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Scoring well on par-5s always critical at Augusta

This news story was published on April 2, 2012.
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By Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it 1,000 times: the key to winning the Masters Tournament is mastering the greens at Augusta National.

It’s all about the putting surfaces, those tilting, sloping, humpbacked mounds of green greased lightning. Slick as polished glass and as confounding as an algorithm, the shaved-to-a-nub greens are where the Masters is won and lost.

It’s true, but only to a degree. A golfer cannot three-putt his way to the green jacket, but he also does not have to make everything.

What he must do, above all else, is take advantage of the four par-5 holes.

“I agree,” said Andy North, the two-time U.S. Open champion and ESPN analyst. “It’s hard to win without playing the par-5s well.”

Golfers who tee it up this week in the 76th Masters will tackle a 7,435-yard monster on which only one par-4 is shorter than 440 yards, the par-3s can be brutally difficult and trouble lurks around every dogleg and behind every dogwood.

“If you don’t take advantage of (the par-5s),” North said, “you can go days there without getting good birdie putts.”

Augusta National has been lengthened by more than 500 yards since a 21-year-old Tiger Woods overpowered the course in 1997, winning the first of his four Masters titles with a tournament-record 18-under-par 270 total.

It was a wakeup call for the club, which runs the Masters and recognized that Woods was on the leading edge of a wave of golfers who would show up in Augusta increasingly more athletic, better trained and armed with superior equipment.

The Masters committee responded over the next decade not only by moving tees back but by planting trees, adding a “second cut” (club parlance for rough), re-grading fairways and rebuilding bunkers.

On the par-4 11th alone, the green, pond and bunker complex were adjusted in 1999; the tees were moved back 30 to 35 yards and a portion of the fairway landing area was re-graded in 2002; 36 pine trees were added to the right side of the fairway in 2004; the tees were moved back 10 to 15 yards, more trees were added to the right side of the fairway and the fairway was shifted to the left in 2005; and, perhaps conceding it had gone too far, the club removed several trees and widened the fairway in 2008.

Bobby Jones would barely recognize the hole, which now measures 505 yards and is the most difficult on the course in relation to par (the field averaged 4.331 in 2011).

North said Augusta National has begun to resemble a U.S. Open course in that par is a good score on most holes.

“You can’t make up shots there,” he said. “You can’t run off a ridiculous number of birdies like you once could.”

True, but the par-5s — Nos. 2, 8, 13 and 15 — still offer refuge from the bogeyman. None is a pushover, but all can be had.

“A lot of the other holes you’re playing for a par and trying not to make a mistake and give something back,” said Steve Stricker, who has two top-10 finishes in 11 Masters starts. “The par-5s are where you can gain some momentum.”

An examination of the scorecards of the last 10 Masters champions proves Stricker’s point.

The average winning score over that span was 9.6 under par and the champions played the par-5s in 8.5 under, which means they made the bulk of their birdies on those holes.

“They’re the major scoring holes,” said former PGA champion Paul Azinger, who played in 15 Masters. “They’ve added a lot of length, a little bit of rough and a bunch of trees, so accuracy plays a little more of a part. It’s not the bomber’s paradise that it once was, but you’ve still got to get the par-5s.”

Phil Mickelson played the par-5s in 13-under when he won with a score of 7-under in 2006. That means he played the rest of the course in 6-over. Mike Weir played the par-5s in 10-under when he won at 7-under in 2003.

“Very few winners play the par-5s a couple under and the rest of the course a bunch under,” North said. “That doesn’t happen there very often.”

In his four Masters victories, Woods has played the par-5s in a combined 35-under. His aggregate score in those tournaments is 58-under.

“Tiger has made a career out of killing the par-5s,” Azinger said.

Perhaps the most extreme example is that of Zach Johnson, who laid up on every par-5 in all four rounds in 2007 but used a razor-sharp wedge game to play them in 11-under; he won with a 1-over total in difficult conditions.

In all Masters rounds since 1934, the par-5s have produced average scores of 4.79 (No. 15), 4.80 (No. 13), 4.80 (No. 2) and 4.84 (No. 8). The other 14 holes have average scores above par, producing an all-time 18-hole average of 74.19 (minus-.77 on the par-5s, plus-2.96 on all other holes).

“The par-5s are so important,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who played in 20 Masters and finished second in 1985. “They always are. They’re important every week, but even more so because of the way the game has changed.”

It’s not that birdies are impossible to make elsewhere. Stricker said that depending on the flagstick locations and wind, some of the par-4s could be considered birdie holes on certain days.

“No. 3 is a birdie hole,” he said. “No. 7, if you drive it down there in the fairway, is a birdie hole. No. 9 can be. Every once in a while they give you a decent pin, like at 16 (a par-3), when the pin is down on the bottom. But when they put it front-right by the bunker, you’re just trying to make a par.

“You’ve got to try to pick your spots. One day a hole may be a birdie hole and the next day you’re happy with par.”

That’s why the par-5s are critically important. Though they still require good drives and second shots — whether the golfer goes for the green or lays up to a favorable wedge yardage — the par-5s are birdie holes every day.

“You don’t have to go for them and sometimes it’s a little bit easier when you do lay up and give yourself a good number,” Stricker said. “On No. 13 or No. 2, you have to be in the right spots, whether that means laying up or going for it and putting yourself in a good spot up by the green.

“You have to play smart and not do something out of your game plan.”

In addition to their strategic importance, the par-5s have provided some of the most dramatic moments in Masters history.

The 15th is where Gene Sarazen holed a 4-wood for a rare double-eagle in 1935 — the “shot heard ‘round the world” that helped put the Masters (then called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament) on the map. The 13th is where Phil Mickelson made an improbable birdie from the pine straw en route to his emotional victory in 2010. Jack Nicklaus birdied 13 and eagled 15 in the final round in 1986, when he won his sixth and final green jacket at 46.

In the end it doesn’t matter whether a golfer eagles the par-5s with highlight-reel shots or birdies them with second-putt tap-ins. What matters is that if he wants to win the Masters, par on those holes won’t get it done.

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