AUGUSTA, Ga. — Of all the great visuals presented to us on Sunday at the Masters, none are more distinct than watching a ball hang on the ridge at the par-3 16th hole, then begin creeping toward the flagstick. As the ball makes its first turn toward the hole, patrons begin murmuring. Then they start to shout. As the ball nears the hole and the CBS camera zooms, it gets louder, bedlam in waiting. Then, the ball just skirts the hole, there’s a collective “oooh,” and then raucous applause. We do love our roars, and the tee shot at the 16th always provides them. The ball coming off that slope is a paean to gravity, agronomy, playing skill and Masters magic itself.
But after 35 consecutive years (at least) of that pin position, I’m wondering if it’s a gift that’s giving too much. It’s like a kid tearing open the corner of Christmas present in advance and knowing what he’s going to get. The movie “Groundhog Day” also comes to mind, a redundancy to it that makes one year’s close-up replays indiscernible from the next. We’re not tempted to smash the alarm clock as Bill Murray did, but the reliance on that position implies that patrons wouldn’t settle for anything less. And it sets aside what might be the toughest, most nerve-wracking hole location on the entire golf course: Back-right, which hasn’t been seen in its best context—Sunday, with the Masters on the line—in decades.
The chief exhibit for the back-right pin is the 1975 Masters and the famous “bear tracks” putt Jack Nicklaus holed there. If you haven’t seen it, go to YouTube and watch it now. That putt, a 40-foot bomb that pulled Nicklaus into a tie for the lead with Tom Weiskopf, was brought to us courtesy of that back-right hole location.
Weiskopf, standing on the 16th tee when Nicklaus rammed the putt home, admits he was shocked not only by seeing the putt drop, but of the challenge that now faced him: getting the tee shot within range to make a birdie of his own, or at least make a sure par. The back-right pin in part was the reason he hit a dreadful tee shot that barely made the green, leaving him an almost impossible two-putt. He indeed took three putts, Jack went on to win, and that was that—a perfect example of a hole forcing a player’s hand.
It’s difficult to trace when the Masters began placing the 16th flagstick on the left. A best-guess estimate derived from browsing old videos is circa 1982, though it might have been earlier. For a few years after that there were varying degrees of middle and back when viewing the hole from the tee, but always it was to the left. And a single event there in 1986 seemed to seal the deal. After Nicklaus very nearly holed a 5-iron and scored a 2 on the way to winning his sixth green jacket, the back-left location become cemented.
To reiterate, back-left is not a bad choice. But as Nicklaus pointed out when we watched a replay of the 1986 Masters at his home in Florida, it’s the easiest of the four pins you see at No. 16 over the course of the tournament. At 170 yards, it’s a stock 8-iron for many players today, not much in terms of distance. There’s also a ton of room to the right. If the intention is to strictly take the bunker and water on the left out of play, it’s usually easily done. Players throw it out to the right, let the slope do its thing, make 3 and walk quietly to No. 17 tee. Bad things can happen at No. 16—Greg Norman’s splashing his tee shot into the pond during his final-round meltdown in 1996 comes to mind. But it’s mostly the chasers forced to go right at it who suffer most. I don’t recall a final-round lead being blown there, and for the leader determined to make par only, there isn’t much in it.
The back-right location is a different thing entirely. A little cleverness with the hole location on Sunday could for the player be like climbing the face of the Eiger, barefoot with no rope. Although that portion of the green was enlarged and made gentler for the 2012 Masters, it’s still a harrowing test in ways the TV cameras can’t quite express. The smallness of it is breathtaking, a compartment about the size of a large living-room rug. It’s surrounded by all kinds of horror, beginning with the bunker beyond the green, which possibly is the worst place to be on the course. A sand shot caught a fraction thin there will not only drift off the shelf, it could even go into the water. Miss short and to the right, as Weiskopf did in 1975, and the putt along the spine is almost impossible to lay dead.
There’s more. The contender who plays safely to the center of the green has a problem. If he hits the long lag up the slope a whisper too softly, he can expect to watch the ball roll back to his feet. Too hard, and the four-foot comebacker toward the downslope would be enough to make the blood drain from their faces. The back-right pin at 16 simply offers the best of pressure scenarios. There’s nowhere to hide.
Sadly, the back-right position is being used for Saturday’s third round. The keen observer will watch and see that the location will provide a bit of a speed bump to the “moving day” theatrics, but will also create drama in its own right.
Meanwhile, here’s my Sunday proposition—or dare—for Augusta officials moving forward. Place the pin in that back-right compartment, a few feet from the precipice of the tier. Move the tee up perhaps 10 yards, making it a mere 9-iron, so players find an attack almost irresistible. Make the aggressive play a distinct counterpoint to the par-3 12th and its hard-right Sunday location, which demands a safer strategy. Then watch the drama that follows. Birdies would still be in the equation—the hole still is gettable—they will only become, as Bobby Jones intended for birdies on all holes beyond the par 5s, “dearly bought.”
The one-year departure from the norm will present remarkable new avenues for analysis. It will remind us how special the traditional back-left location really is when it returns there a year or two later. Most of all, it will prove that Augusta National, golf’s ultimate set piece, still has some stark and wonderful surprises in store for us.