AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the most beautiful and iconic holes in golf had become laughably easy, and that did not sit well with the stewards of Augusta National Golf Club.
“Azalea”—the 13th hole in the Masters—has always been a bouquet of opportunity for the competitors, fun and gettable in every era. The first year there are complete hole statistics for the tournament is 1939, when the 13th was playing at 480 yards, and it was the fourth-easiest scoring hole on the course, though the hardest of the four par 5s.
Over the decades, it’s always been rip-roaring fun to play and watch, especially on Sunday. But 13 also became a “go” on the second shot for virtually everybody but the meekest drivers, and when the likes of Bubba Watson and Bryson DeChambeau began needing only the shortest of irons in to set up eagle putts, alarms sounded in the Augusta National control room. Through last year, No. 13 rose to be the softest test on the course, with a cumulative average of 4.77. In 2019, when Tiger Woods won, it gave up a record low 4.47 mark. The meaty par-4 fifth was only one-tenth of a stroke harder.
Oodles of money have now addressed some of the problem, with the club buying parts of Augusta Country Club behind the 13th tee to complete a lengthening that debuts this week with a tee from the tips at 545 yards. Those markers now occupy the launch pad at the end of a gorgeous, flower-strewn tunnel. Azalea, indeed.
As with any changes at Augusta, there was an instant debate: Would the lengthening discourage the risk-reward prospects of flying the crooked elbows of Rae’s Creek after similar concerns about the stretching of No. 15 by 20 yards were expressed last year. Could it possibly become a lay-up yawner in one of the game’s greatest stretches?
All the hand-wringing may be for naught, because 15 played as the fourth-easiest hole last year, just as it did the edition before it got longer. But there are certainly strong opinions from the players about how differently it might play, even if the scores don’t change that much.
It is generally agreed that most players will try to drive right of center, on a mostly straighter line, that avoids the left side because many can no longer draw it around the corner. Too far right, of course, and they’re in the trees; too far left, and they have a lie well above their feet. That was fine when they were hitting 7-iron. It would be much more daunting to go for it with a 4-iron in hand.
“I disagree that it’s less exciting,” said Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion. “I think you’ve heard mixed reviews. Some people say more, some people say less. I think if you are stuck in-between, you get more mayhem because you’re going to get more water balls than guys hitting 7-iron to the middle of the green. How is that not more exciting? … You want to see someone hit it from further away, or a harder shot.
“I don't know if it's a better or worse hole; it's a different hole,” Spieth added. “…If it's warmer, it's more exciting; but when it's this cool, it may just be a lot of layups. But we'll see.”
Unfortunately for this tournament, the weather could be very cool and wet, which might not allow for much variation.
Tiger Woods has been around for many of the most dramatic changes of the last 20 years because he forced many of them by overpowering the course with three wins between 1997-2002. Some of the biggest alterations came in 2002, and Woods said the latest changes feel similar.
“They were so dramatic on some of the holes [in 2002], the dramatic lengthening that we were all kind of astounded by just how far this golf course was now playing,” he said. “But then as years passed, it became a moot point. Guys with more athleticism, technology, and the average number of carry has gone up dramatically. So, from 2002 to present day, those changes, it seemed like a moot point.”
Over the course of his time at Augusta, Woods has absolutely feasted on 13, at 58 under par in 94 rounds. (Phil Mickelson is the king of the hole at an astounding 81 under.)
Alas, Woods said, “The days of me hitting a 3-wood and an 8-iron there are long gone.”
For the longest players, however, going for it in two is still going to be the idea when they step onto the tee. “The guys who fly it 310 with a hydraulic, Rory [McIlroy] and Cam Young and those guys, are definitely still going to be able to take it over the corner, but a majority of the guys aren't going to be taking it over the corner,” said Masters rookie Sahith Theegala.
Fred Couples, who remained relevant at Augusta past his prime because he could still power a driver, called the new version of the hole “spectacular.”
“If I were 30, I'd probably be excited about it,” Couples said. “At 63, I think it's an incredible hole. I won't go for it. I don't know how I can. But it ain't about me; it's about the best players and how far they're hitting it.”
Couples said in a practice round Rory McIlroy hit a bomb and used a 5-iron for his approach. Tom Kim, he said, knocked it on with a wood.
Xander Schauffle said the new configuration “puts you in no man’s land. The green is so small from left to right off a hook lie. It’s kind of a no-brainer, honestly. You just lay up. There’s not much to it.”
And what of the man who only a few years ago was looking like he’d make Augusta National totally obsolete? Bryson DeChambeau, on one hand, revealed that he hit 8-iron into 13 in a recent round, but on another wet and windy day, he needed 4-iron. “It plays much like [when] I was an amateur [in 2016],” DeChambeau said.
He insisted many more players will lay up, making eagles more rare. To the surpise of no one, DeChambeau is not on board with that.
“That was part of the fun; you hit it out there and you're going for it no matter what, right?” DeChambeau said. “But look, it is what it is, we've all got to play it.”