SI Vault
Tim Rosaforte
April 08, 1996
For players at the Masters, the 1st hole is often the worst hole
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April 08, 1996

Undone By One

For players at the Masters, the 1st hole is often the worst hole

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The 1st hole at Augusta National is not on anyone's list of great golf landscapes. Tea Olive, as it is innocently called, does not have a Rae's Creek or a Pacific Ocean to carry. It does not have an island or a postage-stamp green. It does not have a Swilcan Burn or a row of church-pew bunkers. Forget the bells and whistles. All the 1st hole at Augusta has is 400 yards of high anxiety.

Fuzzy Zoeller once described standing on the 1st tee as "the greatest natural laxative in the world." Jackie Burke said, "It's like taking the first step on a high wire across Niagara Falls." Ben Crenshaw thinks about it with both reverence and fear. "God bless it," he says.

As introductory holes go, Augusta's 1st is among the toughest in major championship golf. Jack Nicklaus has always pointed to the monster 470-yard, par-4 1st at Oakmont, host to seven U.S. Opens, as the toughest opener. Ben Hogan ranked the 440-yard 1st at Oak Hill, site of three Opens, as the hardest opening act. But every year when the Masters starter says, "Fore, please," this middle-distance four par becomes a marathon through a minefield.

Only four players in Masters history have eagled the hole, including Roberto de Vicenzo, who started eagle, birdie, birdie in the final round in 1968 but a few hours later signed an incorrect scorecard to knock himself out of a playoff with Bob Goalby. Only four players have birdied the hole three out of the four times they've played it. Curtis Strange did it in both 1984 and 1992. Last year's champion, Crenshaw, birdied it once, on Friday. But that was one of just 16 birdies made on Tea Olive for the week, the fewest birdies on any hole at Augusta. Only the 4th hole was harder to par (3.275 to 4.264). "It's just sneaky tough," says Greg Norman.

Strategically the 1st hole follows Bobby Jones's intent at Augusta to "make bogeys easy if frankly sought, pars readily obtainable by standard good play, and birdies, except on the par-5s, dearly bought." Off the tee, the gaping bunker that guards the right third of the fairway looks like the Mojave Desert. Sixty-five feet from front to back, 40 feet wide and 4½ feet deep, that pit of sand is the Andre the Giant of Augusta National bunkers. It was course architect Alister Mackenzie's answer to the long hitter who thought he could blow it down the right side to open an angle of attack onto the green. Nick Price drove it into that bunker during the third round in 1986. It led to his only bogey the day that he tied the course record of 63.

It takes a 257-yard drive to clear the bunker, but the carry appears longer because the tournament committee lowered the 1st tee two years ago, supposedly to make for better spectator viewing. Some old-timers say the 1st tee used to be parallel to the pro shop, which would be well forward from where it is now. In truth, the hole was lengthened only slightly in the mid-'70s, but the scorecard reads the same 400 yards that it has since 1934. "By the time they change the ground around at Augusta," says Nicklaus, "you don't know if they moved the clubhouse or the tee."

Only about one third of the field can fly the bunker in calm conditions. Into the wind, even a Price or a Norman has to shape a shot into one of the few tight landing areas on the course, to the left of the bunker.

The trouble with missing right of the bunker is a row of 33 tea olive trees that remain from the 1910s, when a nursery sat on the site of the course. Byron Nelson got into trouble there at the start of his 18-hole playoff with Ben Hogan in 1942. Nelson had to hit his second shot off pinecones into tree branches, advanced his third over the green and ended up with double bogey. He rallied by playing numbers 6 to 17 in six under par and won the playoff 69 to 70.

Too far left off the tee is no picnic, either. A hard-running draw can end up in the 9th fairway, behind a row of pine trees that are 20 feet high. Even a fader of the ball like Nicklaus has been seen playing a shot into the 1st green from number 9.

With danger just about everywhere, is it any wonder that when Marty Fleckman stood on the tee for the first time, in 1969, he felt a rush of panic and fear? He set up carefully, then hit a ball that was last seen slicing toward Washington Road. It Hew over the scoreboard, over the Quonset hut media center, and off in the general vicinity of the main patrons' entrance.

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