The hushed anticipation to which fans had become accustomed at Augusta National Golf Club’s 15th hole gradually is turning into yawns. That’s because each year, the drama of final-round play on the Masters’ last par 5 is becoming less dramatic.
Players are laying up more, playing it safer and trying to take a big number out of the equation. In the hope of avoiding bogeys and double bogeys, they’re also making fewer birdies and eagles.
Why the change in a 530-yard downhill par 5 – a distance that’s usually easily reachable in two for PGA Tour players?
In recent years, the hole has been modified in subtle but decisive ways. Since 1999, a series of “forward kick mounds” has been taken out of the right-side landing area; the fairway has been pinched by the addition of pine trees along the landing area; the rough (“second cut” in Masters-speak) has been thickened; and the hole has been lengthened by 30 yards and turned into a modest dogleg left.
The result, 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir said, is “a very tough hole the whole way. It’s longer now, the tee shot is a lot more narrow than it used to be, and it’s almost insane to go for that green on the second shot.”
The tee shot is slightly uphill to the landing area. But from there, it’s a 31-foot drop to the domed green – enough of an elevation change to make a 240-yard approach play 225. But distance isn’t the issue; the problem is a convex green that’s squeezed between a pond in front and another pond in back that also guards No. 16. The front of the 15th green tips forward, and the back of the green is very firm and repels balls over.
As Weir sees it, “the greens are so firm now the margin for error is maybe 5 yards of landing area. That’s why you see a lot more layups.”
The evidence of safe play is clear. Over the past 20 years, the average number of birdies and eagles made at No. 15 during the final round has fallen from 28.8 in 1989-93 to 19.8 in 2004-08. The high-water mark was 1992, when 40 of 63 players (63.5 percent) scored under par on the hole. Compare that with last year’s Sunday yawner, when only 14 of 45 players (31.1 percent) broke par there.
Augusta National, designed by Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones and opened in 1933, virtually invented the strategic par 5 that was readily reachable in two bold shots – what was termed at the time the “par 4 1/2.”
The par 5s, especially the water-bound 13th and 15th holes, quickly became the cornerstone of the Masters, the turning points where the fate of the winner (and losers) would be decided. An early telltale moment came at the second playing of the event in 1935, when Gene Sarazen holed a 4-wood from the fairway for a double-eagle 2 to tie Craig Wood, whom he beat the next day in a playoff.
As late as 1976, Masters winner Raymond Floyd hit 5-wood for his second shots to reach the par 5s in two. The drama of the 15th hole never was greater than in 1986, when Jack Nicklaus aided his thrilling back-nine charge with a long iron that nearly landed in the hole and set him up for an eagle. Just behind him, Seve Ballesteros’ bid to catch Nicklaus ended with a swing that made his 4-iron look like a broken helicopter blade and snap-hooked the ball into the front pond.
With the dawn of the Tiger Woods era in the late 1990s came long-hitting pros who required only short irons for their second shots on Augusta’s par 5s. That relegated strategic holes like the 15th into shadows of their former selves – at least for long hitters who could come at the green with high-trajectory irons – and led the club to toughen the holes. For shorter hitters, that has meant a more-cautious approach – such as Zach Johnson laying up on each of the par 5s all week in 2007 and still making birdies on 11 of 16.
At the 15th hole, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw said, the result is a hole that’s “more prescribed now,” meaning that the options are more narrowly defined and the sense of freewheeling abandon gone.
“Unless you were behind the trees on the left,” Crenshaw said, “you usually felt like, ‘Well, I can give that a go,’ but not anymore.”
Not that the layup is easy. The third shot, from 80 to 120 yards, is on a slight downslope that makes it hard to control spin. A bit too much spin and the ball will zip back down into the pond. A bit too much taken off and the ball can go over the green, leaving one of golf’s most delicate pitch-and-run recoveries.
This year there might be marginally more “go for it” action. The tee has been extended up front, so the hole can play a little shorter; and some pine trees along the right have been taken out, making the hole a little more susceptible to players seeking the green in two.
Overall, however, the changes at the 15th, Crenshaw says, are in line with modifications made elsewhere on the course. They all are part of a shift in the tenor of play that has taken some of the drama out of the course and allowed a more cautious style to prevail.
Before those changes, Crenshaw said, “The leader never felt safe on Sunday. You never knew when someone was coming from behind to catch you.”