No. 1 with a bang: Augusta's 'Tea Olive'

The first hole at Augusta National, Tea Olive, where players begin the Masters.

The first hole at Augusta National, Tea Olive, where players begin the Masters.

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The Masters

Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club

4/10/2014 - 4/13/2014

Pos Name Thru Today Overall
1 Bubba Watson $1,620,000 600 -8
2 Jonas Blixt $792,000 270 -5
2 Jordan Spieth $792,000 270 -5
4 Miguel Angel Jimenez $432,000 0 -4
5 Rickie Fowler $342,000 115 -2
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— Nothing like a little osmanthus fragrans to start your Masters experience, eh?

If you’re thinking that it’s a sandwich to rival the pimento cheese, think again. It’s an evergreen shrub known as tea olive and you don’t eat it; you merely try and not get sick over it.

Easier said than done, however.

OK, so it’s not quite an opening scene that will match for pure fright Susan Backlinie’s in “Jaws.” (Poor Susan’s character, Chrissie Walker, was the dastardly shark’s first victim, devoured during a midnight swim.) But neither is the challenge of Augusta National’s 445-yard opening hole something that seems to fit the prim and gentle vision of a toothless evergreen shrub.

Still . . .

Jack Nicklaus was asked if he recalled the first shot he ever hit at the Masters way back in 1969? He said he couldn’t, but he’s sure he “probably hooked it off the first tee.”

Why would he think that?

“There weren’t any trees in the left and probably played it from somewhere between one and nine because that was the easiest place to play from.”

In other words, Nicklaus even at the age of 19 knew what a grizzled veteran did, that the first hole was a challenge and it wasn’t to be taken lightly; if you missed left, you still had a chance, and bogey was never an awful score. Yet for all the danger that you know that lurked, the glory of Tea Olive is consistent with the rest of Augusta’s holes: If you get it into the fairway, you just feel you can take a shot at certain hole locations.

Back left at the first hole, which is where it was located for the opening round of the 77th Masters, is one such example. Given that it was a day of muggy and murky weather with benign wind, it was OK to try and attack and players did that quite effectively. How so? Consider that whereas there were a total of 11 birdies for all four rounds in the 2012 Masters, Thursday’s first round had nine of them, most notably by unheralded Englishman David Lynn, who was playing the hole for the first time in competition.

“Obviously, the perfect start,” said Lynn, who did as Nicklaus had done 54 years ago – hit it left off the tee. There are trees where once there weren’t, but no worry; Lynn was just off the fairway and from 143 yards played a low hook to keep under branches. “Came off perfect and rolled up there to about 8 feet.”

That Lynn went on to shoot 4-under 68 is to be commended. But should he think he can take the opening hole for granted, now that he’s played it in 1-under for his career and the field peppered it yesterday, well, he’d best remind himself to study some historical numbers.

Like 4.392, which is the field average Tea Olive played to a year ago to rank as the PGA Tour’s ninth-toughest hole.

Or. 4.23, the career field average, making it sixth toughest in Masters history.

Or 17, as in how many over par Lee Westwood is now on the first hole after making a double-bogey on his 47th time playing it.

Ugly stuff, Westwood’s start, and while he turned things around to shoot 2-under 70, he had to still have a sour taste in his mouth given the way things started. Having driven into the trees left Westwood hit a tree on his escape, came up 50 yards shy of the green, and pulled that short approach a hair left, but that was enough to kick his ball even further left.

It is said by pro players that you must “know where to miss it,” and left of that back left hole location at Tea Olive does not meet that criteria. Westwood’s fourth shot didn’t get up on the proper plateau so two putts put him into a double-bogey mode right away.

Others could commiserate. To be exact Rickie Fowler, Charl Shwartzel, and Craig Stadler, all of whom made doubles, too. The good news is, Fowler (68) and Schwartzel (71) both rebounded beautifully, but like Westwood, they had to work hard to heal the hurt caused by that start.

Not that it isn’t a hole that has jumped up and bitten many a player and caused massive heartache, because the game’s best players have all struggled with Tea Olive. In 79 rounds, Phil Mickelson is 14-over there and Tiger Woods is 16-over in his 71 rounds. Adam Scott had to feel a measure of success right from the start, because he made his first birdie in his 41st round there.

But if anyone wanted to take a bow at the first it was Sergio Garcia. In his 49th competitive try at Tea Olive, Garcia made birdie for just the fourth time and the first since Round 1 of the 2006 Masters.

One could opine that Tea Olive doesn’t captivate you like Camellia, the par-4 10th where Masters playoffs seemingly end; or Azalea, No. 13 and the greatest par 5 of ‘em all; or Redbud, the par 3 16th where Nicklaus saved his greatest magic. But for opening tests, there aren’t many the quality of Augusta National’s first hole, an uphill, left-to-right test that is guarded on the right by an expansive bunker and on the left by trees.

On this hole, the trees are preferable as the vaunted trio of Ernie Els, Steve Stricker, and Nick Watney proved. Each found a different spot in the bunker, though none of them had an easy escape. Watney was long and left and had all he could do to make bogey. Els was well short, and chose to putt up the slop to the back left hole location; he was 10 feet short and then missed to make bogey. Stricker? Like Els, he was short, but opted for a lofted play, lifting a wedge up and over the steep front slope, then sliding home a 12-footer to save par.

For this day, no one would threaten to match the worst score at Tea Olive, a quadruple-bogey 8, made four times, most recently by Olin Browne in 1998. Nor would anyone make eagle, something that’s been done on six occasions, most recently by Retief Goosen in 2011.

What there would be, however, was a lot of standard fare – despite the nine birdies, it played to a field average of 4.312 to rank toughest.

Osmanthus fragrans, indeed.

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