We describe what it was like to lay eyes on Augusta National for the first time.
Last week we gave a rundown on what it was like to be at the 2016 Masters Tournament – from the thrill of seeing Danny Willett play supreme golf to win, our disappointment the Aussies didn’t get closer to victory and the incredible atmosphere that pervaded Augusta National after Jordan Spieth’s now-infamous collapse.
But now we thought we’d try to give you some idea of what it was like to lay eyes on Augusta National for the first time. To finally see a golf course we already knew so well was an awesome (in the true sense of the word) experience.
Our first look
One of the unique aspects of The Masters is that you can purchase a fold-up chair and go and place it in special seating around the golf course. You can then go following other groups around the golf course or eating pimento cheese sandwiches, knowing you can go back and sit in that chair at any time, without anyone else sitting in it.
With this in mind, we joined the throng of patrons with chairs slung over their shoulders and set off for a spot at Amen Corner. We entered Augusta National via one of the furthest gates from Washington Road for closer access to Amen Corner. After a walk along a winding path through a lush forest of pines, we threaded between a couple of grandstands and emerged right beside the 14th tee. And more interestingly, just a short pitch shot from the famous par-5 13th green.
I almost stumbled at the sight of it and temporarily lost my bearings. Wait, is this the 13th?
Despite this being exactly the picture-perfect view of the famous 13th green I knew so well, I was in disbelief that it was before me. It was like seeing a painting come to life before my very eyes. Here was where so many famous shots were made, or not made. Where green jackets were won and lost. But you could say that about so many of the holes at Augusta National, and I was about to see them all.
On the walk to Amen Corner, we got a great look at the sweeping fairway of the 13th hole that has been described as the best par-5 in the world. It has been controversially mooted to be lengthened with Augusta National rumoured to have offered a huge sum of money to the adjoining Augusta Country Club for a parcel of land so they can extend the tee back further.
To give you some idea why, Arnold Palmer hit a 3-wood to set up an eagle in 1958, Nick Faldo hit a majestic 2-iron second shot on to the green to set up his win in 1996, Phil Mickelson hit a 6-iron from the trees to 4-feet for a two-putt birdie in 2010, and Bubba Watson was left with sand-wedge for his second shot after his ball went through the trees on the corner on his way to victory in 2014.
Geoff Ogilvy once pointed out that the approach is an optical illusion as it plays uphill rather than the downhill. It makes these famous shots even more incredible and perhaps explains why so many approaches finish in the creek.
I’d been at Augusta National no more than around 10 minutes and already I was giddy with excitement. The golfers were still a few hours away from teeing off.
Stopping off at Amen Corner was a treat. Catching my first glimpse of the difficult 11th hole brought mixed emotions. It was a thrill to finally see what is often the most difficult hole at Augusta National, but it stung as I recalled what Larry Mize did to Shark here in 1987.
The 12th hole, one of the most famous par-3’s in golf looked imposing in the morning light and the 13th tee was tucked further up behind the 12th green than I expected. It sits in the shadows of the trees for much of the day, the Augusta ground staff do an amazing job to get everything looking so perfect in an area that gets so little sunlight.
None of these areas is accessible to patrons. But like so many spots at Augusta National, the area behind the 12th tee and the right of the 13th fairway form a natural amphitheatre that is perfect for watching golf.
It wasn’t until later that day when I saw the difficulty that Amen Corner can bring. If you’ve ever heard anyone talk about the place, they’ll mention the micro-climate that exists there. Meaning, the wind and temperature are vastly different from anywhere else on the golf course. Probably not surprising given the 150ft elevation change across the course.
We baked in the sun as we watched the morning groups come through with barely a breeze passing across the fold-up chairs. But just a short pitch away the flag on the 11th swung violently, while the trees behind the 12th green swayed in the winds. None of these gusts came close to the 12th tee and every golfer that came through had difficulty selecting the right club.
We commented about the dangerous Sunday pin position and how many players have faltered going for it. Somehow Fred Couples got lucky in 1992, but luck never got a look in for Jordan Spieth in 2016.
Anyone who has ever seen Augusta National up close will tell you it is much more undulating than it seems on TV. I’d been told this so many times that I was somewhat ready for it. The changes in elevation of the 1st, 3rd and 17th holes didn’t surprise me as much as I thought they would. But two things did stand out in terms of being drastically different from TV.
The drop in the 10th fairway has to be seen to be believed. It’s amazing to see and only adds to the appreciation of seeing anyone get their approach shot close to the hole. We went to check out the spot where Bubba Watson played his miraculous recovery shot from in 2012. Holy smokes that was an incredible golf shot, almost impossible from where we stood.
The tee shot through the chute at 18 is narrow and would intimidate anyone with a handicap, but these professionals don’t think twice about it. It’s the second shot that’s impressive, largely because of the size of the 18th green. It is smaller than it appears on TV – again giving me a greater appreciation for anyone hitting that green in two, let alone on Sunday at The Masters. Take Danny Willett for example.
I’ve come away from Augusta with a better sense of the lay of the land, but also a greater appreciation for some of the golf holes I didn’t know so well. Sure we all love Amen Corner, the sweeping beast that is the par-5 2nd hole and the sweet par-3 16th, but now I see the beauty in the short, uphill par-4 3rd hole – it yielded some vastly different scores from some vastly different tee shots. The finish to the front nine was a real treat to rediscover including the ripping little par-3 sixth hole to the fascinating par-5 8th hole.
I was also surprised at the lack of flower beds. They infiltrate the TV coverage so often that you expect azaleas in plagues at Augusta – but they’re in fewer places than you may imagine. Pine needles occupy most of the areas off the fairways which is perfect for golf; making it easy to find stray golf balls and allowing the golfer to get back in the hole with a good recovery shot. Not surprising when you consider course designers Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones had a particular distaste for the time spent looking for golf balls.
I’m still not surprised by the wackiness of the 15th hole. It’s an endlessly fascinating golf hole to watch, particularly the drama it always provides on the final day of the Masters (such as Dustin Johnson’s approach and Lee Westwood’s chip-in) but I do wonder if it was on any other golf course some may consider it a little too whacky.
Those trees that poke out on the left seem even more out-of-place now that the Eisenhower Tree no longer does the same on the 17th hole, and the green complex around the water hazards (both long and short) is wild. Perhaps it’s the image of Greg Norman on the ground that still haunts me about this hole.
The fairways are much wider than they look on TV. Maybe the towering pines make it look narrower than they are but apart from a handful of holes (including the 18th), this is a golf course the full spectrum of golfers could play, much in the same vein of Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath or the two courses at Barnbougle Dunes.
Unlike many other American golf courses, there is a complete absence of any long grass around the greens and bunkers that conjure up similarities to some of Australia’s best golf courses in Melbourne’s (and Adelaide’s) sandbelt.
In truth, I had to keep asking myself whether I loved Augusta National simply because I was at Augusta National, or whether this golf course, taken on face value is a truly magnificent golf course. If I was on a jury to decide its worthiness I would have been thrown off the panel given my bias for the Masters and love for the golf course before I walked through the gates.
But as impartial as I can be, I can now see why Augusta National is so often ranked as one of the world’s best. As much as we’d all love to take to Augusta National with our golf clubs, it’s a place I could happily wander around without ever hitting a golf ball. I’d be happy to do it every April with just a fold-up chair draped over my shoulder.