Augusta National: ‘The More You Play It, the More You Understand It’

Twenty-five years ago, at age 41, Mark O’Meara did what many men wish they could, especially in middle age: He won the Masters Tournament with a putt at No. 18. Three months later, he added a British Open victory, the second and final major tournament win in a Hall of Fame career that began during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and continues today on the PGA Tour Champions circuit.

O’Meara’s achievement at Augusta National Golf Club punctuated his 15th Masters. A lot of time playing with a prodigy named Tiger Woods did not hurt. Neither did experience.

“It’s one of those golf courses that the more you play it, the more you understand it,” O’Meara said in an interview in March. “The more you’ve played there, the better your chances are.”

O’Meara last appeared in the Masters in 2018, when he played for the 34th time. But he, like so many other Masters winners, can still rattle off from memory decades of the course’s pleasures and perils.

“You’re going to hit bad shots,” he said. “But the best advice I can give to anyone is appreciate the good ones — because sometimes they don’t come that often — and just forget about the bad ones.”

Par 5, 575 yards

2022 average: 4.583 (18). Cumulative average: 4.777 (17).

“18” indicates that No. 2 was the easiest hole in 2022.

Augusta National is hardly filled with forgiving holes. “All of them kept me up at night,” O’Meara said, maybe only partly in jest. But No. 2, a right-to-left downhill hole, can set an encouraging tone for a round.

“As long as you don’t try to bite off too much and overdraw your tee shot to where it can end up down in the trees and in the creek down there on the left, it’s a hole that’s gettable,” O’Meara said. Even playing to just short of the hole’s first bunker, O’Meara said, is fine in the era of players with immense power: Many of them can knock the ball to the green from the area.

“If you make bogey there, you’re definitely giving away shots,” he said of the hole. “You should be able to make par and, most likely, birdie or eagle.”

The misery cranks up soon enough on No. 3, the shortest par-4 hole. Loaded with five bunkers, O’Meara all but shuddered at the memory: “No. 3 can be a very treacherous hole.”

Beyond putting well, O’Meara argued it was essential for the prospective Masters champion to understand the course well enough to steer around awkward positions like the ones that can befall a player at No. 3.

“You’re going to find some awkward positions out there, but the more you can avoid that, the better off you’re going to be,” he said.

Par 3, 180 yards

2022 average: 3.152 (10). Cumulative average: 3.137 (13).

A downhill hole that O’Meara usually found to play between 170 and 202 yards, it ends with “a green that is just wickedly severe.”

Look out, he said, if the pin is at the top right of the green.

“It’d be like trying to hit to your coffee table at your house,” O’Meara said. “You’ve got to be dead accurate. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very dramatic, uphill, difficult putt for birdie because it rolls down that front left, and then you’ve got a long, demanding putt. Really, just a two-putt is a bonus.”

The seventh hole, a 450-yard par 4, does not offer much relief.

“Narrow tee shot, with all of the amount of trees that over the years have been planted, a fairway that slopes pretty good from left to right and then an elevated green — that’s perched up between these massive sand bunkers — that has a couple of different levels to it, O’Meara rued. “And it’s narrow, so you’ve got to be precise coming into that green, too.”

Par 3, 155 yards

2022 average: 3.233 (T6). Cumulative average: 3.273 (4).

The perils that make up Amen Corner begin at No. 11, a 520-yard, par-4 test whose chaos quotient can be dictated by the wind in the moment. But O’Meara, like many Masters winners, has particular affection for No. 12, a horticultural splendor and the shortest par-3 hole at Augusta National.

“It plays anywhere from 128 to, maybe, 162 yards in length,” O’Meara said. “But the fact that the green is so narrow and there is danger at every” — here, he chuckled nervously — “corner of that hole, we’ve seen a lot of drama.” No less a player than Woods carded a 10 there in 2020.

“When you look at a short iron in a top professional’s hand, you think, ‘Oh, that shouldn’t be a problem,’” O’Meara said. “But yet you get a little bit of wind blowing down there in Amen Corner and where you’ve got to be so precise in where you land your golf ball on the green there, it causes havoc.”

The first element of a successful formula for No. 12, of course, is to keep the ball out of Rae’s Creek. “But,” O’Meara added, “I think you’ve got to be committed when you stand on that tee shot and, most of the time, playing for the center of the green.”

He has counseled friends and amateurs at No. 12 to “pick a club with a nice, solid swing: not like you’re trying to kill it, not trying to baby it, just a normal golf swing, whether that might be an 8-iron or 9-iron or 7-iron.”

“You just have to play for the middle of the green on that hole,” he said. “If the wind’s blowing, for sure that’s where you’ve got to play. If not, then you can be more aggressive to the front left pin or back right pin.”

Par 5, 545 yards

2022 average: 4.852 (16). Cumulative average: 4.775 (18).

The only hole to be lengthened for this year’s tournament, No. 13 will play 35 yards longer than it did last spring. In O’Meara’s prime, more tall, thick trees defended No. 13. Many of them, though, are gone now, and players are hitting the ball farther, so, perhaps, O’Meara mused, the length will discourage players from trying to bend their shots around the corner.

“Maybe the players won’t try to take on the corner as much; they’ll just kind of hit it more straight away,” O’Meara said. “They might have a longer shot into the green, but instead of having 190 to 205, they might have 215 to 225 yards.”

But O’Meara, who was far from the PGA Tour’s longest hitter, estimated that he went for the green in two shots perhaps 20 percent of the time.

“Play the smart shot,” he said. “Don’t be overly aggressive on that hole. Don’t get greedy.”

Par 4, 465 yards

2022 average: 4.389 (2). Cumulative average: 4.229 (7).

Even as it declares No. 18 to be “one of the most famous finishing holes in golf,” Augusta National’s official description might undersell the pressure for a player pursuing a victory: “This uphill dogleg right is protected off the tee by two bunkers at the left elbow of the fairway. A drive hit down the center will often require a middle iron for a second shot to a deep, narrow green guarded by one bunker short left and another hard right.”

O’Meara confessed that before 1998, he had long wondered how anyone could stand on the 18th green and make a putt to win.

“Everybody’s nervous. Everybody’s trying to do their best,” O’Meara said. “But I think that for me, the plus was that I never once thought when I was on the green, ‘Hey Mark, you make this putt, you win the green jacket, you win the Masters, blah, blah, blah.’ I just don’t think you can get ahead of yourself.”

Instead, facing the possibility of a playoff, he reasoned that he would have to make a putt sometime, someplace. Why not, he figured, try to make a decent putt now?

“When I hit my putt and it was about two feet off the putter, I thought, ‘Oh, thank God I hit a decent putt,’ but I didn’t know what was getting ready to happen, and then I was just tracking,” he said.

People came to their feet. The telecast ran. Everyone peered toward the cup.

“About two feet from the hole, I’m thinking: ‘Wait a minute. That looks pretty good,’” O’Meara said. “And then when it got about a foot from the hole, my last thought was, ‘Please don’t lip out.’”

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