 1947, Jones watched Ben Hogan three-putt from 12 feet to lose by one to Herman Kaiser. Robert Trent Jones re-contoured the green that summer.
In 1967, two years after Jack Nicklaus set a scoring record, the two fairway bunkers on the left were created. Then just two months before the start of the 1975 Masters, co-founder Clifford Roberts planted a cluster of pine trees in the 75-yard swath between the left tree line and the bunkers to further penalize “duck-hooked” tee balls.
A few years later, Hogan wrote the club to try to have the bunkers eliminated. The club declined.
Then in 2001, Tom Fazio pushed the tee as far back as he could, stretching the hole to its current max of 465 yards. The fairway bunkers were reshaped and expanded, too, with a drive of 300 yards to reach the first bunker and a carry of 335 to clear the second. Additional pines were also added left and beyond the bunkers.
Thursday, only six birdies were made on the hole. A day later 15 more. By comparison, there were 65 bogeys or worse the first two rounds.
Two of those came from defending champion Danny Willett, and they proved costly. He missed the cut by a stroke.
“With [the wind] pumping so much out of the left it’s real tough to keep it in the left side,” he said. “You’ve almost got to hit a pull.”
Willett ended up in the right trees both days, punched out and failed to get up-and-down each time.
But even when things appear to go right they can go wrong on Holly. Rory McIlroy hammered his tee shot 302 yards down the middle of the fairway to leave an approach of just 140 yards. He hit the flagstick, the ball ricocheted down off the green and he went from birdie to bogey to shoot 73.
It can also swing momentum the other way.
Two years ago, Jordan Spieth made a crucial up-and-down in the third round after missing the green right with his approach and being short-sided to the flag.
Instead of what looked to be at least a bogey and a three-shot lead at best, he took good feelings and a four-stroke advantage to Sunday and won by the same margin.
Friday, Spieth hit his approach from 157 yards to 13 feet below the hole and made the putt for birdie -- his third over his final six holes -- to cap a 69 and move into a tie for 10th just four strokes off the lead.
James Hahn wasn’t so fortunate. A day after a sloppy double bogey on the hole, he missed his chance for redemption when an eight-footer for birdie from above the hole slid by. He thought it cost him the cut.
“I’ve seen that putt a million times on TV,” he said. “It breaks right.” His didn’t, held up by the wind.
The number moved, though, and Haan was saved.
O’Meara, 19 years since his winning putt there, wasn’t close. He finished the week at 12 over, tapping in an otherwise meaningless par putt before summing up the finisher perfectly.
“The 18th hole,” he cracked. “There’s a lot of drama that can happen there.”