AUGUSTA, Ga. – As a rule, PGA Tour types are not normally prone to bouts of anxiety save for the occasional three-putt or a particularly glacial pro-am, and one would normally not consider Augusta National, the picture of southern hospitality, a hostile environment.
But there are looming dangers amid the National’s flora and fauna, time bombs waiting to implode even the most neatly crafted Sunday charge. It’s why sports psychology is a growth industry on Tour and why players hold the course in such high esteem.
Exactly which hole haunts you depends on the player. For some the fear factor depends on recent history, for others it’s the shifting winds of Amen Corner, while for Phil Mickelson it boils down to genetics.
“There's a lot of them (to fear),” Mickelson said. “For me, the hardest shot out here is 16. A lot of guys would disagree with that. Because I'm left-handed and my shot dispersion, with water short left and that hill on the right is a very difficult shot for me. I have to hit a perfect shot to get it in the right section.”
Lefty’s history backs up that theory. He played the hole in 2 over last year when he finished fifth and in 2008, when he also finished fifth, he was 3 over on the weekend, a run that included a rally-killing double bogey in Round 3. By comparison, in 2006 when he won he was 1 under for the week at the 170-yard par 3.
But for most of the polled, at least those who play from the other side of the golf ball, opinions varied, from the approach shot at the 11th, to the tee shot at the 12th and third shot at the 15th hole.
On paper the par-3 12th is the most-demanding. It ranks as the second-hardest on the course since 1942 with a 3.3 stroke average and has been the site of more heartbreaks and heroics than a high school prom.
“We played (the 12th) today and it's 140 yards and we thought it was a little into the wind. If I was the first guy to hit there, I probably would have hit a little 8-iron, and as I watched my other two guys, it ended up being a little 9-iron,” Steve Stricker said. “That's a scary shot to be hitting when you're not quite sure what club it is.”
But more than any of Augusta National’s collection the 12th has taken its pound of flesh from green jacket hopefuls. Mickelson took double there last year to stymie his Sunday back-nine charge and Fred Couples’ famously defeated gravity on the bank when he won in 1992.
In a stretch of reason and logistics, the 12th also is where many former champions say the Masters is won or lost.
“It’s just so tough with the wind and stuff,” said Larry Mize, who birdied the hole in Round 4 on his way to victory in 1987. “If that doesn’t get your heart in your throat nothing will.”
Predictably No. 11, the winding par 4 that has been stretched to 505 yards, is part of any “Augusta’s Scariest” conversation. Faldo won two green jackets there in OT, Raymond Floyd lost one in H2O, and by the numbers (4.29) it ranks as the third-most demanding since ’42.
“The second shot at 11 is pretty darned scary, not to mention it's 50 yards longer than it used to be,” Stewart Cink said. “So it's a long shot. It's not a very wide-open shot. And if you miss, then your next shot is also not very fun.”
Maybe the surprise of the list was the third shot at the par-5 15th. It is a shot, one scribe joked, that used to be a putt for the likes of Nicklaus and Palmer, back before officials added what amounts to the total yardage of a stout par 4 to Bobby Jones’ masterpiece.
In 2006 about 30 yards were added to the hole and, perhaps most influential, a “second cut” of rough was added to the entire course in 1999. The new real estate made it a three-shot hole for all but the longest of the long while the “second cut” made it harder – particularly when combined with this year’s new rule regarding grooves – to put precise spin on an uber-demanding approach.
“It just scares you, that third shot,” Cink sighed.
Matt Kuchar concurred. “It seems like it’s scarier hitting an 80-yard shot in there than it is a 210-yard shot. It’s not too different than the 17th at (TPC) Sawgrass. Short is bad, long is bad. Just bad.”
Sawgrass’ 17th seems to be an apt comparison, but if players tee off at the Players Championship thinking about the island green, they spend weeks, if not months, mulling Augusta National’s time bombs, where history, recent and otherwise, has taken a toll on the collective consciousness.
“I've been there on (No. 12) where the first guy up hits it all the way over the bunker up into the hillside up into the bushes and the next guy gets up and hits it into the water,” Stricker said. “It's kind of a guessing game at times.”
It can also be an unnerving game subdued somehow by the tranquility of Amen Corner. But only for a moment.