AUGUSTA, Georgia – You’ve waited for this moment, your Masters Tournament debut, since you first got good at golf and started dreaming about Amen Corner and green jackets. You’ve finally reached the promised land, the Augusta National Golf Club, a blanket of emerald turf framed by towering pines, flanked by azaleas, steeped in history.
Now, during a nervous range session before the first round, you visualize the opening tee shot over and over. Sure, you played the hole in practice rounds, but this is very, very different.
You walk from the practice green to the first tee through a human chute, with marshals holding up ropes, holding back people. Breakfast churning now in your stomach, you take some deep breaths and stare into the distance, checking the wind, sizing up the challenge in front of you.
In a few minutes, after the group in front of you has cleared the fairway, you stick your tee in the ground, notice your hand shaking. Then you hear the announcer say, “Now driving …”
It’s time to pull the trigger on one of the most nerve-wracking shots in golf.
As much as any other hole at the Augusta National Golf Club – even the world-famous holes down in Amen Corner – No. 1 epitomizes the brilliance of architect Alister MacKenzie’s nearly 90-year-old design. There is no water with which to contend, no marked hazard or out of bounds to avoid.
Yet, the hole named “Tea Olive” is exceedingly difficult, with little margin for error on the tee shot, the approach and the green.
“I think it’s one of the hardest starting holes, without any real trouble, in the world,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North of Madison. “It’s a terrific, terrific opening hole.”
Terrific, and terrifying, especially to Masters rookies.
“I think until I played the Ryder Cup, it was the most nervous tee shot I ever hit,” said three-time major winner Brooks Koepka. “The very first time you play it, it’s going to be very intimidating.”
Thanks to decades of television coverage, millions of golfers worldwide are intimately familiar with the holes on the back nine, even if they’ve never set foot on Augusta National. Almost any fan can name a favorite shot, whether it was Bubba Watson’s hooked wedge from the trees on No. 10, Phil Mickelson’s recovery shot from the pine straw on 13 or Tiger Woods’ chip-in on 16. On the flip side, who can forget Rory McIlroy’s meltdown on 10 or the Rae’s Creek dunk-a-thon on 12 authored by Jordan Spieth?
Only in recent years has CBS started showing action on the front nine, and I’m convinced most fans couldn’t pick the first hole out of a lineup.
It’s not overly dramatic, just a 445-yard par-4 framed by trees, with a solitary fairway bunker on the right. The hole plays uphill to a green with pronounced humps short-left, right and back-middle and fall-offs on all sides. A deep bunker flanks the front-left side of the putting surface.
“You look at it and say, ‘I hit it there and then hit it on the green and make a par,’” North said. “But it’s not that easy.”
Historically, Tea Olive plays as the sixth-hardest hole in relation to par during the Masters, with an all-time scoring average of 4.24 strokes. In recent years, it has played even tougher. It has ranked among the four hardest holes every year since 2011 and twice it was No. 1: in 2017 (4.462) and in 2012 (4.383). The field has never averaged below par on the hole; the record low is 4.0082 in 1974.
The problem starts with the tee shot to a plateau fairway that bends from left to right at the top. The bunker on the right is no place to be, unless you don’t mind starting with a bogey. Miss slightly to the left of your target line, however, and your ball runs into the pines.
“The bunker is just in the right spot,” said Justin Rose, ranked No. 1 in the world. “If you hit 3-wood, you can keep it short of the bunker, but then you’ve got obviously an extra 20 or 30 yards off an upslope into maybe a semi-blind green. If you hit driver, the fairway narrows. The trees can come in, if you try to avoid the bunker, pretty quickly.”
Said four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods, “Some of the longer hitters might challenge that bunker and hit it over the top (a 317-yard carry). But when it gets a little cool out, you get that wind out of the north coming off the right, it gets pretty difficult because those trees run up on you pretty quickly.”
Even from the middle of the fairway, the approach with anything from a 5-iron to an 9-iron is one of the more demanding shots on the course. Because of all the ridges in the green, golfers try to fly their ball into an area roughly the size of a king-size bed in order to have a reasonable chance at birdie or a low-stress, two-putt par.
“You can hit it in the middle of the green and if there’s any pin sort of on the front side, you’ve got a really, really tough two-putt,” Rose said. “And if you miss the green, it’s a tough up and down. I think that’s the point.”
The Masters Committee, which sets up the course, is known to intentionally speed up the green from Wednesday to Thursday. As a result, golfers are tentative with their first putts and try to die the ball somewhere near the cup. No one wants a 6-footer for par on the first hole of the Masters.
“Everybody is wary of what the green speed will be,” said 1991 Masters champion Ian Woosnam.
A few years ago, with the pin on a shelf in the back-left, I watched Tiger Woods roll a 25-foot birdie attempt completely off the green and down the steep slope. He then proceeded to chip in for an improbable par.
In 2012, Rory McIlroy was one shot off the lead going into the third round. His approach on No. 1 went over the back, then he chipped through the green and down into a swale, barely got his next shot onto the putting surface and two-putted for a double-bogey on his way to a 77.
Then there was Ernie Els’ unfortunate six-putt from 2 feet to start the 2016 Masters. He walked off the green with a 9, the highest score on No. 1 in Masters history.
Handle your business on Tea Olive, and it could be a springboard to a good day. In 2011, Charl Schwartzel pitched a low-running shot from the right mounds across the green, holed it for a birdie and went on to win.
In most cases, though, par is the objective.
“The strategy there for me is the middle of the green and do your best to two-putt and walk to the next hole,” Rose said.
Said Woosnam, “If you walk off the green with a par, you’re happy. At least, I am.”