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‘Lord knows where that ball’s going to go’: The 9 toughest Masters shots

In Sports
April 11, 2024

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Let’s start with the obvious: There are no easy shots at Augusta National. The way the course flows from the clubhouse down to Amen Corner, the way the fairways swoop and the greens slide, the way that Rae’s Creek always lurks, ready to snatch away your hopes, your dreams and your ball — there’s never a moment to rest.

“We’re playing on a hillside,” Tiger Woods said Tuesday, “and we’re just meandering back and forth across that hillside.” When the only flat shots on the course are the tee boxes, as Tiger also noted, you’re in for a fight with every swing.

But which shots are the toughest? Which shots make even seasoned pros feel their pulse quicken and their fingertips flutter? Plus, consider when a shot occurs — the air around the first tee feels a whole lot different on Thursday than, say, Saturday morning. The second shot on 18 is always a challenge, but late on Sunday afternoon, with the shadows lengthening and the entire gallery gathered around the green, it becomes a supreme test.

“There’s so many just small details and nuances that you have to kind of prepare and get ready for,” Viktor Hovland said, in the midst of three days doing exactly that.

We gathered a cross-section of players, course architects and sports psychologists to analyze the toughest-shot question. Some of their answers are exactly what you’d expect, some might surprise you, and some could have a dramatic impact on Sunday’s outcome at the Masters.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 09: Justin Thomas of the United States plays his shot from the first tee during a practice round prior to the 2024 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 09, 2024 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Justin Thomas plays his shot from the first tee during a practice round prior to the 2024 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 09, 2024 in Augusta, Georgia. (Warren Little/Getty Images)

Hole No. 1 (Tea Olive), tee shot, Thursday

Augusta National’s first fairway is wide, but on the first day of the Masters, it can seem as narrow as a keyhole if you’re not quite ready for the moment.

“If it’s your first time at The Masters,” says Dr. Joe Parent, a golf psychologist and author of “Zen Golf,” “your tee shot, the first tee shot is the most difficult.”

“The first shot of any round is probably tough for anybody who’s mentally a little fragile,” says golf course designer Scot Sherman, “but it’s not all that tough of a shot.”

But a little preparation can go a long way. Just ask the guy who won the Masters a couple years back, and is overwhelmingly favored to do it again this year.

“When I step up on the first tee, I just remind myself: I’ve done the work. I’ve done everything I could. I’ve checked all the boxes. And I’ve done everything to where I can go out here and play well,” Scottie Scheffler says. “There’s definitely nervousness. There’s definitely excitement, anxiousness.”

Hole No. 5 (Magnolia), second shot

The trifecta at 4-5-6 doesn’t get nearly the love of its Amen Corner cousin, but the holes there will wreck your game all the same if you’re not careful. Hole No. 5, in particular, is a wicked par 4.

“The green has kind of a false front to it,” says John Fought, a course designer who played Augusta three times as a player. “It falls away on the left and the right, and there’s a bunker behind the green. I always thought that [approach] was one hell of a tough shot. You have to not only be accurate with the approach, you have to hit it exactly the right distance, trying to get the ball to stay on that table top.”

“Augusta National has two overall defenses against every player, regardless of how long, or how good, or how old or young they are,” Sherman says. “The two defenses are those greens, all 18 of them, and the fact that it’s the Masters. You cannot set aside the fact that if you’re playing in that event, it just has a whole different importance to it.”

Hole No. 6 (Juniper), tee shot

The par 3 6th provides a dramatic backdrop to the more famous par 3 16th, but 6 has challenges that 16 can’t match.

“Six is downhill,” Sherman says, “so it’s really hard to pick a club and really fire it in there unless it’s back left and you can use the hill to stop you and roll you down towards the hole.” He notes that the pin placement has a significant impact on how difficult the 180-yard hole — third-shortest on the course — will play.

“Especially if the hole is cut on the back, top right,” Sherman says. “Gosh, if you’re off just a little bit, Lord knows where that ball’s going to go.”

Hole No. 9 (Carolina Cherry), tee shot

The final hole of Augusta National’s front nine is a down-and-up challenge of the highest order. The clubhouse is almost within sight, but it’s a mirage; you’ve got a long way to go before you get there.

“You’ve got to hug the left side,” Fought says. “If you hit it in the wrong spot there, you’re just behind the eight ball. If you hit a great drive, then you’re closer down to the flat, you could hit it up the hill to the green. But that green is way above you there.”

And it doesn’t get any easier from there.

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 11: Jordan Spieth of the United States walks with his caddie Michael Greller on the ninth hole during the third round of the 2015 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2015 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The undulation leading up to the ninth green demands a second shot that lands comfortably on the green. If not, the ball will trickle back down the slope in front of the green. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Hole No. 9, second shot

Many an approach at 9 has rolled back down the steep hill, often ending up near the poor player’s own feet.

“That green is so sloped, and you’re going in there with a mid-iron or a low iron,” Shepherd says. “You’ve got to manage the spin and the placement.”

Drama with every swing. And you’re only halfway done.

Hole No. 11 (White Dogwood), second shot

Let’s step aside and let a major winner set the stage for this one:

“Second shot into 11, I think, is the hardest shot in the world,” Keegan Bradley says. “You’re most likely going to have a long iron because the hole is so long now. You have to hit a perfect iron shot to hit the green. But if you have to bail out to the right, you can’t get up and down. I think it’s the hardest hole in the world.”

“There’s a lot of grace [on 11] as far as the tee shot is concerned, but the second shot into No. 11 is very, very difficult,” agrees Sherman. “It’s all risk, it’s penal, even though there’s not really deep bunkers to the right. If you miss it, all those contours and that elevation change are difficult. It’s hard to get up and down from anywhere there, as the green slopes generally toward the water.”

“Boy, if you start getting above the hole there and have to putt downhill or toward the water, the ball gets away from you,” Fought says. “You can find yourself in a lot of trouble really quickly.”

And now we’re into the heart of Amen Corner, and the hole you knew was coming.

Hole No. 12 (Golden Bell), tee shot

It seems simple enough, a 155-yard par 3 — shortest on the course — over a thin swatch of Rae’s Creek. And yet this hole — arguably the most famous in the world, certainly the most famous on the course — has smothered Masters dreams almost every year.

“Many players have lost the tournament there on Sunday, so it gets their attention,” says golf psychologist David L. Cook, adding, “The wind is confounding.” Jordan Spieth (2016) and Brooks Koepka (2019) can attest to that.

“If there’s swirling winds, it’s really hard, because it either catches you and dumps you in the water,” Parent says, “or it doesn’t catch you and you’re in the azalea bushes behind the green.”

Leave it to another pro to trace out the smartest route on 12.

“You don’t have to go overly crazy on the back right pins,” Viktor Hovland said Tuesday at Augusta. “Just hit it middle of the green and make a 3.”

Hole 15 (Firethorn), second shot

The par-5 15th stands as the last reasonable opportunity for players chasing the leader to slice a stroke or two off the lead. It’s a tempting challenge, despite the water both in front of and behind the green, and it’s often lured players to their doom. For that reason, the crucial approach shot was the one most frequently named as Augusta National’s most difficult.

“Last chance to go for a par 5 in two,” Cook says. “It is way more difficult than it looks on TV. Lengthened a few years back, [making] it a legitimate longer second shot to a narrow parking-lot-firm green.”

“Fifteen, I think it’s a fun one,” Hovland says. “You don’t have to lay up very close to the water, you kind of want to stay back, maybe try to spin it, but at the same time you don’t want to spin it as much, because it can roll back in the water.”

“Laying up for a leader doesn’t leave an easy wedge at all,” Cook adds. “Huge decisions here.”

“You’re nearing the end of the round. It’s where you can make up ground,” Parent says. “But you take the risk: you could spin it back into the water, you could hit it over the green into the water behind the green.”

Hole 18 (Holly), tee shot

This is it: the final hole of the round, and on Sunday, the final hole of the tournament. It’s a difficult hole to begin with — “like hitting a ball down a hallway,” Cook says — and when you add in the pressure of a Sunday finish, no matter whether you’re in the lead or chasing, it’s borderline impossible.

“I tell all my players, ‘Give yourself the best chance for birdie without taking an unnecessary risk,’” Parent says. He advises players to go with their go-to shot, “and if it’s a little butter cut, I don’t care if it’s 20 yards back, it’s going to be better than under the lip of the bunker or in the woods.”

He makes an exception for hunters: “If you’re one behind and you have to make birdie to get into a playoff,” Parent says, “then rip a power fade and try to get as far up that damn fairway as you can.”

“The clubhouse is at the highest point of the property, and you play back uphill both on 9 and 18,” Fought says. “Your shots into the green are both somewhat blind, playing in there. You’ve got to rely on the yardage and the feel and experience of playing those holes.”

No easy shots. No standard lies. No rest, anywhere. Augusta National remains golf’s ultimate test, and these shots show exactly why.

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