All major sports have their iconic arenas. Madison Square Garden, the Molson Center, Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl, the All-England Tennis Club. But the world's greatest golfers interact with their venues in a way that no other sport can match. A great golf course is a main character in the drama the way a great city can be a major presence in a great film. And few golf courses can match the aggregate talent that sweeps across their tees, fairways and greens every year like Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.
It is hard to imagine that even the most grand ambitions of founder Clifford Roberts and all-time great amateur Bobby Jones for their club could have matched the iconic status achieved since it opened in 1933. The current second nine was the front nine, the tournament name "Masters" was six years from being conceived and six-time champion Jack Nicklaus would not be born for seven. The Great Depression scuttled plans for a second full course, although the Par Three Course would open in 1958, created not by MacKenzie (who had included a short course in his original plans) but by Roberts and architect George Cobb.
But however bumpy its beginnings, the club and its tournament grew in notoriety into golf's annual rite of spring. How?
The golf course. In terms of architecture, Augusta National is as far from an authentic expression of a single architect's vision as can be. Alister MacKenzie gets credit at the very beginning, but he had input from Roberts, Jones and even venerated amateur golfer and recent World Golf Hall of Fame inductee Marion Hollins, who served as MacKenzie's eyes and ears during the construction process.
The proceeding decades have welcomed a who's-who of noted architects to Augusta to nip, tuck and tinker with practically every aspect of every hole: Perry Maxwell, Robert Trent Jones, Sr., George Cobb, Joe Finger, Bob Cupp, George Fazio, Tom Fazio. One could assume the course would become something of a hodgepodge, but over the years it has become more and more its inimitable self. The broad, almost impossibly-green expanse of grass, the bright-white bunkers, the rich reddish pine straw and crisp blue water with splashes of flower hues forms a palette that thousands of golf courses strive for - often at great expense - but perpetually fail to achieve to the same extent that Augusta National has patented.
The hyperreality atmosphere of Augusta National is the platform on which the design of the golf course sits. As at many great courses, it is the green complexes that set it apart. A former Augusta National caddie once told me that learning the subtle and overt breaks on the greens was as complicated as an upper-level college class. The complexity of the greens makes local knowledge and experience invaluable, as knowing where to miss certain shots carries equal importance to having the ability to execute them correctly. These safe misses also change from one day to the next as pin positions migrate around the putting surfaces. Even as technology threatens to make golf more one-dimensional than it used to be, Augusta National rewards a cerebral approach and careful planning as much as physical prowess. Players who put both of these skills together have the best chance to don a green jacket by week's end.
Hole No. 1 - Tea Olive
Par 4, 445 yards
No gentle handshake here. The opening hole at Augusta National is historically the sixth-toughest on the course, with an all-time scoring average of a quarter-shot over par. Players hit into an upslope, which tempers any chance of significant rollout, and the opposite positioning of the hole's two bunkers - fairway bunker on the right, greenside bunker on the left - make it something of a "switchback" hole, immediately testing a player's comfort with working the ball both ways. Like many greens on the course, the putting surface sheds marginal shots down into chipping areas and features distinct sections. It took Ernie Els seven putts - six of them within three feet - to hole out here in the first round of the 2016 Masters.
Hole No. 2 - Pink Dogwood
Par 5, 575 yards
This downhill, sweeping dogleg-left offers a great chance for a birdie or eagle if players can skirt both the lone fairway bunker to the right and the forested ravine to the left. Two greenside bunkers pinch the opening of the angled, T-shaped green, which falls from short-left down to the back-right corner, where the traditional Sunday hole location sits. The tilt of the putting surface is such that well-calibrated approaches can drift down from the front corner of the green on a 30-yard journey toward the cup. In 2012, Louis Oosthuizen pulled this shot off to perfection, making a 2 en route to his runner-up finish to Bubba Watson in the year's memorable playoff.
Hole No. 3 - Flowering Peach
Par 4, 350 yards
Although recent increases in driving distance have prompted changes to several holes at Augusta National and other great championship golf courses, there is a case to be made that this hole has become more intriguing as a result. Players can lay back next to a nest of four fairway bunkers and leave a full wedge, or they can elect to drive the ball close to the small, right-to-left-tilting green, but at the risk of leaving themselves an extremely delicate uphill pitch if they stray left. When the cup is located on the green's shallow front-left lobe, it is not uncommon to see players miss the green from as close as 30 yards. What the hole lacks in length, it makes up in guile and demands on every player's powers of precision.
Hole No. 4 - Flowering Crab Apple
Par 3, 240 yards
The longest par 3 on the golf course plays downhill to an L-shaped green with two bunkers lapping at its edges. When the hole is cut close over the right-front bunker, it can seem impossible to access, but a backstop exists that can gather the ball close if a player judges everything correctly. Phil Mickelson's bid to win the 2012 Masters ended here when he made a triple-bogey 6.
Hole No. 5 - Magnolia
Par 4, 495 yards
Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie were both inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews when they set out to create Augusta National. This hole's green complex invokes the famous Road Hole, the legendary 17th hole of the ancient links. It is long and difficult like its inspiration, with a green that is very difficult to hold because of a massive false front that rejects anything but a soaring approach. Merely having a chance to attack this green is far from certain, as two yawning fairway bunkers squeeze the fairway on the left off the tee.
Hole No. 6 - Juniper
Par 3, 180 yards
Multifaceted greens are a major theme at Augusta National, and this downhill par 3's putting surface is eclectic, and can make the hole play dramatically different one day to the next. When the hole is located on the small back-left tier, it can seem like one must hit a mid-iron onto a car hood. When it is located in the lower-left portion of the green, holes-in-one are not out of the question, like the one Corey Conners made in the final round of the 2021 Masters.
Hole No. 7 - Pampas
Par 4, 450 yards
In the several rounds of changes Augusta National has seen this century, few have been as significant as the lengthening of this hole by nearly 100 yards, turning it from a wood and a wedge to a drive (down a straight, narrow corridor) and a middle-iron uphill to a green surrounded by bunkers. In spite of its length, it can still provide thrills when players can use the slope of the green to work the ball backwards toward a cup cut in a low area.
Hole No. 8 - Yellow Jasmine
Par 5, 570 yards
Augusta National's par 5s separate the best drivers of the golf ball by rewarding a great tee shot significantly more than a mediocre one. That is especially true here; avoiding the yawning fairway bunker off the tee sets up a slinging right-to-left fairway wood up the hill to this unique green couched by mounds. The preferred side to miss will change with the pin position each day.
Hole No. 9 - Carolina Cherry
Par 4, 460 yards
Length off the tee is a big factor here, due to the angle of this hole's famous stair-stepped green that every year forces some players to have to putt with their backs to the cup when they are out of position. The farther - and farther right - a player can position a drive down this fairway, the less he will have to deal with the bunkers that hug the left side of the putting surface.
Hole No. 10 - Camellia
Par 4, 495 yards
Players will need to calibrate both how far they plan to fly their tee shots and how much they will turn them from right to left here. Not enough sweep and they can lose out on as much as 50 or 60 yards of extra roll down the hill. The course's most expressively shaped bunker - which fronted the green in the early days - serves as a foreground to the approach to a severely tilted green from back-right to front left. The hardest hole over the course of Masters history, this is part of the reason for the famous adage about the tournament not truly beginning until the second nine on Sunday.
Hole No. 11 - White Dogwood
Par 4, 520 yards
After a tee shot that needs to hug the right tree line for the best angle, players head into championship golf's grand living room: Amen Corner. The green tilts toward the pond, but the two mounds that front the putting surface can be used by a clever and steel-nerved player to sling a long approach close to the day's pin position.
Changes for 2022: The Masters tees have been moved 15 yards back and to the left, straightening the hole slightly. The fairway has also been recontoured and some trees along the right side of the fairway have been removed. The cumulative effect of these changes is to bring the hole closer to its original strategic intent, where playing down the right off the tee granted a more advantageous look down the hill toward the green than taking a safer line to the left.
Hole No. 12 - Golden Bell
Par 3, 155 yards
What more can be said about this hole that photos don't already communicate? What a contrast players face between the stadium-like atmosphere of the tee box and the quiet remove of the green complex tucked between Rae's Creek, three bunkers and the forested edge of the property. What perplexing swirling winds await them. What momentum-building birdies and round-killing double-bogeys await. What a special place in the game.
Hole No. 13 - Azalea
Par 5, 510 yards
A testament to the advantages of using the natural contours of the land to fashion interesting golf, Alister MacKenzie did little to manipulate this hole, which has become known as one of the best three-shotters in the world. The tilt of the fairway makes even a mid-iron approach over a tributary of Rae's Creek exciting due to the practically unavoidable hanging lies players will face. The two-level green reveals a diverse set of pin positions, all of which require players to approach the green in subtly different ways. Local knowledge is paramount at Augusta National, and this hole is one of the reasons why.
Hole No. 14 - Chinese Fir
Par 4, 440 yards
Augusta National's only bunkerless hole is a strong argument for why bunkers are overrated and overused on many courses. Contour, like that found on and around this heaving green, provides plenty of challenge and day-to-day variety. The typical Sunday back-center hole location provides ample opportunity for hole-outs, while a middle-left pin needs to be approached very cautiously.
Hole No. 15 - Firethorn
Par 5, 550 yards
The final of Augusta National's superlative par fives plays over a rise and down to one of the more intimidating greens in golf. The shallow putting surface shrugs balls off the front into a pond just as easily as the back can springboard approaches toward and even into the pond that fronts the 16th tee. Players who lay up are faced with one of the toughest wedge shots in the game, off a downslope to the crowned putting surface. That is what makes approaches like Jack Nicklaus' 4-iron in 1986 and Sergio Garcia's 8-iron in 2017 so heroic. Each led to eagles that propelled their authors to victory.
Changes for 2022: Masters tees have been moved back 20 yards and the fairway has been recontoured. This should add a little more risk to the second shot by forcing players to hit a longer club.
Hole No. 16 - Redbud
Par 3, 170 yards
Once again, the large and sweeping contours of Augusta National's greens make this hole play drastically differently one day to the next. When the cup is cut on the elevated right half of the green, birdies can be scarce. But come Sunday, when the pin position sits on the lower left-hand portion of the green, holes-in-one are not uncommon, despite the cup's proximity to the water. It is a versatile, exciting hole that always plays a starring role in the late drama of any tense edition of the Masters.
Hole No. 17 - Nandina
Par 4, 440 yards
Although the famed Eisenhower Tree has been gone for eight years, this hole still perplexes players every year. The contours of the green come courtesy of Perry Maxwell, who updated it from MacKenzie's original design in 1937. Those "Maxwell rolls" make approaches from even the ideal position off the tee tricky. Many golfers have had the green jacket slip through their fingers here.
Hole No. 18 - Holly
Par 4, 465 yards
It is far from the flashiest hole at Augusta National, but it is a sturdy, solid test worthy of the dozens of major championships that have been settled on its two-level putting surface. First things first, though: the drive must get through the chute of trees at the bottom of the hill and come to rest short of the two fairway bunkers. As is the case throughout the course, the traditional Sunday pin position sits in a low area over the front greenside bunker, ripe for a heroic approach that either takes dead aim or uses the sideboard and backboard slopes to feed a ball close.
Changes for 2022: The Masters tee box has been extended back by 13 yards, but the official yardage of the hole remains at 465 yards, where it has stood since 2002. This change should give those in charge of daily course setup some more options in different wind directions, but will not be likely to have a material effect on the hole.