As the old saying goes, The Masters doesn’t really begin until the second nine on Sunday.
Through decades of thrilling finishes and memorable moments at Augusta National Golf Course, the vast majority of singular shots that have separated the winners — or that have doomed contenders — have occurred on the home stretch.
Longtime fans of the tournament have the final nine holes memorized. There’s a long and dangerous approach on No. 11. That is followed by the shortest par 3 on the course at No. 12, which quickly becomes one of the more harrowing shots of the tournament once Rae’s Creek appears and years of double and triple-bogey history are conjured up in the mind.
The par 5s at No. 13 and No. 15 offer the chance of eagles for those seeking a comeback charge, but also offer water and the prospect of a championship bid literally sinking away.
All of these — and more — are sights that fans are used to seeing on their television screens each April.
But when a first-hand look is acquired and the seas of patrons usually filling up the spaces lining each hole are removed, it becomes even more clear why the race to the finish each Sunday is filled with drama.
For any golfer hoping to secure the green jacket, the approach and execution late Sunday afternoon will need to be as meticulous and exacting as the picturesque course against which he is battling.
For starters, a clean and level lie isn’t likely to be found on the second nine. There are very noticeable – and, in places, severe – slopes in the fairways at 10, 11, 13, 14 and 18. Even a tee shot that seems safe in the middle of a fairway could lead to a second shot where the ball is nearly a foot above or below a golfer’s feet, leading to a high-stakes guessing game of what adjustments will need to be made on the next shot.
And then there is the water.
Though it features fewer water hazards than nearly every tournament on this side of the Atlantic, Augusta National has been the sight of countless devastating splashdowns. A few unassuming knobs just in front of the 11th green can send an otherwise conservative approach bounding left and into the pond.
On No. 16, a large lake is taken out of play by most choosing to play their tee shot into the large slope on the green, but is a disaster in waiting for anyone trying to go directly at the Sunday pin.
The cruelest trick played by Augusta National and its water hazards, however,comes when shots go from incredible to troublesome to disaster in the matter of seconds.
On Nos. 12, 13 and 15, the fronts of the greens slope softly back towards the fairway and tee. Shots that land on the green, but come up short of the flat areas will slowly make their way to the front edge of the greens, which often leads to a steep slope and a quick plunge into the water.
This pitfall was never more evident than in last year’s Masters. Defending champion Sergio Garcia was cruising through his first round, but a nightmare played out for him in real time on No. 15 as he hit five consecutive shots that landed well onto the green, only to spin back into the pond as he carded a score of 13 on the hole.
That’s not a typo – yes, Sergio carded a 13 on a single hole.
For those who make it through the first eight holes of the second nine, one final hurdle remains. Keeping drives relatively straight is a much easier ask for professionals than for the normal weekend warrior golfer. That said, the possibility of winning a green jacket and the thousands upon thousands of patrons surrounding the tee at No. 18 late on Sunday makes the tight driving chute seem all the more narrow.
Going right off the tee leads to trees and a near-certain bogey. Going left could lead to one of two fairway bunkers and will also bring a greenside bunker into play on the ensuing approach. Finally, No. 18 continues its fight to the very end as a tricky pin placement demands a great approach shot to set up any sort of putt that won’t involve a severe break.
Patrons taking in The Masters – whether it’s a practice round or a tournament round – are continually in amazement of what the players can physically achieve. Those in the tournament field can hit it farther, keep it straighter and shape it better than most casual players could ever hope for.
Those physical feats are just one part of the battle.
Everyone in the field can bomb it off the tee and the resume requirements to make it into the tournament guarantee that anyone is capable of making a miraculous shot or two. But to be the last man standing on Sunday at Augusta, it takes a mental sharpness and strength that is as powerful as any driver struck throughout the week.
For the eventual winner, it’s not just about playing The Masters. He’ll have to think The Masters.
He’ll have to feel it. For four days, he’ll have to live it.