AUGUSTA, GA. -- It was Friday afternoon at the Masters, but the press room jumbotron seemed to be showing an episode of Survivor. There was a close-up of roots and undergrowth, and then the camera pulled back to reveal an impenetrable wall of foliage. I wasn’t interested until the dark fabric of the jungle shuddered and something moved in the shadows. A hand pulled back some branches, and Rory McIlroy emerged.
“What’s Rory gotten into?” asked the fellow in Row G.
“Gotta be the fourth hole,” I replied.
Turns out it was leafage adjacent to the fifth tee, but Rory was playing the fourth hole. And I knew it was the fourth because Augusta National’s el numero cuatro is the Venus flytrap of par-3s, the place where mishit golf balls contribute to biological diversity. It was the fourth, you’ll recall, that cost Phil Mickelson his fourth green jacket when a restless grandstand railing batted his ball into a dense stand of bamboo. (A few feet over, according to a botanist friend, Phil would have encountered a succulent that punctures and deflates small mammals before consuming the fur.)
The fourth is called “Flowering Crab Apple” -- they grow down the right side of the hole -- but you’re just as likely to encounter a Chinese Tallow Tree or a Sweet Autumn Virginsbower vine. That’s because the terrain through which the National snakes was once a commercial nursery specializing in exotic trees and plants. The club is very proud of its ornamentals, including a wisteria vine thought to be the biggest in the U.S. and a French privet hedge that has practically colonized the South.
The meanest of these species thrive in the south corner of the course, just off Berckmans Road. They complement the fourth, a nasty par-3 of 240 yards that was the toughest hole on the course in 2013, exacting a toll of 3.39 strokes per player per round. “I’ve played this hole with guys who hit the ball the same length as I do,” Bernhard Langer once complained, “and they’ll fly a 3-iron over the green. Then I’ll hit a 4-iron and come up twenty yards short.”
“The fourth hole has given me more trouble through the years than any other par 3 on the golf course,” echoed Jack Nicklaus, a six-time Masters champ. “You’ve got three things to be wary of: the swirling wind, the difficulty of the putting surface and the danger of the front bunker. I’ve hit shots I thought were on the stick that ended up falling short of the bunker and others that appeared to be perfect but carried long into the bamboo behind the green.”
Bamboo, yes -- or Oregon Grape or Thorny Olive or whatever the hell is growing back there. I’d ask McIlroy to name that plant, but not this evening, not when he’s still smarting from various close encounters of the botanical kind. Today’s worst came when the popular Irishman airmailed the fourth green and nearly beaned defending champ Adam Scott on the fifth tee. The ball penetrated the shrubbery and came to rest against a wood fence, which my botanist friend says makes a wonderful prop for kudzu, an invasive, climbing vine that devours entire trees. McIlroy then wrestled with branches and his better judgment for a few minutes before returning to the tee and playing the hole out for a double-bogey.
“It was very frustrating,” McIlroy said after his round. “I hit the shot I wanted to, it was all over the pin. It was just thirty yards too long.”
That wasn’t McIlroy’s only Friday faux pas. He drove into the trees on No. 10 and saw his approach on the par-5 13th carom off a sprinkler head into a bed of azaleas. But that was just garnish on a second-round 77 that left him at 148, eleven strokes off the pace. It was the fourth hole that ate him up.