The tall pines were swaying and the winds were gently shifting as Stewart Cink surveyed his approach to Augusta National’s uphill 18th hole late Friday. But nothing was swirling more turbulently than all those numerals rolling around inside his head.
One-hundred fifty-five yards to the front of the green; nine more yards to get his ball to the hole location; and 158 yards as the significant number to cover a big swale a short distance in front of the flagstick.
Cink, a smart lad who graduated from Georgia Tech, computed for a while . . . and then he threw it all out. He chose 9-iron over the 8-iron all the numbers normally would dictate, and gently lofted a shot that settled 5 feet from the hole, setting up a closing birdie in a hard-earned, 1-under 71.
“You remember with the wind out of the west, that 18 always is going to play short,” said Cink, who is playing in his 16th Masters. “You know the wind always feels like it’s across, but really, above the trees, it’s helping a little. Some of this stuff you write down (in your yardage book). And some of it you just keep upstairs in the noodle.”
Ah, yes, the old noodle. At Augusta National, on a trying day when the winds kicked up past 25 mph and some of the hole locations seemed to be hand-chosen by Beelzebub, a little experience came in quite handy. Look at some of the names on the board: Fred Couples, who is 53 and owns a green jacket; Angel Cabrera, who is 43 and owns a green jacket; Jim Furyk, who is playing in his 17th Masters. Some Tiger guy. Why, even Champions Tour regulars Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle, two more graybeards with green coats, made it to the weekend, Langer on the heels of a pair of 71s.
“You always learn here,” said Charl Schwartzel, whose four-birdie finishing blitz won him a Masters two years ago. Nonetheless, in his fourth Masters, he remains a bit of a cherub in terms of earning his Augusta National doctorate. “Most of the shots that you think you need to play, you know already. So a lot of things don’t change. I suppose the more you play it, the more comfortable you get. You have guys like Fred Couples … comfort is something, sure.”
Augusta National is all about the little things. When former two-time champion Jose Maria Olazabal missed the first green to the left, he knew he was in a predicament, so he smartly steered his pitch to a spot some 45 feet away from the pin. He made bogey-5, which is far better than trying to pull off some highly improbable hero shot that could lead to a big number.
“You have to take the medicine and go to the next,” Olazabal said.
Augusta is a place where momentum can shift in the time it takes a patron to order a pimento cheese sandwich, and once it goes, it can be difficult to turn around. Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia, two gentlemen who were near the top of the board to start the day, plummeted Friday with rounds of 76.
Furyk, for his part, dumped a dismal wedge shot (“just awful”) into the pond fronting the green at the par-5 15th, quickly turning a birdie opportunity into a double bogey, and was seeing red and wanting to get a shot back in a hurry when he stepped to the tee at the par-3 16th.
Initially, he was thinking about going flagstick hunting. That’s when his experience, reason and a seasoned caddie in Mike “Fluff” Cowan, stepped in. Instead of trying to squeeze a tee shot into a tight, back-left hole location, Furyk instead took a little time to collect himself and calculate a higher-percentage play. He thought he was between clubs, but in hindsight, the 6-iron that Cowan handed him was always going to be the right call. Furyk hit a safer shot toward the middle of the green, gave himself a decent look for birdie (he missed), then followed a solid par at 17 with a relatively easy birdie at the final hole.
Instead of blowing up, he’d held things together, and was in the clubhouse at 1-under 71, which, well, just felt right to him. At 4-under 140, he’s very much in the hunt heading to the weekend.
“I felt like I shot under par today, and shooting 72 or 73 would have felt like a kick in the pants,” he said. “It was nice to get it in 1 under and feel good about the round.”
Experience at Augusta National? You just can’t buy it. You live it, you fall down and try to get up, and you learn all the time.
On Friday, the course was brutally difficult, playing to a stroke average of 74.161. Eight of the 18 holes yielded fewer than 10 birdies to the field.
“This place is always mentally demanding,” said Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion, “but when you add wind into it, that’s what Augusta is. This is how I remember it, watching it on television and experiencing it over my nine years now. This is exactly what I anticipated.”
At 1-over 145, Johnson will be sticking around for the weekend, which is what former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had wished to do after staggering home at 5 over through two rounds.
With all players within 10 shots of the lead making it past the cut, McDowell’s weekend hung in the balance when he finished play. But when leader Jason Day made pars on his last three holes, McDowell’s fate was sealed. No weekend play.
“That’s what I need, a few more rounds,” said McDowell, who now has missed the cut in four of his six trips to Augusta. “I’m learning how to get around this golf course.”
An acquired study, of course, that only arrives with experience.