Quiet brilliance

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Nestled into a piece of the property far from the glamour of Amen Corner or the constant buzz of the clubhouse, Magnolia is where solitude shines.

It is the name given to No. 5, and if you want to call it the loneliest hole at Augusta National Golf Club, given that it routinely attracts a smaller percentage of Masters patrons than its more popular colleagues, not many would argue with you.

But Tommy Bone could care less. Magnolia is home during this week in April that he can’t imagine being without. He’s in his 33rd year as a volunteer at the Masters, and if you ask him why he’s donated so much effort into long and tiresome weeks, he merely smiles.

“It’s a beautiful golf course and it’s great golf,” Bone said, squinting into a pulsating sun to see the next group marching the big hill into the fifth fairway.

Seated high in the grandstands to the right of the fifth green, Bone was one of three volunteers – Michele Flanders and Gray Fernandez sat behind him in the last row – keeping statistical data on players coming through. Three other volunteers were down along the fairway doing similarly, and the six of them will rotate their spots for the next three rounds. But one thing will remain constant: Their attachment to Magnolia.

“It’s a beautiful spot,” Flanders said.

She is working the hole for the fourth straight year, while Fernandez is there for the seventh. Flanders and Bone both had fathers who worked as Masters volunteers for many years and they see this as a labor of love.

And if a larger number of Masters patrons choose to gather at Flowering Peach or Juniper or Carolina Cherry or Golden Bell or Firethorn, well, let them go. Bone, Flanders, and Fernandez covet their spots at Magnolia, and for good reason. It’s a brilliant hole, a demanding par 4 of 455 yards that bends left and ends up with arguably the most difficult green to negotiate approaches.

The fact that nary a soul could be heard yelping “get in the hole” made for an even more enjoyable day up there at a high point of the property.

Historically, Magnolia ranks as the fifth-hardest hole with a field average of 4.27 since 1942. With ideal scoring conditions in Round 1, the numbers were not quite that high (there were 11 birdies, just 19 bogeys, and a field average of 4.083 to rank ninth), but it’s not as if Magnolia sat there defenseless.

Only 61.5 percent of the field hit the green in regulation and its large hump in the front middle of the green caused havoc for Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, and Camilo Villegas, all of whom three-putted. Sergio Garcia had his work cut out for him when his approach flew the green and wound up 15 feet into bushes.

The precocious Spaniard kicked the pine straw, then took his sweet time before punching out to set in motion just his fourth bogey in 33 Masters rounds at that hole.

Not very good, but neither was it anything dramatic – at least not by the high standards of Magnolia, which somehow always provides great theater. It was here in 1995 when Jack Nicklaus holed out fairway shots in Rounds 1 and 3, and twice in his career Tiger Woods has been slowed by double-bogey here.

But that’s not to say Round 1 was a sleeper at Magnolia, because it wasn’t. Gary Player, 73, thrilled the crowd with a deft up-and-down from behind the green. Two groups later, Greg Norman nearly holed a pitch shot after having missed the green hole-high to the left. And in quick succession, Henrik Stenson, Angel Cabrera, and Ernie Els burned the hole with birdie tries.

By mid-morning, the diehard fans – not to mention Bone, Flanders, and Fernandez – at Magnolia were wondering if anyone would match the birdie Kevin Sutherland had made in the third pairing. Finally, someone did, though it took some Phil Mickelson magic to do so, a pitch shot from the right of the green that curled perfectly into the cup from about 85 feet.

Yes, Magnolia was showing it could generate some life excitement – maybe not like the roars at Amen Corner or down there in the bowl among Nos. 6, 15 and 16, but with hole location generously cut just over that big hump, approaches suddenly settled close.

Stuart Appleby from 8 feet and Oliver Wilson from 12 made birdies in the pairing behind Mickelson. Larry Mize made one of his six birdies thanks to a shot to 3 feet. Todd Hamilton birdied from just inside of 8 feet. And when Group 22 came along, it was looking very easy at this quiet corner of Augusta National.

Rocco Mediate slammed his approach to 12 feet, Fred Couples to 10, and amateur Jack Newman hit a stunning shot to 2 1/2 feet. Ah, but Magnolia refuses to be a pushover and its green confounded Mediate and Couples, both of whom missed. Newman did make his, and a few groups later, Chad Campbell slipped in his fifth straight birdie to start the day.

Roars were coming from all corners of Augusta National, birdies falling at every turn of the head, and Magnolia was right there in the parade.

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