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By Scott Kramer
When the weather starts warming up every spring, golfers begin flocking to local driving ranges and courses. Still, nothing symbolizes the official start of golf season as much as the annual Masters tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. This year, the event took place April 5-8 at the very exclusive private club that’s perpetually in perfectly manicured condition.
Located two-and-a-half hours due east of Atlanta, Augusta National is world-renowned. No course is more famous, attracts more attention and notoriety, nor contains more mystique. It’s been the permanent stage of the prestigious Masters since the tournament started in 1934. Most golf fans can conjure up images of Tiger Woods’ chip shot on No. 16, his Nike-swooshed ball coming to rest on the lip of the cup for what seemed like an eternity before dropping in, back in 2005. Or Jack Nicklaus at 46-years-old holing a birdie putt on No. 17 – extending his putter upward in celebration -- en route to capturing his sixth Masters in 1986. Or Ben Crenshaw breaking down in tears after clinching a victory just one week after his mentor Harvey Penick passed away in 1995.
The prestigious green jacket is awarded to the victor, and it seems as if the pursuit of that prize perpetually creates an amazing final-round competition that comes down to a dramatic, Hollywood-style finish. In fact, there haven’t been many anti-climactic Masters tournaments over the course of history. And this just makes Augusta National that much more desirable to play for the average golfer.
While the Masters is perpetually golf’s hottest ticket -- understandably, given the star-studded field that the picturesque, historical venue annually attracts -- it’s Augusta National that’s the centerpiece. Designed by famed course architect Alister MacKenzie, it opened its doors in 1933, being co-founded by golf legend Bobby Jones. Aside from the tournament, the course is best known for its colorful Azaleas surrounding world-famous holes and lightning-fast greens. Add to the mix that the course has been the highly publicized source of racial controversy in the past, and that few people actually play the course during the year – membership and playing privileges are incredibly restricted – and the intrigue is overwhelming. In fact, tournament week is the only time of the year when the public is allowed inside the gates.
Many famous people have negotiated the fairways at Augusta National through time, including president Dwight Eisenhower who was a member of the club (officials named a tree, pond and cabin after him), but rumors perpetually circulate that even Tour pros are turned away at the Magnolia Lane entranceway. There are reportedly about 300 members at Augusta National, most among a who's who of America's current and former CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Even they are discouraged from playing the course too often. But for those lucky enough to bring their clubs onto Augusta National, they’re rarely disappointed.
All 18 holes are challenging, however Amen Corner, a term referring to holes 11, 12 and 13, seems to be the stretch for which the course is best known. The 155-yard par-3 No. 12 – coined “Golden Bell” -- is the shortest hole on the course and perhaps the hole most often singled-out by Tour pros when it comes to a challenge that separates contenders from the rest of the field. Wind conditions can wreak havoc on club selection, and Masters participants can play anything from a 6-iron to a 9-iron to negotiate the hole. Add to the mix that the very narrow green is fronted by Rae's Creek and flanked by two strategically placed bunkers behind it and one in front, and you quickly realize that golfers must hit the green on the fly and make the ball stick – just to have a chance at par or birdie. You may recognize the hole from seeing golfers stroll across the famed Ben Hogan Bridge to the left of the green, to reach the putting surface.
One other hole that’s commonly been a thorn in the side to Tour pros in recent years is the course’s closer, the 465-yard par 4 No. 18, which is one of golf’s most famous finishing holes. It’s an uphill dogleg right guarded by a pair of bunkers at the left elbow of the fairway. Its two-tiered green is deep, narrow and elevated, and protected by bunkers short-left and hard right – meaning there’s no room for bail-out approach shots. The hole was lengthened back in 2002, when the tee box was moved back 60 yards, making the necessary long-and-accurate tee shot even tougher. What used to be an easy finisher is now a bogey magnet for the pros.
But Masters aside, the score doesn’t really matter at Augusta National. It’s a sheer victory just to be able to play.