AUGUSTA, GA. -- They call it “the Rookery,” that nasty nest of trouble down the left side of Augusta National’s eighteenth hole. Tiger Woods took an unplayable there on Thursday and had to settle for bogey. Temporary first-round leader Henrik Stenson took his own unplayable, topped his next shot off the pine needles and wound up making a quadruple-bogey 8.
Today, I was trying to decide between a bag of M&M peanuts and a packet of Pepto-Bismol when the tee shot of Scott Stallings came crashing through the trees and settled up against the green fence that separates tall-pine prison from concession-stand bliss.
“I didn’t even know there was a building there,” Stallings admitted afterwards, happy to have escaped with a scrambling par.
That’s three examples, right there, of why the Rookery makes players’ hands shake when they try to put the ball on the peg on the 18th tee. Situated at the uphill end of a long, narrow corridor of pines, the Rookery is the venus flytrap of hazards. One tree in particular leans into the fairway to snatch drives in mid-flight, consigning the purloined balls to a deeply-shaded glade filled with dense shrubbery and necking teenagers. The Rookery is where Gary McCord’s body bags were dumped when they ran out of room behind the 17th green.
“So why is it,” you ask, “that I have never heard of the Rookery?”
Three reasons. The first is that I coined that nickname at around four o’clock this afternoon, when hundreds of starlings were making an uproar in the shrubs before launching themselves en masse and swooping and darting up the hill toward the clubhouse.
The second is that Left-of-18 already has a nickname, but one that is not fit for a family website because it references a well-known pro who for years has been interrupting his march up 18 to step into the Rookery and relieve himself behind a bush.
The third reason you haven’t heard of the Rookery is that this is the first Masters where the Rookery has really asserted itself -- unlike, say, the second hole’s “Delta Ticket Office,” which has a long list of victims and a clever tag line. (“Hit it there and you’ll be flying home before the weekend.”)
Seeing so many players in trouble to the left on 18 has led to speculation that new trees were planted over the winter. This turns out not to be the case, but I overheard a white-jump-suited forecaddie telling a spectator that two magnolia trees below the left fairway bunkers have doubled in height in the past decade.
“We’ve certainly had more action down here than normal,” said a young man who returns to the Rookery every year. “Wednesday morning, right over there, a guy goes down on one knee, pulls out a ring and proposes to his girlfriend. And I’ve seen a couple of celebrities -- Rick Reilly and Tom Fazio.”
Having taken it upon myself to investigate, I can tell you that the Rookery is actually a great spot for spectating, as long as you’re shade tolerant and don’t mind confined spaces. You practically rub shoulders with the pros and caddies who turn up a few minutes after the sharp report of ball on bark, and you get to be on a first-name basis with the rules officials who haunt the glade. You witness blowups by the likes of Stenson -- who scattered pine needles with a violent swing after botching his first-round recovery shot -- but you also see sparkling saves like Stallings’.
Best of all, you have a fantastic view from behind the players who manage to hit the 18th fairway. Today I watched Phil Mickelson’s approach shot rocket up the hill, draw back across the front-left bunker and land near the pin to a roar from the greenside spectators. (He went on to make his putt for birdie and a second-round 68.) It wasn’t a bird’s-eye view, but it was as good as it gets on 18.
I didn’t feel rooked.