AUGUSTA, Ga.—Augusta National poses questions you don't particularly want to answer. David Feherty told me that two months ago.
From his perch along the 15th fairway, where he worked as an on-course reporter for 20 years, Feherty witnessed countless exams doled out by the course. That 15th hole, like many on Augusta National's back nine, asks some difficult questions.
Yes, it's that back nine at Augusta National where green jackets are both skillfully won and painstakingly lost. No one recalls a shot on the 4th, the 7th or the 9th as his Masters-claiming moment. It always happens on the back, on Amen Corner, or on holes 15, 16 and 18. As a result, that's where Augusta National's questions are most complex. As Rickie Fowler worked his way through the back nine on Saturday, he was taking a midterm, trying to answer all those questions.
There was his third shot on 13, from behind the hole and uphill. He trailed Charley Hoffman by three, and that Jordan Spieth character had just shot ahead of him on the leader board. Can you make birdie where you need to make birdie? Fowler chipped into the hill and tapped in for birdie. Next question.
When his approach on 14 landed 18 inches shy of the correct tier and rolled back some 80 feet, he faced one of Augusta National's favorite questions: Do you possess the imagination? This course has ticklish undulations, after all. Fowler flew his pitch past the hole, and the crowd begged for his ball to sit. Sit? No. The ball grabbed the green, just like Fowler wanted it to, riding the slope back to seven feet, from where he'd hole the putt. Next question.
On 15, Fowler pushed his tee shot into the pine straw right of the fairway. Now, can you hit the low punch off the needles that the shot calls for, then toss a 90-yard wedge over the water to set up a birdie try? Fowler skirted his ball through the second crosswalk, then spun a wedge to 21 feet. He curled in the birdie putt, a development that was undoubtedly fortuitous. We'll call that extra credit. Next question.
On 17, he worked himself into a spot of bother. Anticipating a possible final pairing with Justin Rose, Fowler was well short of the hole on his birdie try. Here's an eight-footer for par. Are your knees knocking yet? Fowler admitted he's gets nervous on certain shots at Augusta National. Not here. He poured the putt into the center of the hole.
It was a back nine full of questions, and Fowler had the answer to every one. At five under, he'll go to sleep knowing another set of questions awaits him on Sunday afternoon. Those will be even tougher.
Fowler will be paired with Spieth, who in three appearances at the National has finished no worse than second. He will begin his round chasing two of the top 15 players in the world: Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia.
The last question Fowler was asked at his press conference on Saturday was simple: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much fun is he having? After answering 11 1/2, he backed up one last time to acknowledge how Augusta National continues to throw questions his way.
"Whether it's a conservative line or somewhat of a safe play, you still have to execute the golf shot," Fowler said. "There's no time where you can go to sleep and just cruise. This golf course can jump up and bite you at any time. So I like that about it. We've been having a blast this week."
As Sundays at Augusta National tend to go, this final exam could be a lot more fun, or not much fun at all.