March 30, 2009

First Impressions

Augusta National's par-4 opening hole has evolved into a starter that daunts even the longest of hitters

Conventional wisdom (just across the road from unconventional wisdom) holds that the ideal opening hole should be of moderate difficulty with no serious trouble. As the legendary course designer Donald Ross put it, "A good handshake."

At Augusta National GC, the first hole is more like a good punch in the mouth.

It is a 445-yard, uphill dogleg right with a dangerous bunker menacing the right side of a narrowing fairway that ends at a raised, wildly rippling green guarded front left by another take-no-prisoners bunker, beyond which the hole will be cut two or three days. Fred Couples, the 1992 champion, calls it the hardest hole on the course because of its length and the most difficult green to putt.

No. 1 ranked fourth in difficulty in 2008 (4.244) and has been first and second in recent years. Never has it played under par for the week.

"Imagine if No. 2 wasn't an easy par 5!" says architect Tom Fazio, who has been involved in revisions of the course. "But grinding is so typical of that tournament."

The hole has been shortened 10 yards on the scorecard this year, with the back of the tee and the brass markers—used for card measurement to the middle of the green—moved up. The understated tournament tees, fashioned from the hardwood of a tree on the course, move up or back depending largely on weather conditions. The hole can play as long as 463 yards or as short as 426, according to club officials.

The change could bring the bunker more into play, enabling big hitters to carry it once again as they could until 2002 alterations if the wind wasn't hurting … and as Bobby Jones intended. In Golf is My Game he wrote: "Ordinarily the fairway bunker presents no problem for the tournament player. With a heavy wind against, however, as often happens, a half-hit tee shot may catch this bunker."

Par-4 First Hole

As it is now, players need a clout of 316 yards to carry the bunker from the brass markers—a mere 283 to reach the hazard that is eight feet deep at its most cavernous point. A cleanly struck shot from some parts of the bunker can reach some parts of the green, a huge target at nearly 7,000 square feet. But the putting surface has mostly rampant contouring (it was rebuilt after the '08 tournament "for agronomic reasons"), and the greenside bunker is a potential disaster, especially when the hole is cut left.

"Used to be, with no wind in your face, you could take it over the bunker and play a wedge to the green," says six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus. "But once they lengthened the tee, extended the bunker, brought trees in on the left—the face of the hill became an issue, especially with the wind coming into you. You were hitting a 3- or 4-iron when the green wanted a 7 or 8 max."

Game plans and attitudes were adjusted. "I just wanted to get to the second hole even par," Nicklaus says. "You stood on the first tee and saw danger everywhere. You looked at it as a hole where you never wanted to get behind the golf course. It set the tone for the round."

Phil Mickelson agrees. "It's gone from an easy par 4 to one of the hardest holes," he says. "It changes the way I look at the start of my round, from trying to get off to a quick start with birdie to just trying to make par on the first hole and make birdie on the second. You cannot drive it up on top, so you're left hitting a second shot with a mid-iron to one of the most difficult greens."

Sergio Garcia

Tiger Woods also thinks it is the course's most difficult putting surface, with its ridges and swales and edges that fall off deceptively. He recalls an early adventure.

"I blew my tee shot over the bunker and had a little 60-degree sand wedge to a pin middle left," he says. "I didn't hit a very good shot, but it was pin high, no big deal. The next thing I know I'm playing my fourth shot from off the front of the green. I tell amateurs I play with there that my first putt at Augusta I putted off the green."

Nicklaus' chief rival in the record books is proud that, even so, he holed his long par putt from the smooth fringe. Woods is 12 over par for 53 Masters rounds on No. 1, his strategy neoconservative on the tee these days. "It's a tricky tee shot," Woods says. "I usually take something off my driver and try to hit a little cut shot up the left side. If it's playing downwind, I might take a chance and try to carry the right bunker. But not from the back tees. It's harder when they move the tees up, because if you hit it up the left side you can run your drive through the fairway."

The fairway is only 26 yards wide at the steep far end of the bunker, 31 at the mid-point. It opens up beyond the bunker. Mickelson drove into the left trees a year ago, punched out over the green … and chipped in for a rare birdie. There were four times as many bogeys or double bogeys (80) as birdies (20) on No. 1 in '08.

Charles Howell III cites what he calls "the nerves factor" on the first hole of the year's first major at a venerable venue with a uniquely august aura. Another pro says there is none of the usual kidding around on the tee because players are having too much trouble breathing.

Marty Fleckman is a successful golf instructor in Texas who made history by winning the 1967 Cajun Classic Open Invitational, the first PGA Tour event he played as a pro. He anxiously sliced his first drive at the 1969 Masters over the gallery, over the large main leader board, over the media center and on toward Washington Road. He asked the starter if it was out- of-bounds. That astonished gentleman, stately in club jacket and tie, said he didn't know because nobody had ever been over there.

Scott Verplank, a dependable driver, says the hole separates average-long hitters like him from those who can carry the ball 300-plus yards. He was chatting near the first tee on a practice day when a bird targeted him with a messy dropping (in Masters green, of course). Verplank looked ruefully at his soiled cap and reasoned that the hole had enough hazards without another one.