When it comes right down to it, there are three factors that determine the greatest finishing holes in golf: location, location and location. Otherwise, what would be so special about the 18th at Augusta National, a 405-yard, par-4, uphill dogleg right that has two slapped-on bunkers on the left side of the fairway and calls for a blind second shot?
Not that the 18th doesn't have some very strong selling points. After all, it is ground zero for the climax of what is consistently the most closely contested and exciting of the majors. Within its parameters we have seen Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Watson at their very best, and their worst.
The steep uphill pitch of the hole dictates a slow walk to the green, allowing for the most sustained ovations from the most adoring throng in all of American golf. The unfathomable breaks in the green make for the best body English you'll ever see.
The 18th is where Ben Hogan committed his most shocking three-putt, from 12 feet, to lose by one to the Missouri Mortician, Herman Keiser, in 1946. Twenty-one years later, it was where Hogan, at the age of 54, would receive his most emotional ovation when he shot a back-nine-record 30 in the third round and birdied 18 with a 15-footer. Gary Player capped the biggest comeback in Masters history when he sank an 18-footer at 18 for birdie, and his third green jacket, in 1978. The 18th is also where Tom Watson hit two of his worst drives (a pulled four-wood in 1978 and a pushed three-wood in '91); where Jack Nicklaus hit perhaps his worst approach (a fat six-iron in '77); and where Arnold Palmer hit his worst sand shot (a blade job from the right greenside trap on his way to a killing double bogey in '61).
As memorable as those shots are, though, the 18th at Augusta isn't really up to the standards of the rest of the course.
"It's not a great hole," says Greg Norman. "It's a good hole under the circumstances, maybe. But only because it's the 18th at Augusta."
The 18th is certainly better than the 17th, which is architecturally and topographically the weakest hole at Augusta, but the fact is the Masters has one of the feeblest 17-18 finishes in major-championship golf, especially considering the caliber and beauty of the preceding holes.
The setting of the 18th is undistinguished. Although the tee shot is played out of a forested chute, once the hole starts uphill from mid-fairway, it opens into a somewhat undefined area that suggests nothing of "a cathedral in the pines." Compared to the majesty of the 18th at Riviera, Oakmont, the Old Course at St. Andrews, Olympic, the Country Club in Brookline or Pebble Beach, the 18th at Augusta simply doesn't measure up.
Because the classic antebellum clubhouse is at least 100 yards from the green, it does not frame the approach shot or the play on and around the green the way clubhouses do at other classic courses, most notably at St. Andrews. The main reason for the distance from the clubhouse is that in architect Alister MacKenzie's original plans there was to be a 19th, or "bye," hole—a short par-3 to settle matches—to the left of the 18th green. That hole was never built. Today, the practice putting green, which is next to the clubhouse, is located there. While the idea was discarded, the location of the 18th did not change.
In fact, Bobby Jones, who founded the club and co-designed the course, thought the front nine at Augusta National was a better test than the back, which at that time included much-different versions of the 10th, 11th and 16th holes than are there today. Before the first Masters (called the First Augusta National Invitation Tournament), in 1934, Jones switched the 9's, so that the current 9th was the finishing hole. Certainly in terms of spectator access and proximity to the clubhouse, number 9 would be a better finisher. But the low-lying greens of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd holes still had frost on them in the early morning, delaying starting times, so in 1935 the club went back to MacKenzie's original routing.