April 7, 2009

The Roars Start Here

If the past is any indication, the Masters will likely turn on the two dangerously alluring par 5s on the back nine

With few exceptions, the Masters champion has navigated the two par 5s on the back nine successfully.

With few exceptions, the Masters champion has navigated the two par 5s on the back nine successfully.

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- For a place that's supposed to be so noisy, it's pretty quiet now. You can almost hear the azaleas growing. Out here at the par-5 13th and the par-5 15th at Augusta National, where birdies and eagles occasionally nest with the bogey, where the Masters is usually won on Sunday, there are no roars bouncing around the pine trees, probably because it only Wednesday's practice round.

The question is whether it's going to sound the same once the tournament starts.

As usual, there are a lot of pre-tournament topics on the table at the Masters. Can Padraig Harrington win his third straight major? Is Tiger Woods all the way back? Do Ian Poulter's pants keep him awake at night? Can anybody still make a charge on the back nine on Sunday or have they taken all the fun out of the old golf course?

Tiger Woods said it's a lot tougher to make a run anymore.

"The last couple of years, with the weather and the course setup, it's harder to do that," he 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. It's just not the same. The scores reflect it."

Zach Johnson's 289 total two years ago matched the worst winning score in Masters history. Of course, the weather in 2007 probably matched the worst in Masters history, too.

Still, the best place to mount a run at the Masters on Sunday is generally accepted to be the two par fives on the back. The 510-yard 13th is famous for its seven-year-old tee location that moved it ever so much closer to the doorstep of Augusta Country Club. The 530-yard 15th is famous because Gene Sarazen made double eagle there in 1935, long before the tee was moved so far back it's now on the other side of a cart path.

But they're still places to post a score, and if anybody can get a running start, it's Woods, said one expert.

"Tiger could," said Greg Norman. "Guys who can hit it out there 325 and are great putters. Great charges come when you go to the 13th hole with a 6-iron or 5-iron in your hand and attack the pin. You can't attack the pin with a 2-iron or 3-wood or hybrid. The same with the 15th."

Maybe Woods is right, that the generally blah weather the last couple of years has flattened out the attack mode. Or maybe the last two Masters winners changed the blueprint. Johnson laid up at every par 5, and Trevor Immelman did the same thing last year. In fact, in Wednesday's practice round, Immelman laid up at the 15th, then picked up his ball, dropped it about 25 yards closer to the hole, and from there knocked the ball onto the green.

There are huge bonuses and great danger at both the par 5s, and that's what has always made them interesting, because everything from eagle to double bogey is possible, Peter Jacobsen said.

"Those two holes are absolutely what Augusta National and the Masters are all about," he said.

"Risk, reward. Disaster golf. But the fear among the players I talk to is that the hard holes are getting harder and the easy holes are getting harder. If you're driving a car, this is not a six-lane highway going straight, it's twists and turns."

The 13th is the last section of Amen Corner, a huge dogleg left to a green that's probably the most photographed spot on the course. It's stunningly good looking, but looks are deceiving. Rae's Creek meanders in front of the green like a moat, waiting to swallow any golf balls that fall short of the target green, which has slopes that would make the Alps jealous. Four immaculate bunkers rest to the left and the rear of the green and are so pristine, they must have been raked with a comb.

The Masters Spectator Guide, written by Bobby Jones in 1949, offers this assessment of the 13th: "Tempting and dangerous."

The 15th green is fronted by an amoeba-shaped pond of brownish green water. The green is raised, and falls off sharply in front, sloping to the water.

Here's what Jones wrote about the 15th: "The risk of half-hit effort fetching up in the pond will keep any competitor on edge."

Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National, said 10 yards have been added to the front of the tee and the landing area on the right side of the fairway has been widened.

"We're hoping to encourage more players to attempt their second shot to this historically exciting green," he said.

Payne also said that he expects some better scores than in the past couple of years, as long as the weather forecast remains encouraging.

"No one wants to hear the roars and the excitement more than the members and the volunteers who put on the tournament . . . the last couple of years, there have not been many."

Payne blamed the weather, so he's on board with Woods' thinking. And, really, since Woods is the leading authority on how to create noise, it may be his responsibility to conjure up some of it on the back nine on Sunday. Everyone will be listening, especially at the 13th and 15th. And if the roars start rattling off the pine trees once again, it'll be music to everyone's ears.