Posted March 22, 2016, 3:25 pm
Reversing the Nines: Early decision set the stage for Masters Tournament drama
Bobby Jones wandered down to the 15th green to watch the last few groups at the 1935 Masters Tournament.
Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen - two of Jones' friends and toughest competitors - were on the par-5 hole. A few moments before, a loud roar had made its way from the 18th green down to the golfers. They soon learned that Craig Wood had birdied the final hole to move three shots in front of Sarazen.
Things looked bleak for Sarazen, who was running out of holes to catch Wood. He asked his caddie, Stovepipe, what he needed to win.
"Oooh, you need four 3s, Mister Gene, 3, 3, 3, 3," was Stovepipe's response, according to Sarazen's biography.
Facing a distance of about 230 yards, Sarazen's 4-wood shot cleared the stream in front of the green, hit the bank and rolled into the cup. The double eagle - the toughest feat in golf - lifted Sarazen into a tie for the lead. It put Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters on the map. He defeated Wood in a 36-hole playoff the next day.
The groundwork for Sarazen's double eagle - and all of the memorable shots and drama that have followed - was laid by Jones and tournament co-founder Clifford Roberts a few months earlier.
They reversed the nines - the current 10th hole used to be the first hole - and the rest is golf history. The majority of the key turning points in the tournament - from Byron Nelson's charge in 1937 to Jack Nicklaus' improbable win in 1986 and Greg Norman's collapse in 1996 - occurred on the second nine.
A panel of golfers, architects and media responded to questions about the reversal and how that decision made the Masters what it is today.
It's hard to imagine the Masters without Sarazen's double eagle or all the Sunday drama, but that could be the reality if not for the club's decision. With Rae's Creek flowing through Amen Corner and water guarding the 15th and 16th greens, the panelists agreed, the decision was a no-brainer.
Geoff Shackelford, an author and course architect who has written extensively on golf , said that combination is hard to beat.
"Let's face it, the water just brings in an element of risk, drama and beauty that no other architectural feature can manage to inject into the course," he said.
Why they were flipped
Not everyone is familiar with the change in nines and some just assume the course was routed that way from the beginning.
"I did not know that. You just told me something I've never heard," six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said. "I like it better this way. I think the whole back nine is a lot more exciting than the front nine. I think we all feel that way."
Even Charles Howell, who grew up in Augusta and has played in the Masters seven times, didn't know about the flip.
"I would think that's one of the best decisions I've ever heard relating to that golf tournament," he said.
Jones chose architect Alister Mackenzie to help him design his dream course. From the purchase of the Fruitland Nurseries property in 1931 to the opening of the course in December 1932, it took less than two years for Augusta National to open.
Mackenzie, who died in January 1934 and never saw tournament play at Augusta National, conceived of the current configuration in his original sketch of the course. He flipped them sometime during construction.
"I think that at some point, Mackenzie's thoughts about 10 changed when he thought of it as the first hole and when he thought of it as the 10th hole," said David Owen, who wrote The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf's Most Prestigious Tournament. "Everyone makes a good swing from an elevated tee."
The decision to reverse the nines generated little publicity. The Augusta Chronicle ran a small notice in its Nov. 16, 1934,
edition and announced that the course would open its winter season the next week:
"It was also announced that the order of play over the course will be changed this year, with the back nine holes and the front nine reversed. Under the new plans, No. 10 hole will become No. 1 and the old No. 1 will be No. 10. The change was decided, officials said, because the first nine holes are more difficult to play than the last nine, and playing the easier holes first will give players an opportunity to warm up before reaching the intricate problems of the difficult holes."
The article credits Roberts and others with making the change:
"It was stated that decision to reverse the order of play on the course was reached at a conference in New York by Clifford Roberts, executive secretary of the club, Grantland Rice and other officials."
Roberts commissioned an analysis of how the holes played for the top 24 finishers, and his findings were released in February 1935.
Two par-4 holes - Nos. 5 and 14 (then Nos. 14 and 5) - ranked the hardest with stroke averages of 4.354. The easiest hole was the par-5 15th (then No. 6) with an average of 4.552.
Jones, using that data to write a stroke analysis in March 1935 for The American Golfer, noted that the putting surfaces of the fifth and 14th holes made them tricky. He compared them to the 18th hole at St. Andrews, which is protected only by a deep depression at the front of the green known as the Valley of Sin.
Jones also expressed his pleasure with the par-5 holes being played under par, and he foreshadowed some of the excitement to come in future Masters.
"I think a par five should always be of the kind that can be played as a great par four if the player is man enough to do so," Jones wrote. "Holes like this give the big hitter a chance to do his stuff."
In his book The Story of the Augusta National Golf Club, Roberts attributed the change to weather.
"The change was made because we learned through experience that play could begin earlier after a frost on what is now the first nine, due to its being on higher ground," he wrote. "The switch was made in time for the fall season club opening (in 1934)."
Owen, who had access to club records when writing his book, pointed out that the club struggled in its early years.
"I don't know who made the call, but I think the credit goes to the weather," he said. "I think it was a practical consideration. I think they were trying to keep their heads above water. They weren't considering spectacular finishes."
Mackenzie's original sketch was discovered in 1983, but by then Jones and Roberts were no longer alive.
Charles Price wrote in A Golf Story: Bobby Jones, Augusta National and the Masters Tournament that Jones knew what he had on the course's second nine.
"Jones had never mentioned the switch to anybody alive in 1983, and whether he did so with Mackenzie's approval cannot be known," Price wrote. "But a qualified guess would be that Jones thought that Mackenzie's back nine, when actually built with Jones's other alterations, was measurably easier than his front, what with the old tenth, eleventh, fifteenth and sixteenth holes, which have since been turned from relatively platitudinous holes to some of the more challenging."
Augusta National's second nine - Jones thought it uncivilized to call it the "back side" - has been the epicenter of the tournament's history since 1935.
According to golf writer O.B. Keeler's newspaper account the next day, Sarazen had a premonition on the 14th hole that year. He had hooked his tee shot into the rough, and that's when he heard the roar from Wood's birdie on the final hole.
"Well, Gene, that looks as if it's all over," Hagen said to Sarazen, according to Keeler's report.
The Squire, though, was not giving up.
"Oh, I don't know," Sarazen replied. "They might go in from anywhere."
One hole later, Sarazen backed up his statement. His double eagle gave the tournament its first signature moment.
"Hagen smiled and shook his head. ... There were not more than a dozen spectators by the green, one of whom happened to be Bobby Jones, who had wandered down from the clubhouse out of curiosity, possibly because of the friendly rivalry between Sarazen and Hagen," Price wrote in A Golf Story. "The ball struck the far bank of the water hazard abutting the green, skipped onto the putting surface, and softly rolled into the cup for a two."
When news of the double eagle reached the clubhouse minutes later, not everyone believed it. Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner and historian of the game, recounted an oft-told tale of a skeptic.
"I don't know how it was carried, but the runner or somebody said, 'Mr. Gene done made a two on 15,'" Crenshaw said. "A guy in the clubhouse said 'No, you've got the holes wrong, 16 is a par 3.' And the guy said, 'No, Mr. Gene done made a two on 15.' No one could believe him for a second."
The water guarding the 15th is more pronounced than it was in the early days of the tournament. The stream was transformed into a small pond in 1961.
Still, it was a daunting shot.
"You had to hit a good second shot," said Errie Ball, the last living competitor from the first Masters. "They're hitting irons for the second shot (now), where we were hitting woods and sometimes couldn't reach it."
If the nines had not been reversed and Sarazen faced a similar shot on what would have been the sixth hole, it is impossible to know what he would have done. He might have laid up. Or he might have gone for it. No matter where it came in the round, a double eagle would have been impressive, Shackelford said.
"A double eagle in the final round is a double eagle in the final round!" he wrote.
Golf writer Dan Jenkins, who has covered the Masters since the early 1950s, disagrees.
"The double eagle legend would be lost," he said. "A double eagle on No. 6. So what?"
Imagine the roar such a shot would produce today. It would be part of television highlight packages forever, and it would be an Internet sensation.
The only tangible remnants of Sarazen's double eagle - quickly dubbed the Shot Heard 'Round the World - are the club and ball he used to achieve the feat. They are part of the display in the Trophy Room in the clubhouse.
Sarazen made pars on the remaining three holes. A 36-hole playoff with Wood was held the next day. It was the only time the Masters used that format, and Sarazen prevailed by five shots over Wood.
"There had never before been a shot in an important tournament as sensational as that double eagle, and one can understand how nearly everything else about that Masters has been forgotten - Sarazen's three closing pars, for one thing, and the playoff, for another," Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Following Through.
From the beginning, Rae's Creek and its tributary offered a line of defense at Augusta National. Bobby Jones, though, wasn't satisfied with what he and Mackenzie had created.
After the first Masters, Jones extended the aprons on four greens toward the fairways to make them easier.
"Bobby said with the greens as they were before the alterations, run-up approach shots were required in many instances, which were rather problematical in their results because of the uncertain nature of the ground immediately in front of the green," an article in The Chronicle said. "He believes extension of the carpets will make for greater accuracy in the approaches and more pleasure in playing them."
After the nines were reversed, Jones and Roberts brought a handful of architects in through the years to make significant alterations.
Robert Trent Jones was commissioned by Jones to improve the 11th and 16th holes. The two were not related.
The "other" Jones added a pond to the left of the 11th green and moved the tees to the left of the 10th green. The changes immediately turned 11 into a challenging par-4 with water coming into play on the second shot.
At the 16th, the architect transformed a small stream that ran in front of the green into a pond that ran the length of the fairway. He also shifted the tees from right of the 15th green to their present location. Instead of a relatively benign pitch, golfers faced a more difficult tee shot and a trickier green.
"So like a good castle defender, the introduction of water, which was already present at the creek, was expanded by the new lakes on No. 11 and No. 16 by my father," said Robert Trent Jones Jr., also a renowned architect. "And as Bobby Jones so famously stated, the difference between a bunker and a water hazard is the difference between a car crash and a plane crash. You can recover from the former but not the latter."
Risk and reward
Augusta National's first nine is an outstanding test of golf. A demanding par-4 opener, a stern par-3 and two inviting par-5s are among the highlights.
But those holes weren't televised regularly, and the world fell in love with Augusta National's final nine.
And why not? It had Rae's Creek coming into play at all three holes of Amen Corner, plus water hazards at the 15th and 16th holes.
Throw in the tough 18th hole, and the second nine was a clear winner. Bobby Jones acknowledged those attributes in an article in the early 1950s.
"We have always felt that the make-or-break character of many of the holes of our second nine has been largely responsible for rewarding our spectators with so many dramatic finishes," Jones wrote. "It has always been a nine that could be played in the low thirties or the middle forties."
The final-nine charges of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and others are part of Augusta's lore, but so too are the numerous failures.
Amateur Billy Joe Patton found water on 13 and 15 in 1954 and missed out on the Sam Snead-Ben Hogan playoff by a shot. Curtis Strange, three decades later, suffered a similar fate on the par-5 holes. Greg Norman, in his epic collapse in 1996, hit tee shots into the water on both 12 and 16.
Lack of water on the current front nine is the main difference between the two nines, the experts agreed.
"The element of temptation is what makes Augusta National really succeed as the ultimate tournament course and the water hazards are utilized in a way that they are not overly penal," Shackelford wrote. "They tempt players to do crazy things, and without that, you just don't never quite ask them to make the kinds of grueling decisions that the current back nine calls upon."
Without water, or if the nines had not been reversed, the Masters would be diminished, some panelists say.
"No water, meaning less dramatic moments, would make it quite boring, frankly," Jenkins wrote.
Crenshaw, whose highlight reel at Augusta includes the 60-foot birdie putt at the 10th in 1984, agreed.
"Anybody who plays the back nine, it's just a more heroic nine," he said. "The front nine is tougher to play. But there's more thrilling things that can happen on the back nine, as we all know."
Golfers make bogeys by missing greens or three-putting all the time. But finding water makes far better theater.
"At Augusta, that made sudden drama when the ball, in the air, was either safe or sorry and had fallen to a watery grave along with the medal play score of that round," Jones Jr. wrote. "This is what makes Augusta, Augusta!"
Front nine as back
Only one tournament in Augusta National history was played with the nines opposite what they are today. That was 1934, the inaugural Augusta National Invitation Tournament, and Horton Smith ran in a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole (now eighth hole) for a one-shot victory over Craig Wood.
Smith won the Masters in 1936, which makes him the only person to have won the tournament under two different course configurations. Dramatics were a part of Smith's second win, as he chipped in from 50 feet at No. 14 and added another birdie at No. 15 for a one-shot win.
Ball recalled how tough the starting holes were in 1934 before the nines were switched for good.
"It was important to get through the first three holes in par to get the round started," he said. "You could make a birdie on holes 4 and 6, and 8 and 9 played completely different than they do now. They're much tougher today than back in my day."
What if the nines had remained the same and generations of Masters fans grew up watching the action unfold on Sunday afternoon on a stretch of holes far different than the current nine? It's a fun game to play, even if the answer will never be known.
"Well, the entire dynamic of the course would change and it would be one where you had better get off to a great start type of course," Shackelford wrote. "Generally those are not great for tournament play. For a club game, it's great because you build slowly to the tough stuff. But in the case of Augusta, there's just no way the course works as well without the nines having been reversed. It'd be like opening up a Beethoven symphony with one of his great codas."
Holes 4, 5 and 6 are often referred to as the front nine's version of Amen Corner because of their difficulty - two difficult par-3s around a par-4 with a tricky green.
"Holes 4, 5 and 6 are all underrated because we don't see much of them on the telecasts," wrote Tom Doak, a golf course architect who has studied Mackenzie's works extensively. "The first two are rarely birdied and often bogeyed, while No. 6 has a couple of the toughest hole locations on the golf course - it would be a frightening 15th played under pressure."
Augusta National's current back nine builds to a crescendo at the 16th, and then players must navigate the difficult 17th and 18th. Birdies on those holes are rare, and only six men have birdied the 18th to win the Masters.
Flipping the nines would give players a reachable par-5 (the current eighth) on the 71st hole and a tricky putting surface on the 72nd hole.
"No doubt that No. 8 in those days, a player, maybe more often, could get to that green in two," Crenshaw said.
"Possibilities of a 3 were probably, say, a little more attainable. No. 9 has a playing value a little like 18, but it's a different hole."
"The current No. 8 would be an exciting 17th with guys going for the green in two on the 71st hole, and then trying to get up and down from all over the place," he wrote.
The false front of the ninth green, though, could produce some interesting moments if it were the home hole.
"If you are short, the ball will roll back 30, 40 yards and if you are long, you are putting downhill toward the hole and obviously, the bunker is always in play, snarling at you with its big, white face from the second shot," Jones Jr. said. "It takes great precision, particularly on the approach shot - as it should and does on the current No. 18 as well."
The first nine has had its share of dramatic moments. The eighth has yielded plenty of eagles through the years - Bruce Devlin made a double eagle there in 1967 - and Nicklaus began his charge in 1986 with a birdie at 9.
Though No. 4 has only been aced once (Jeff Sluman, 1992), the sixth has yielded a few more. The most famous came in 1954, when Patton was chasing Snead and Hogan.
"My favorite story on the front? Easy. Billy Joe Patton goes for broke and loses," said Sid Matthew, an authority on Jones. "Bobby Jones is crestfallen that the amateur couldn't quite make history for eternity. The press are like turkey buzzards trying to peck the eyes out of the story. They ask Jones, 'Don't you think Billy Joe should have played safe coming down the stretch?' Jones shot back, 'He wasn't playing safe when he made that hole-in-one on No. 6, was he?'"
Augusta National's second nine - thanks to the combination of spectacular shots and television coverage - is ingrained in the subconscious of golf fans around the world.
"I think people who have never come within 1,000 miles of the place have a very vivid memory of the course," said Owen, author of The Making of the Masters. "All the famous things, like Freddie Couples' ball staying out of the water. When golfers play those holes in the tournament, those moments are almost like a physical part of those holes. You're playing that as well as the course."
No wonder that some of the tournament's most famous moments - Tiger Woods' chip that hung on the lip at No. 16 before falling in, or Larry Mize's improbable shot on No. 11 to win a sudden-death playoff - can be described by fans almost down to the last detail.
"It has the power, in part, because we are so familiar with it," Owen said.
Augusta National's founding fathers made the correct decision to change the nines, and they had the vision to make further improvements on holes that needed tweaking.
"I think as the holes unfold, there's no question that 12, 13 and 15, 16 now, that it's the routing and that they had it right when they changed," Crenshaw said.
It would be hard to imagine the second nine getting any better, but Jenkins had an intriguing idea.
"I would like to add one more thought," Jenkins wrote. "What if the clubhouse was down at the bottom, and the last four holes were 10, 11, 12, and 13? It would be the all-time greatest finish in the history of golf."
FAVORITE SECOND-NINE MOMENTS
"To me, it's both of Jack Nicklaus' years in '75 and '86. Both of those years, the way they unfolded, it was just spectacular. In 1975's case, it was Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf and how they were changing scores left and right. 1986 involved Seve Ballesteros, Jack and Tom Kite. The way Jack played those holes was just magical."
- Ben Crenshaw, two-time Masters Champion
"I'm not going out on a limb saying that everything about the '86 Masters' final round supersedes about all other moments. It's the most perfect day of tournament golf ever played, and it all really happened on the back nine."
- Geoff Shackelford, author and golf course architect
"I think the Nicklaus charge with his son as a caddie and proving a 46-year-old man can win a championship was pretty awesome. I saw Ben Hogan shoot his 30 on the back nine. ... That was pretty sensational, too."
- Rees Jones, golf course architect, son of Robert Trent Jones
"Palmer in '60, '62. Nicklaus in '75, '86. Hogan shooting 30 on the back in '67 - at the age of 55!"
- Dan Jenkins, golf writer who has covered more than 50 Masters
For years, the only way to truly appreciate Augusta National's opening nine was to see the Masters in person. Live television coverage of the first nine was off limits, and taped highlights of those holes were a rarity.
"It should have been shown all along," former CBS announcer Ben Wright said. "In my opinion, if you're going to have the facilities, you should show the leaders. I applaud the club for finally opening the door to that."
Augusta National relented and let CBS telecast full 18-hole coverage on Sundays beginning in 2002, but by then the influence of the second nine was overwhelming. No other stretch of holes in the history of golf has been televised more.
The early decision to change the nines isn't lost on CBS announcer Jim Nantz.
"You don't know how many times I've walked out there and thought abut the nines being flipped and what it would be like," said Nantz, who has seen plenty of drama unfold over the final nine. "Just imagining, the ninth being the 18th. Not many things happen at Augusta that haven't been given deep thought. But by the second year, they had changed the nines."
In 1975, Nicklaus outdueled Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf for his fifth green jacket. It also produced a memorable exchange between announcers.
When Nicklaus' tee shot on the par-3 16th came up about 40 feet short, and Weiskopf had just made birdie on the adjacent 15th hole to go up by a shot, a large cheer erupted from the gallery.
"That is evil music ringing in Nicklaus' ears," Wright said.
But Nicklaus sank the improbable birdie putt, breaking into a celebratory trot as his caddie jumped for joy.
"That has to be the greatest putt I ever saw in my life," said Henry Longhurst, who was calling the action for CBS on the 16th hole. "And now Weiskopf will have to take it as he dished it out before."
"1975 tends to get a little overshadowed by the heroics of 1986. I have goosebumps because I can see it clearly as yesterday," Wright said. "Players were stepping back when they didn't want to hear an enormous roar. In 1986, I had never heard applause as loud as that in all my time."