THEY SAY THE Masters doesn’t really begin until the back nine on Sunday, when the leaders climb the hill separating Augusta National’s ninth green from the 10th tee.
There, pitched a hundred feet above the fairway, contemplating the delicacy with which their next shot will have to tread the line separating a controlled draw from a runaway hook, competitors face their first iconic challenge of the tournament.
Of course, they’ve already played the hole three times in competition, but the final day has a habit of rendering unfamiliar and awkward that which was instinctive only 24 hours earlier. Indeed, with the tournament in the balance and the lingering sense that what ensues will set the tone for the back nine, the tee shot at 10 (“Camellia”) is Augusta National’s preliminary evaluation, an entrance exam for would-be green jacket wearers.
The challenge: Find the 10th fairway. Players can either play a three-wood or utility club to the angle of the corner, leaving themselves a lengthy approach shot to an elevated green, or take driver and shape a running draw/fade left-to-right around the corner. The latter, if successful, can transform the hole into an unlikely birdie opportunity.
How not to do it: Sorry, Rors.
From the tenth, challengers make their way to arguably the most difficult hole on the course, the par-4 11th. Long and unrelentingly demanding, its approach begins the series of shots that comprise “Amen Corner”.
It’s the next, however, the unassuming par-3 12th, that earns inclusion on our list.
An enigma wrapped it an aesthetically-pleasing blanket of manicured grass and shrubbery, the 12th routinely engenders a chaos entirely at odds with its modest yardage. Longer than it is wide and set against a towering wall of mature pine, the green places a primacy on distance control while nestling in what amounts to a natural amphitheatre of swirling air currents.
A tee shot to test even the most patient of caddies.
The challenge: Find the heart of the 12th green with a short iron or wedge. Unpredictable gusts of wind, a wafer-thin green and hazards both long and short guarantee sit waiting to punish errors in arithmetic or anything struck with less than total commitment.
How to do it: Take it away, Phil Mickelson…
Having negotiated the most challenging stretch of the course, where shots dropped look more likely than shots gained, it’s time for those still in contention to immediately set about the business of scoring.
The 13th is a short par-5 and, relative to par, the easiest hole on the course. In the frenetic closing stages of a Masters Tournament, birdie here is less a comforting possibility than an absolute necessity.
With the hole short enough to render laying up an indignity – though, try telling that to 2007 champion Zach Johnson – fates tend to hinge on the outcome of a do-or-die long iron struck from either a severely uneven lie in the fairway or the carpet of pine needles flanking the right side.
The challenge: Find the green with your approach shot to the 13th. Having found the fairway off the tee, players will have to counteract the effects of a severely uneven stance and dispatch an iron shot high enough to clear the stream angled across the face of the putting surface.
How to do it: Sure, big Phil worked a miracle in 2010, but here’s Seve taking an uncharacteristically orthodox route to eagle in 1986. “Fantastica!”
If making four at 13 is a prerequisite for Sunday afternoon hopefuls, the ability to negotiate the second of the back nine’s par-5s, the 15th, in similar fashion often proves the litmus test by which champions are separated from a less worthy chasing pack.
Though it demands a tee shot that favours the right of the fairway – away from a spur of trees that guards the left half – it’s the questions posed by the iconic approach shot that complicate matters.
The challenge: Find the 15th green in two. A slender target, the putting surface lies sandwiched between two water hazards and flanked by a cavernous bunker on the right side. Second shots, struck from a slightly hanging downhill lie, will need to be struck perfectly if they’re to both clear the lake and hold the green.
How to do it: Here’s Tiger being his imperious, strutting self way back in… 2011. [note: he missed the putt]
Augusta National doesn’t cease to challenge players on the 16th tee, of course, but the closing holes are less specific in their demands, calibrated to elevate tension rather than set the scene for dramatic golfing set-pieces.
If the 2012 Masters is going to earn its place in the history books and TV retrospectives to come, it’s probably going to do so by virtue of drama on the four holes we’ve highlighted.