It is Thursday morning, April 10, and our hero, the Masters rookie, is off to a good start. With a solid par at the 1st hole and a birdie at the par-5 2nd, he stands on the 3rd tee knowing that if he can make another birdie or two on the next few holes, his name will go up on the giant leader boards scattered around the course. Poor fellow. Little does he know that immediately ahead lies the potential for disaster. The next three holes, with the benign-sounding names of Flowering Peach, Flowering Crab Apple and Magnolia, were the most difficult three-hole stretch at Augusta National last year. Call it the Hot Corner.
For many years the first three holes on the back nine—the 10th, plus the first two thirds of the storied Amen Corner—played the hardest statistically. If you've watched the Masters on television, you know the holes well: the long, downhill 10th, its green surrounded by majestic pines; the 11th, where Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman in 1987; and the 12th, the short but dangerous par-3 over Rae's Creek, scene of so many disasters. "Three, 4 and 5 are every bit as difficult," says Sandy Lyle, the 1988 champion. Phil Mickelson agrees. "You just want to play for par and get out of there," he says.
If your only Masters experience comes from TV, you've never seen the 3rd, 4th and 5th, owing to Augusta National's absurd policy of treating the front nine like a leper colony. Why not join our Masters rookie as he prepares to hit his drive? The 3rd hole, at 360 yards, is the shortest par-4 (along with number 7) on the course and is deceptively easy-looking, but last year it was the sixth-most difficult hole. "It's at number 3 where the course starts to play mind games with you," says Ken Venturi, who twice came within a stroke of winning the Masters. "Here is a short hole with no water and just one green-side bunker. Yet it's so difficult."
There are pines on the right, a cluster of bunkers on the left. "I've seen players use everything from a driver to a long iron off the tee," says Arnold Palmer. "The strategy Ls to leave yourself a full shot—wedge, nine-iron, whatever—to the green. Because the green's on a plateau and narrow, you must be able to stop the ball. That's essential."
Sounds easy enough, but the green is fronted on the left by an extreme upslope. "Leave it short and you're dead," says John Cook. "The ball will spin back off the green and roll all the way to the bottom." That happened to Nick Faldo last year in the third round. When his recovery chip was also short and rolled back 10 yards off the green, he wound up with a double-bogey 6.
The green has a definite right-to-left slant, so when the pin is to the left, a shot played to the middle of the green will trickle down toward the hole. However, the pin is usually to the right on Saturday or Sunday, requiring a left-to-right cut shot, something that can be extremely difficult if the Augusta breezes are blowing from the left.
Gary Player, a three-time winner, tells this story: Years ago he was sitting with Bobby Jones at the champions dinner. He told Jones that when the pin was to the left, the hole was almost impossible to birdie, since the green was only seven yards deep at that point. Jones leaned forward with a devilish grin and said, "You're not supposed to make birdie on 3. The hole was designed for a 4."
For the last two years the 4th, a 210-yard par-3, has been the toughest hole on the course, playing at an average of 3.35 strokes. In other words, every time three players tee it up, one of them will bogey. Jones, a co-designer of the course, wanted the hole to reflect the principles of the par-3 11th at St. Andrews, the High Hole, with its famous Strath and Hill bunkers guarding the front. It was there, in the 1921 British Open, that Jones, a still immature and volatile 19-year-old, did something he lamented the rest of his life. After 36 holes he was the leading amateur, but he shot a hideous 46 on the front nine and was about to triple-bogey the 11th when he picked up his ball, tore up his scorecard and withdrew.
When Augusta National was designed, the 4th was penciled in for a reasonable 180 yards, but it has played as long as 220 yards, depending on the location of the tee, which is behind and to the right of the 3rd green. For a number of years now, its length has been 205 yards. Because the tee is elevated, it's exposed to the swirling winds that make life so difficult for players. Most use a two-or three-iron off the tee, but it was with a four-iron that Jeff Sluman made a hole in one in 1992, the first ever on the hole. Until then, the 4th had been the only hole on the course never eagled.
Player says he had long felt the 4th was Augusta National's most difficult hole and was tic-lighted when recent statistics proved him right. "The wind here is fiendishly deceptive," he says. "Many years ago I was standing behind Ben Hogan on the tee. He hit a three-iron and said, 'Perfect,' but the wind caught his ball and it fell in the front bunker."