McCabe: Beware of Augusta's 18th

Rory McIlroy hands his caddie J.P. Fitzgerald his club after teeing off on the 18th hole during the second round the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – With a chance to win the vaunted green jacket, Ian Woosnam in 1991 stood at the 18th tee and had one thought in his mind: Take the bunkers out of play.

Daunting, deep and diabolical, those bunkers usually presented to Masters competitors two routes off the tee: a fade so as to stay right, or perhaps a 3-wood or something smaller to remain short of them.

But the short and powerful Woosnam tossed those finesse shots to the back of his mind. “I just blew a driver up and over them,” he said.

No matter that he landed 20 or 30 yards left of the fairway. The Welshman had a shortish iron into the 18th green, knocked his approach onto the putting surface, two-putted for par, and at 11-under 277 claimed his only major title.

Twenty-one years later, Woosnam stood at the 18th tee on a cool, blustery day and laughed to himself. He is 54, not 33, so much has changed. Especially that 18th, which once was 405 yards but now is a robust 465.

And not only that, the window in which to drive the golf ball “looks to be about 10 yards wide, at least for me,” Woosnam said.

At times, it appears that Woosnam is offering a bit of embellishment. Ten yards? Good gracious, there are times when the wind kicks up and the air gets cold and the ball is precluded from carrying long distances when there seems to be about a 25-foot gap at that 18th tee.

Back in the day, Woosnam was careful to stay short of the bunkers. But now? “I can’t get within 50 yards of them.”

Sure, part of that is added age, but the greater reason is added length. Once a 405-yarder that longer hitters were casually pushing over in the late 1990s, the closing hole at Augusta National Golf Club is 465 yards of pure challenge. Stretched to that length in 2002, the hole always has offered the fundamental challenge of going uphill and bending left-to-right, but what is significantly different is the sight line.

Back when it was 405 yards, the 18th hole offered players a clear route to the bunkers and players merely had to finesse the ball from left-to-right and into the fairway or lay up short of them. It wasn’t an easy drive, yet it was made less difficult by the fact that “the trees down the left side weren’t in play,” Woosnam said.

But in the heralded changes to Augusta National 10 years ago – so famously billed as “Tiger-proofing” – the push-back of the tee at 18 created a bowling alley-like drive. The course having gone from 6,905 yards to 7,270, it is the extra real estate at the 18th that players think is most demanding - especially since pushing the tee back has introduced those trees down the left and when you stand there, it appears to be a mere bowling alley into which you fire your shot.

Forget fading something off the left side.

Forget drawing something off the right.

“You better bring your straight ball,” Mark Wilson said. “It’s tight back there.”

Claustrophobic, one might say, accurately, too, and what we saw in Round 1 was something we rarely saw years ago when it was 405 yards. Players were lodged in the left trees and oh, how they were punished. Henrik Stenson stood on the tee at 6 under, made a quadruple bogey, and was last seen slamming his club in disgust. Tiger Woods peeled his drive right, took an unplayable lie, and finished with a bogey to fall out of red numbers. Keegan Bradley made bogey, so did Angel Cabrera, and by day’s end, the field average of 4.295 made it third toughest while more than four times as many players (32) made bogey than made birdie (seven).

“It just offers a lot of challenges,” Sean O’Hair said, after he bogeyed 18 to shoot a second-round 70. “It’s already uphill and maybe into the wind, then it’s just long.”

A relatively long hitter, O’Hair said he needed to hit “a chip 5-iron” for his second shot, so he figures a lot more club was needed by a playing competitor, Scott Verplank, and a good many others in the field. Woosnam wasn’t embarrassed to say that he hit 3-wood into 18, but part of that is chalked up to his age, yet Louis Oosthuizen is just 29, in the prime of his career and he required a 4-iron for his second shot into 18.

Yes, it’s long, and a more demanding tee shot, but then again, give Augusta National officials credit. This wasn’t a careless, haphazard move 10 years ago; much thought was put into it and the goal has been realized to keep the 18th as a demanding finish. Though he took the bombs-away mentality in 1991, Woosnam witnessed how tough it was; playing competitor Tom Watson that final round made a double at 18 and lost by two, while up ahead, Jose Maria Olazabal made bogey and lost by one.

At 405 yards, it was a test back then and it ranked second-toughest (4.179 field average) for the 1991 Masters. But in 1999, the field averaged 4.037 and rather than the 30-35 birdies that were typical, a whopping 50 were made. So officials opted to put some teeth back in.

In 2002, the first year the 18th was at 465 yards, the field averaged 4.321 to rank toughest, and just 15 birdies were made.

Now there have been times in recent years (last year, for instance, when favorable winds enabled players to make 49 birdies and average 4.132) when the 18th hasn’t exactly delivered knockout punches, but it has truly been in beastly form for two days.

Ask Stenson and Woods, who chopped it up Thursday, and ask Lee Westwood, who doubled it to spoil his second round. Or Jason Dufner, Sergio Garcia, and Ben Crane, all of whom had solid days somewhat tarnished by a closing bogey.

“I had 4-iron into a front hole location,” Dufner said. “(But) the wind was kind of swirling around a little bit. Just a tough shot. There’s not much space (up at the green). Missed it by 5 yards.”

Then again, it’s not like Dufner didn’t have company. Midway through the second round, the cumulative field average at 18 was 4.358 to rank third-toughest, just 12 birdies had been made, and a return to yesteryear had been confirmed: The 18th was not a pushover finish.

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