Ever since Gene Sarazen made his double eagle there in 1935—holing out a miraculous four-wood and wiping out Craig Wood's lead with literally one stroke—the 15th hole at the Augusta National has been famous. A 520-yard par-5, it presented the player with a classic decision on his second shot: whether to lay up short of the large pond that guards the front of the green, hoping to pitch up close enough to make a birdie, or to go for the green and a possible eagle 3, risking a watery disaster. For this reason the 15th has been a pivotal hole in almost every Masters.
It has also been a marvelous spectator hole. There is a large grandstand to the immediate left of the pond, and long before the first players arrive on the scene the crowd begins filing in, with their thermos jugs and sandwiches, ready for a long day of watching a game within a game. Who will make it? Who will go splash?
Despite the threat of the pond, the hole has proved to be the easiest on the course to birdie. Though Sarazen used a four-wood for his second shot, in recent years players have been hitting irons, and middle irons at that. One year Jack Nicklaus unloaded a titanic drive and when he reached his ball his caddie handed him a nine-iron. Nicklaus couldn't believe it, switched to an eight and overshot the green. In the 1969 Masters, the field shaved an aggregate of 55 strokes from par at No. 15.
So last April, immediately after the Masters had ended, Clifford Roberts, the tournament chairman, decided to change the hole. He told Al Baston, the head green-keeper, to move the tee back across a service road, a distance of some 40 yards. He also told Baston to create a series of mounds on the right side of the fairway approximately 260 yards from the tee and extending out into the middle of the fairway, thus demanding a more accurate tee shot. In June Baston's father, O'Neal Baston, an Augusta contractor, arrived on the scene with his bulldozer and construction was begun. The old tee was leveled and much of the dirt was used for the mounds—two huge ones, four smaller ones. Grass was planted, and by spring both mounds and the new tee looked as if they had been there forever.
No one connected with the Masters would admit that the hole had been lengthened. As if worried about being accused of tampering with tradition, their official line was that the hole had never really been 520 yards long, that by moving the tee back the hole had merely been set at its proper distance. But the players, as a group, wouldn't buy it. "They've taken the romance out of it," said Gary Player after his first practice round. "I'd estimate 70% of the field used to go for the green, but now no more than 10% will."
"No way I can reach that green in two unless I cold-jump a three-wood," said Dave Hill.
"It's just another edge for old Jack," said Dave Marr.
Even Clifford Roberts hinted that perhaps the changes at 15 were faulty. "We never do things quite right the first time," he said. Roberts and Joe Dey, commissioner of the tournament division of the PGA, inspected the 15th the morning the tournament began and agreed that the tee should have been constructed longer so that on days when the wind was against the players the markers could have been moved forward. But it was too late then.
As usual, the grandstand by the pond was crowded as the first twosome came through on Thursday morning. One of the players was Larry Ziegler, whose name was mentioned as one of the three or four players who might try to carry the pond. But Ziegler hit a poor drive and had to play short. So did Dean Refram, his playing partner. Next came Dave Stockton and Sukree Onsham of Thailand. Both played safe. And so it went. Player laid up. At noon Nicklaus arrived at 15, but his drive faded to the right of the mounds, and he had no choice but to play short. Arnold Palmer hit a good drive, but the breeze was blowing in his face and even he wouldn't take the chance. By Saturday the gallery around Baston's mounds was groaning audibly over the succession of players who pulled out irons or sending up small cheers for the few who took out woods.
In the first round only five of 83 players went for the green—Cary Middlecoff, Bert Yancey, Bert Greene, Larry Hinson and amateur Bob Zender. All managed to elude the water, but only Middlecoff held the green. (On Friday one of those who tried to carry the pond with his second shot was Player. He made it, with some to spare, ending up in the right-hand trap. From there he blasted out, then three-putted for a bogey 6, thus winning the gamble and losing the score.) By Sunday the 15th had played only 15 strokes below par—40 better than last year.
What the change at the 15th had done was remove the excitement from the second shot and make the third shot the key. It had also lessened the fun for the fans in the grandstand. Few golfers went splash during the tournament, and fewer still were spectacularly successful when they did gamble. There were only two eagles, 18 birdies and seven bogeys—all categories lower than in 1969.
Whether the Masters management would admit it or not, it had taken a great hole and made it ordinary. Just ask the folks in the grandstand.