AUGUSTA, Ga. – At the 81st Masters, much like the 80 glorious editions before it, there is a clouded mystique hovering over Augusta National, an inherent difficulty amid the beauty that serves as the heartbeat of the championship.
Why, even Jack Nicklaus, the greatest of them all, who would win a record six green jackets at Augusta National, never quite fully mastered the Masters. The course’s uneven lies, the swirling winds, the pressure of the season’s first major and the most difficult collection of green complexes in the game, stirred together and shaken, produce an amazing concoction that seldom fails to produce great theater.
“When it’s wet, it’s not too bad,” said Nicklaus, 77, who won his sixth green jacket in 1986 at age 46. “Once it starts to get firm and the wind starts to blow, and it blows from so many different directions, the golf course changes constantly. I don’t care how good you are, how much you play, the greens are the most severe greens in the game of golf, and I would say they are the most difficult to putt.
“So you’re always off balance.”
Ben Crenshaw went 2-42 at Augusta
And players are constantly learning, too, regardless of how many times one has traversed Dr. Alister MacKenzie’s hallowed grounds atop an old fruit nursery off Washington Road. Texan Ben Crenshaw made 44 starts at the Masters, and won it twice. What was most amazing to him was that his education on the golf course never slowed.
“It keeps you on the edge,” he said. “It’s a different place, a different course. If you left yourself on and around every green (in practice), it’s uncanny how you’d hit a ball in the tournament, and you say to yourself, ‘Hmmm, I haven’t had this one.’ It’s the nature of the undulations and everything. You constantly have to improvise.
“You cannot learn enough about Augusta National, and in that regard, it’s different than most courses that you play.”
Augusta National seems to provide openings for scoring, especially with its back-nine par 5s (“There’s probably seven to nine birdie opportunities out there,” said Phil Mickelson, a three-time champion). But it also can be a temptress that lures aggressive golfers into high numbers in an instant.
Nicklaus recalled being in the hunt in 1971, standing in the fairway at the 15th facing 255 yards to the green. He made the choice to make his move, thinned a 3-wood short into the water, dropped and dunked another shot in, and walked off with 8. Charles Coody wore that jacket.
Gary Player won 3, could have been more
Gary Player won three times at Augusta, but might have won a few more. One year in particular sticks in his craw. It was 1970, and he stood in the 18th fairway as Billy Casper and Gene Littler putted out ahead of him. The hole was located front left, leaving little room for error. Player had 6-iron in his hands, and took dead aim at the flag, the ball aligned perfectly in flight, only to plug in the front bunker. He’d make 5, and lose to Casper by one.
Last Sunday, Player, now 81, stood in the same spot in the 18th fairway as he played a fun round from a forward tee in front of this year’s tournament. As he looked toward the raised green, his 1970 finish flashed through his mind.
“And I said to myself, how could I be so stupid?” he said. Adds Player, “This golf course is an enigma. It’s a mousetrap with a piece of cheese in it, waiting for you to nibble and make a mistake.”
The National can create big swings. Jack Burke Jr. overcame an eight-shot deficit over the final 18 holes in 1956 to win, and Player came from seven shots back in 1978. Last April, Danny Willett charged on Sunday, shooting 67, and Jordan Speith watched a five-shot lead transform into a three-shot loss as he shot 41 over his final nine.
Why does it happen? Because players can try to be too perfect around Augusta National, with such precision being in demand, something that can come back to bite a player on a golf course where distance control and precision are so crucial to success.
Nick Faldo: Knife-edge precision a must
“You’ve got to hit the right shot the right distance,” said three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo. “You can’t hit the wrong shot trying to get there. It’s a real knife-edge precision. People can’t quite get that when you’ve got that two-yard circle (to land a ball), if it’s 149 (yards), you know darn well that 147 and a half isn’t good enough. And you know if you just bust it a touch and you land it 150, it’s up the back . . . That’s the skill of it, the real knife-edge of it.
“Hit it on the spot, with swirling breeze. Clear blue skies, that’s the hardest thing about Augusta, clear blue skies and swirling breeze, because you’ve got no idea which way it (the wind) is going. It’s a real good guess. That makes it the knife-edge, the perfection, you know?”
There are years when a player is so in tune with his game that he feels a certain control over the golf course, but those years are rare. Faldo’s iron game was so good in 1990 that he simply could not lose. He knew he would not miss shots left or right, so if he kept dialed in on distance, he’d win, and he did. Nicklaus said he felt he was in complete control in 1965. He was pounding the ball long and had “zero problem” with the golf course. He shot what then was a scoring record, 17-under 271.
A year later, Augusta National tournament chairman Clifford Roberts demanded the fairways be left at a higher cut, which led players to hitting flyers, unable to control their distances. It created great uncertainty. Nicklaus would win the title that year, too – though he did so after playing off at level-par 288, some 17 shots higher than he shot one year earlier.
Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth et al may be favored here at the 81st Masters, but the beauty at this place is that anything can happen, especially with high winds expected to increase the difficulty of the golf course for at least the first two days. An even-par round over either of the next two days shouldn’t remove anyone from this championship.
“That’s what makes the golf course wonderful, actually, and what a great tournament it is,” Nicklaus said, “because you really never know what’s going to happen. Even the players, as good as they might be, don’t know what’s going to happen.”