For all of the anxiety-plagued, stomachache-inducing conversations that have been shared standing in Augusta National’s 15th fairway, Gene Sarazen’s exchange with Walter Hagen wasn’t one of them.
By that time in the 1935 Masters, Craig Wood, the head pro at Winged Foot, had birdied four of his last six holes to take a commanding three-stroke lead, well ahead of Sarazen. A boisterous roar from the 18th hole had tumbled its way back down to the players, signaling what appeared to be the end of the golf tournament. Hagen, about to close with a 79, wanted nothing more than to get out of the unseasonably cold and damp weather so he could enjoy a dry martini.
Standing in the right-center of the fairway, 230 yards from the hole, Sarazen turned to his caddie Stovepipe, a lanky man with an Abe Lincoln hat that towered over his player by 2 feet, and asked what it would take to win.
“Oooh, you need four 3s, Mister Gene – 3, 3, 3, 3,” Stovepipe said, according to Sarazen’s recount in his biography. Normally one of the fastest players of his era, Sarazen hesitated before his approach, looking down to see about 25 people shivering next to the green, tournament co-founder Bobby Jones among them.
A few months prior, Jones and his partner, Clifford Roberts, had decided to reverse the nines from the tournament’s first year, restoring what architect Alister MacKenzie originally sketched out in his plans – it had only been during construction that MacKenzie decided the 10th hole would be better suited as an opener because of its downhill, inviting look. However, with Roberts realizing frost and rain disproportionately affected the lower levels of the course, especially what we now know as Amen Corner, the decision was made to flip the course so play could begin on the higher of the two nines.
Although it was unintentional at the time, the move also put the more dramatic risk-reward holes near the end of the golf tournament. Now, Sarazen had a decision to make. A 3-wood wouldn’t hold the putting surface, but his 4-wood wouldn’t be enough to clear the small pond fronting the green. Although the water hazard wouldn’t be expanded to its current size until 1961, it was still enough to make a player think.
As Sarazen considered the options, an impatient Hagen, standing nearby with his arms crossed out of anger as well as trying to find a bit of warmth, had seen enough.
“Come on, Gene, hit it, will ya? I’ve got a date,” Sarazen remembered Hagen saying.
Moments later, Sarazen chose his Wilson Turfrider 4-wood, closing the clubface to get a few extra yards out of it. With one waggle, he smashed his Wilson K-28 ball down the hill, into the bank just before the green and then into the hole for a double-eagle 2, suddenly tying him for the lead with Wood. Sarazen finished with three pars and then defeated Wood in a 36-hole playoff the following day, 144 to 149, but all anyone could talk about was “The Shot Heard Round The World,” the one that would provide the foundation for all Masters lore to follow.
It wasn’t just a golf tournament that came to life in that moment – the 15th hole, Firethorn, cemented itself as an ideal representative of the nebulous line between ecstasy and agony at the Masters.
For every courageous and well-executed second shot to the thin sliver of green, one the near opposite shape of the par-5 eighth, there are far more sinister outcomes that punish those who aren’t precise.
By the most basic of measurements, the straightaway par-5 is a mere 530 yards and holds an all-time stroke average of 4.81, making it the easiest hole in relation to par for the tournament. Players say their line off the tee is the middle of the three trees in the distance behind the green, a simple enough target to a wide fairway with no bunkers, and most everyone in the field can take on the green in two strokes if they hit a solid drive. At worst, it would seem, a layup and a wedge onto the putting surface would allow for a stress-free par and perhaps a birdie.
Yet from years of experience, we know the 15th hole is far closer to being the subject of a college thesis than the above description. For every courageous and well-executed second shot to the thin sliver of green, one the near opposite shape of the par-5 eighth hole, there are far more sinister outcomes that punish those who aren’t precise.
A tee shot that misses too far left, a common miss given that the fairway slopes in that direction, will be blocked out by a row of pine trees, forcing a layup or dangerous shot through a gap. The third shot is among the most awkward in the game, a severely downhill approach to an elevated green — it would make sense for players to gain every bit of advantage they can from finding the proper angle, but even that pursuit can become complicated. It’s agreed that the left-hand side of the fairway is more welcoming even with a left-hand hole location, but every yard, and sometimes every inch, matters greatly. Shots that skip over the green and fall off the back leave a nightmarish shot back towards the water – landing too far can put a player back in the same pond they had been trying to avoid.
“It always seems to play a little farther than what you think it should,” 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel said a few years ago. “It’s one of those holes I feel it’s key to lay up to a yardage you are comfortable with. If you have a yardage that is in between clubs, you’re going to have a tough time hitting the green.”
And my, how many times have we seen a player falter with a wedge in his hand. In recent history, it’s nearly a yearly occurrence for something memorable, and usually disastrous, to happen.
A year ago, Francesco Molinari misplaced his layup up too far down the left-hand side and then clipped a pine branch with a third, sending his ball into the middle of the pond and completing his second-nine disaster that lost him the green jacket. A year prior to that, defending champion Sergio García was going along without much incident in his first round when he deposited five balls into the water, each spinning back identically and gently rolling to their final resting place in the pond. The octuple-bogey 13 mattered not at all in the grand scheme of the tournament, other than to remind everyone what can happen.
Most notoriously, Tiger Woods will be associated forever with his awkward wedge shot at No. 15 in the 2013 Masters. Tied for the lead on that Friday afternoon, Woods struck the flagstick with his third and watched the ball careen back into the water. When he dropped in seemingly the same position and then got up and down for bogey, it looked like a great save; however, he had illegally dropped two paces back of where his third shot was struck because, as history shows, every yard matters on the shot. It eventually led to an overnight rules kerfuffle and ultimately a two-stroke penalty.
With the third shot being so treacherous, the heart and soul of Firethorn is the decision each player makes from the top of the hill, about 15 to 20 yards above the green. A good drive leaves little reason to lay up, but circumstance and confidence can factor heavily in decision making. Just ask Chip Beck who trailed Bernhard Langer by three strokes with four holes to play in the 1993 Masters. He only had 236 yards to the hole for his second shot to the 15th, but he stunned everyone by laying up and then missed the green with his third. Langer made birdie to Beck’s par, ending any drama before it began.
The hole’s history only adds to the tension.
In the final round of the 1954 Masters, a brash amateur named Billy Joe Patton found the water on the 15th to make bogey and miss a Sam Snead-Ben Hogan playoff by one stroke. You may call that a youthful mistake, but Jack Nicklaus did the same thing in 1971 when he attempted to force a 3-wood from more than 250 yards, taking a bogey and losing to Charles Coody by two strokes.
The Golden Bear lamented his decision afterward, saying he should have been more patient.
“Why put yourself out of the tournament in one shot?” he said in dejection.
That is what Seve Ballesteros did against Nicklaus 15 years later in 1986. After Nicklaus eagled the hole ahead of him and then birdied No. 16 to reach 8 under, Ballesteros still led by one stroke and had only 198 yards remaining for his second shot into the 15th. Ballesteros watched Tom Kite hit a wonderful approach just ahead of him, providing a perfect mental image for what could have been a tournament-defining approach.
A 4-iron in hand and only a breath of wind off his right shoulder, Ballesteros made arguably the worst swing of his career, eliciting gasps and more than a few cheers from the Nicklaus faithful.
“Ooh, he has pulled it, he has pulled-hooked that,” CBS announcer Ben Wright said in disbelief. “That’s destined for the water. And the foreign invasion is reeling under the Bear’s attack.”
Of course, those who go for the heroic shot do so trying to mirror moments like Doug Ford’s in 1957. Ahead by one stroke in the final round, Ford sat in the 15th fairway debating with his caddie George Franklin, known as Fireball, who argued endlessly for his player to lay up and preserve his lead. The two went back and forth for so long that the crowd started to laugh.
“They don’t remember you here unless you go for it and win,” Ford told Franklin, the player always getting the last word. This time the 3-wood was successful, as Ford found the putting surface and converted his birdie, taking control of the tournament.
With each Masters that comes, regardless of the changes in modern technology, the decision is still momentous, inducing long conversations and indecision. It’s a cliché to say that every score is possible, from Sarazen’s double eagle to García’s 13, but Firethorn still walks that fine line without ever feeling contrived.
This week it is bound to arise again, a welcome tradition of courage, discomfort, bravery and tragedy.
Augusta National No. 15 during the 2016 Masters (David Cannon, Getty Images)
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