The big news going into last year’s Masters Tournament was the demise of the Eisenhower Tree, which guarded the left side of the 17th fairway and snared so many of the former president’s tee shots that he lobbied to have it removed. The tournament, conducted over the exquisitely manicured grounds of the Augusta National Golf Club famous for its dogwoods, forsythia, and azaleas that seem synchronized to bloom at tournament time, has always epitomized the rites of spring.
Most touring professionals consider the Masters to be the most revered event of the year, given the mystique and traditions surrounding the tournament. It is the only major that is played at the same venue every year. Gary Player once remarked about Magnolia Lane, the stately driveway that leads to the clubhouse: “The Masters is the only tournament I ever knew where you choke when you drive through the front gate.”
CBS has televised the Masters since the 1950s, but for decades was restricted to showing only the back nine. Although all 18 holes are now televised, any Masters fan will tell you that it is still only the back nine that matters. The drama on Sunday begins to build at the legendary Amen Corner, consisting of the par-4 11th hole, the par-3 12th hole, and the par-5 13th hole.
Players who attack a hole location on the left side of the green on the 505-yard 11th hole risk finding the menacing water hazard on the front left of the hole. Club selection on the 155-yard 12th hole is often complicated by swirling breezes which are best judged by the flag on the 11th green. A ball striking the steep bank in front of the green almost surely will trickle into Rae’s Creek (Fred Couples was once miraculously spared from this fate.
The dogleg left 510-yard 13th hole is easily reachable in two for most players, but once again errant shots may find Rae’s Creek, which meanders along the left side of the hole before cutting in front of the green. Two-putts are hardly routine for balls finding the back of the green, which slopes steeply from back to front with huge swales.
The 465-yard 18th hole is one of the classic closing holes in golf. Players must negotiate a narrow chute of trees on the tee shot to a dogleg right fairway. The approach shot up a steep hill to a small green is a severe test for a player in need of a birdie.
Players to watch at this year’s Masters include Rory McIlroy, the number one player in the world, and of course Woods if he is in the field for the first time since withdrawing from the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. Can Bubba Watson repeat as champion? Two younger players who might make a move for a green jacket are Jordan Spieth, winner of the Valspar Championship, and Patrick Reed, who has been consistently playing at a top level this year.
But don’t count out a couple of older players who perennially play well at Augusta: Angel Cabrera and Couples. Freddie will almost surely dazzle the patrons with his magical putting touch on Thursday and Friday, but has had trouble sustaining his play through the weekend. And, as we all know, the tournament doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.