When it comes right down to it, there are three factors that
determine the greatest finishing holes in golf: location, location
and location. Otherwise, what would be so special about the 18th
at Augusta National, a 405-yard, par- 4, uphill dogleg right that
has two slapped-on bunkers on the left side of the fairway and
calls for a blind second shot?
Not that the 18th doesn't have some very strong selling points.
After all, it is ground zero for the climax of what is
consistently the most closely contested and exciting of the
majors. Within its parameters we have seen Hogan, Palmer,
Nicklaus, Player and Watson at their very best, and their worst.
The steep uphill pitch of the hole dictates a slow walk to the
green, allowing for the most sustained ovations from the most
adoring throng in all of American golf. The unfathomable breaks in
the green make for the best body English you'll ever see.
The 18th is where Ben Hogan committed his most shocking
three-putt, from 12 feet, to lose by one to the Missouri
Mortician, Herman Keiser, in 1946. Twenty-one years later, it was
where Hogan, at the age of 54, would receive his most emotional
ovation when he shot a back-nine-record 30 in the third round and
birdied 18 with a 15-footer. Gary Player capped the biggest
comeback in Masters history when he sank an 18-footer at 18 for
birdie, and his third green jacket, in 1978. The 18th is also
where Tom Watson hit two of his worst drives (a pulled four-wood
in 1978 and a pushed three-wood in '91); where Jack Nicklaus hit
perhaps his worst approach (a fat six-iron in '77); and where
Arnold Palmer hit his worst sand shot (a blade job from the right
greenside trap on his way to a killing double bogey in '61).
As memorable as those shots are, though, the 18th at Augusta isn't
really up to the standards of the rest of the course. ``It's
not a great hole,'' says Greg Norman. ``It's a good hole under
the circumstances, maybe. But only because it's the 18th at
The 18th is certainly better than the 17th, which is
architecturally and topographically the weakest hole at Augusta,
but the fact is the Masters has one of the feeblest 17-18 finishes
in major-championship golf, especially considering the caliber and
beauty of the preceding holes.
The setting of the 18th is undistinguished. Although the tee shot
is played out of a forested chute, once the hole starts uphill
from mid-fairway, it opens into a somewhat undefined area that
suggests nothing of ``a cathedral in the pines.'' Compared to the
majesty of the 18th at Riviera, Oakmont, the Old Course at St.
Andrews, Olympic, the Country Club in Brookline or Pebble Beach,
the 18th at Augusta simply doesn't measure up.
Because the classic antebellum clubhouse is at least 100 yards
from the green, it does not frame the approach shot or the play on
and around the green the way clubhouses do at other classic
courses, most notably at St. Andrews. The main reason for the
distance from the clubhouse is that in architect Alister
MacKenzie's original plans there was to be a 19th, or ``bye,''
hole -- a short par-3 to settle matches -- to the left of the 18th
green. That hole was never built. Today, the practice putting
green, which is next to the clubhouse, is located there. While the
idea was discarded, the location of the 18th did not change.
In fact, Bobby Jones, who founded the club and co-designed the
course, thought the front nine at Augusta National was a better
test than the back, which at that time included much-different
versions of the 10th, 11th and 16th holes than are there today.
Before the first Masters (called the First Augusta National
Invitation Tournament), in 1934, Jones switched the 9's, so that
the current 9th was the finishing hole. Certainly in terms of
spectator access and proximity to the clubhouse, number 9 would
be a better finisher. But the low-lying greens of the 1st, 2nd
and 3rd holes still had frost on them in the early morning,
delaying starting times, so in 1935 the club went back to
MacKenzie's original routing.
As for playability, the 18th is basic meat and potatoes. A
mistake will likely lead to a bogey, but not the kind of big
numbers other closers on the PGA Tour -- like those at Bay Hill,
Doral, the TPC at Sawgrass or English Turn -- often produce.
While trees on the right of the fairway punish a push or a
slice, in the original design there was a huge bailout area on
the left. Drives left of the fairway that carried more than 240
yards settled nicely in a well-turfed members' practice area,
from where it was no problem to play to the green. Many players
took the left route, but Nicklaus blatantly exploited it in
1965, when he bombed his driver into the practice fairway and
hit short irons into the green on his way to his second Masters
win. In the process he shot a tournament-record 271, which
elicited Jones's famous comment, ``Jack Nicklaus plays a game
with which I am not familiar.''
The next year the club placed two large, steeply faced bunkers
along the left edge of the fairway, the first about 250 yards from
the tee. The bunkers effectively narrowed the ideal landing area
for the drive to 30 yards.
Immediately, the hole began to play harder. The new bunkers have
been largely effective in keeping the hole from being played the
way Nicklaus did. Many players switched from a driver to a
one-iron off the tee, as Sandy Lyle did on the 72nd hole in 1988
and Tom Lehman did in last year's tournament. Both still ended up
in the front bunker, and while Lyle escaped with the seven-iron of
his life and made a winning birdie, Lehman, who needed a birdie to
tie Jose Maria Olazabal, made a bogey.
There are two problems with the bunkers. First, to many a purist
they look contrived. Tom Weiskopf, who in the '75 Masters said the
hell with the bunkers and hit what he calls the best drive of his
career over them, isn't a big fan of the changes at the 18th.
``The bunkers, in most players' minds, are located in the driving
position where the terrain tells you you want to play your second
shot from,'' says Weiskopf. ``The hole needed some bunkers, but
the actual location infringes on the playability of the hole
because the trees on the right are growing out and the fairway
slopes right to left. About all you can do is play short or try to
kill it over the bunkers.''
Many of today's players, with just a slight following wind, can
do just that. Fred Couples has always hit a driver on the 18th
and has had as little as 90 yards to the pin for his second
shot. ``I don't like going into that green with a five-iron,''
says Couples, who made par from the second bunker on the 72nd
hole when he won in 1992. ``I'd rather take my chances with the
Unless wind conditions are unfavorable, Norman also attacks with a
driver. ``I just set it up at that second bunker and hit it as
hard as I can,'' he says. Norman, perhaps tellingly, did not hit a
driver (and was left with four- iron and five-iron approaches)
when he made killing bogeys in 1986 and 1989.
``It won't be long before they are going to need a third
bunker,'' says Raymond Floyd. ``It won't be pretty, but it's the
only way they can keep the long hitters from going into that
hole with a wedge.''
As the hole plays now, it's the only one at Augusta that demands a
faded tee shot, and one of just three, along with the 3rd and the
7th holes, that needs to be threaded through a narrow chute.
After a good drive the 18th requires a solid but blind approach to
an elevated green, which is 35 yards deep and two-tiered. It's a
tricky shot that can vary, depending on the wind and whether the
pin is in the front or back of the green. A decent drive can leave
anywhere from a three-iron with the pin in back to a wedge with
the pin in front. Because of two greenside bunkers and the severe
uphill slope, a mishit shot will not bounce onto the putting
surface; a ball that lands on the front edge is almost sure to
spin back off. In fact, because of the pitch of the green, the
favored way to go at the pin when it is on the bottom tier is to
land long and let the slope bring the ball back toward the hole.
The danger is in going too far and leaving a long, extremely fast
The 18th is a devilish green to read. ``Even shortish putts tend
to break two ways on that green,'' says Ed Sneed, who sadly left a
winning putt of six feet on the lip in 1979. ``The ball will kind
of go up to the hole and then break away. It creates doubt in your
mind, which is, I'm sure, what they are looking for when they set
Indeed, the most distinctive thing about 18 is how putts on Sunday
seem to just miss, inspiring agonizing contortions by confounded
players. Nicklaus called his bid for a winning birdie in 1966 -- a
45-foot putt that trickled down to the hole and burned the edge --
``the best putt I ever hit that didn't go in.'' Billy Casper in
1970, Johnny Miller and Weiskopf in 1975 and Tom Kite in 1986 all
came torturously close to making birdie putts that would have
given them a win or a tie. In 1987, Norman's 22-footer for a
birdie, which would have spared him losing to Larry Mize's miracle
chip, simply refused to drop. ``I couldn't believe it missed,''
Norman says. ``I could feel the ball going into the hole. I was
waiting for the place to explode.'' Although Nick Price shot a
course-record 63 in the third round of 1986, he is still baffled
that his 35-footer for 62 didn't go in. ``That putt did more than
a 360,'' said Price. ``It was a 420.'' In the final round in 1957,
wedge virtuoso Doug Ford avoided the difficulty of putting on 18
altogether and clinched the tournament by holing out a spectacular
sand shot from a buried lie.
Clearly, though it might be a weak finishing hole, 18 doesn't
produce weak finishes. While Amen Corner is prime territory for
double bogey or worse, there's never more pressure in a closely
contested Masters than on 18. Even the greatest have cracked
there. Besides Hogan in 1946 and Palmer in 1961, Player came apart
on 18 in 1970, when he hit his drive into a bunker, then missed a
six-footer for par to get into a playoff. Norman needed a par in
1986 to force a playoff with Nicklaus, but he shanked his approach
and bogeyed. Ben Crenshaw bogeyed to miss a playoff by one stroke
when he ran out of towels to dry his grips and hands in the dank
1989 tournament. This year's defending champion, Olazabal, blew a
chance to win in 1991 when he hit into two bunkers. Part of the
reason that Roberto De Vicenzo was careless in looking at his
scorecard in 1968 was that he was distraught about making a bogey
on the 18th when he knew a par would have meant victory. As it
was, he signed for a score that was a stroke higher than what he
actually shot, thereby finishing second to Bob Goalby by a stroke.
``There are going to be many more Masters lost on that hole than
won,'' says Price.
He's right. Only seven players have ever made a 3 on the last
hole the last day to either win by one or get into a playoff.
Craig Wood did in 1935 and lost a 36-hole playoff to Gene
Sarazen, while Hogan did it in 1942 and lost an 18-hole playoff
to Byron Nelson. The others all won -- Art Wall in 1959, Palmer
in 1960, Player in 1978, Mize in 1987 (he then beat Norman and
Seve Ballesteros in a playoff) and Lyle in 1988.
``It's an incredible feeling to walk up 18 with a one-shot lead
on Sunday,'' says Gay Brewer, who failed to hold such a lead
when he bogeyed in 1966 (and lost to Nicklaus in a playoff) but
came back in 1967 to win with a par. ``You're so pumped up that
you feel you could jump off a cliff. And sometimes you do.''
``I won four Masters,'' says Palmer. ``If I could have overcome
some of the excitement of wanting to win, I could have won four
more. The excitement of winning the Masters was overwhelming.''
Never more so than in 1961. Palmer was the defending Masters and
U.S. Open champion and at the height of his powers. He had won at
Augusta in 1958 and again in 1960, when he made dramatic birdies
on the last two holes. In 1961 he started the final round four
strokes behind Player, but the South African shot 74, and Palmer
had just parred the 17th to take a one-stroke lead. A par on 18
would make Palmer the first back-to-back Masters winner in
history. He hit a superb drive, and then he made a mistake he
``I did probably the dumbest thing I ever did in my life,''
Palmer says. ``I knew you weren't supposed to do it, but I did
``I saw an old friend on the sidelines, and he waved me over. I
walked over, and he stuck his hand out and said,
`Congratulations.' My concentration, composure, everything went.
It broke my train of thought.''
Palmer had only a seven-iron left to the green, but he suddenly
couldn't contain his eagerness to win. With the pin in the left
front, he blocked his shot into the right bunker.
``I remember standing there, thinking all I needed was a four to
win; just get it up there on the green and down in two putts.
That's where I made my mistake; thinking about something besides
hitting the ball. If I'd kept my mind on swinging the club
properly, there wouldn't have been any problem.''
Now he was mad, and perhaps a little panicky. ``I tried to make
up for it with my third shot,'' he says. ``Instead of taking a
moment to cool down and study the shot, I went up to it,
hurrying to get my win. I figured I could blast out near the cup
and get the ball down with one putt.''
A career-long weakness -- bunker play -- reared its head, and
Palmer bladed his explosion across the green and down the
embankment in front of the green. Just like that, he would need a
miraculous up and down just to tie. His mind in a dither, Palmer
tried a run-up shot, knocked it 15 feet past and missed the putt.
It was a collapse that he regrets every bit as much as his failure
to hold a seven-shot lead over the final nine holes of the 1966
U.S. Open at Olympic.
``Sometimes I replay shots in my head,'' he said in his book
Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey. ``Sometimes they're good, and
sometimes they're bad. That last hole at the 1961 Masters . . .
shots like that.''
Even Nicklaus, the most pressure-proof golfer of our time,
couldn't handle the heat on 18 in 1977. Tied with Watson, Nicklaus
hit a good drive and was prepared to hit a safe six-iron into the
middle of the green for a par he figured would get him into a
playoff. But just as he began to address the shot, a huge roar
came from the 17th green, where Watson had birdied. Now one stroke
behind and needing a birdie, Nicklaus backed off and tried to
switch gears. With the pin in the front left of the green, he
debated about going to a hard seven-iron but finally decided on a
soft six. Still, he didn't properly visualize the shot and hit it
fat, leading to a killing bogey.
``I hadn't programmed the possibility that Tom would birdie, and
it shook me,'' Nicklaus wrote in his book My Most Memorable Shots
in the Majors. ``Never take anything for granted in this game. . .
. I opened myself up to a psychological uppercut at a moment of
extreme pressure, then couldn't recover from it.''
Of course, Palmer and Nicklaus had the ability and the will to
recover and win other Masters. The saddest 18th-hole failures are
those that happen to players who never get another chance.
The cruelest finish belongs to Sneed. With a three-shot lead with
three holes to play in 1979, Sneed played to the safe side of the
green on the par-3 16th but three-putted. On the 17th he hit
slightly over the green and missed a four-footer for par. Needing
a par on the 18th to win, Sneed drove well but hit a poor
seven-iron to the front edge of the bunker on the right of the
green. His chip was a good one, finishing six feet below the
hole. He read the putt to break slightly to the right. Aiming at
the left edge, Sneed hit his putt too softly and watched it die
less than an inch from the lip of the hole.
In sudden death against Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller, Sneed made pars
on the 10th and 11th holes but could only watch helplessly as
Zoeller rolled in a six-foot birdie putt on the 11th to win.
Sneed was never the same golfer after that day. But he has never
been bitter. Today, as a member of the Senior PGA Tour, he says of
Augusta, ``It's the perfect environment for the player and the
spectator. If a player doesn't feel something special coming up
the 18th of the Masters, I feel sorry for him.''