Augusta National’s par-4 5th is the sleepiest, least-appreciated hole of the Masters

April 8, 2014

Admit it. You don’t know a thing about Augusta National’s 5th hole.

I say that not knowing how many Masters you’ve attended or how many times you’ve had your picture taken eating a pimento cheese sandwich down in Amen Corner. I say that because not one spectator in 20 has spent more than 30 minutes — in a lifetime! — at the National’s least glamorous hole. If the police asked you to find number 5 in a book of par-4 mug shots, you’d pass right over it.

Here’s a hint: It’s the hole between the par-3 4th, where Phil Mickelson lost the 2012 Masters when his tee shot ricocheted off a grandstand railing, and the par-3 6th, where countless pros have three- and even four-putted from above the hole. Two really memorable holes, those. Two holes that are nothing like the 5th.

Am I saying it is a bad hole? Certainly not! The 5th, a.k.a. Magnolia, is a very good hole — all 455, uphill, dogleg-left, severely tilted, tree-lined, fairway-bunkered yards of it. “When I played it first, like in 2000, you could hit driver-wedge to it,” says Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion. “Now it’s pushed out, and they added those big bunkers on the left. It’s a hole where you’re happy to make par every day.” But when you ask Harrington if he has ever experienced drama on the 5th, he shakes his head. “Nothing that comes to mind.”

Ryan Moore, a 10-year pro with recognition issues of his own, describes Magnolia as “just a really tough par-4. It’s one of those holes where you want to get it in the fairway, get it on the green, two-putt and move on.”

Hey, Ryan, got any good 5th hole stories?

“Nothing too memorable.”

It’s not that number 5 is bland. The left side off the tee spells trouble because of the pair of aforementioned bunkers and an unreceptive slope; the green, with its false front and raised middle, is enough to cause Tour-pro indigestion. “The green is insanely hard,” says Ben Crane. “If you miss to the left, you’re making bogey like every time. But it’s one of my favorite holes because you can run [the ball] up. There are so many brilliant things about Augusta National, that being one of them.”

Trevor Immelman, the South African who held off Tiger Woods to win the 2008 Masters, shares Crane’s respect — if not his enthusiasm — for Magnolia. “Shucks,” says Immelman, “I give it plenty of attention. It’s a bloody hard hole.” He even has a 5th hole story, so gather round: “The year I won, I birdied it the final day. I was real nervous, starting the day with a two-shot lead, and I bogeyed the 1st, and then I made a bunch of pars. It was down-breeze on number 5, and I hit a driver, 8-iron to about three feet and made a birdie. That got my day going. Kind of settled me down.”

O.K., Immelman’s story isn’t exactly movie material. But here comes Justin Rose, the reigning U.S. Open champion. He’ll probably tell us how his ears ring when the crowd goes crazy around the 5th tee.

“Yeah, well,” Rose says. “There’s an entry gate there, so you hear a lot of the beeps from tickets being scanned.”

Augusta National, if you get my drift, has 17 highly regarded holes with packed grandstands, botanical variability and tournament lore galore. And it has one out-of-the-way hole where birds peck at worms in the fairway and history is never made. (Well, almost never. Jack Nicklaus, at age 55, eagled Magnolia not once but twice during the 1995 Masters. Unfortunately — and this is how it goes at number 5 — neither of the Golden Bear’s approach shots was caught on television.) Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters champ, says, “It’s so early in the round that you don’t really get any drama. I’m just happy to make 4 and get out of there.”

Before you go, Zach … anything significant ever happen to you on 5?

“Not that I can remember.”

The deficiencies of number 5 — and by now I think we have established that there are deficiencies — are not the result of faulty design (by Alister MacKenzie and club cofounder Bobby Jones) or redesign (most recently by Tom Fazio). No, the hole suffers because it’s a damned long hike out to the 5th tee, requiring long waits at several crosswalks (and when you finally do get there, you can’t get anywhere near a tee that is cut out of a grove of trees). Upon arrival, spectators face a huff-and-puff climb to the green. And why bother, because there are very few positions from which a golf fan can see both the golfer and his target — unusual for Augusta National, where the terrain provides so many natural overlooks.

Also, there’s that eerie sense, fostered by the muffled roars from distant grandstands, that you’ve accidentally wandered away from the tournament and onto a hole at Augusta Country Club, which is right next door to the National. “The 5th is not a hole where you’re going to hear a lot of noise, anyway,” says Henrik Stenson, “because it’s usually a lot of pars and bogeys.”

The Swede is spot-on. Historically, Magnolia is the Masters’ fifth-toughest hole, yielding an average score of 4.26 since 1942. Birdies are rare, and eagles are so unattainable that Nicklaus, upon hearing that his were the fifth and sixth in tournament history, said, “I am amazed that there were four others.”

It figures, then, that most pros play the hole defensively, in the manner of someone releasing tagged crocodiles. “I typically hit 3-wood to take the bunkers out of play,” says Rose, “and take my chances with the second shot. You really only have five yards [with your approach] to land just over the top of that ridge.”

“You need to get a good drive away,” echoes Immelman. “If you’re in the bunkers, you generally can’t reach the green, but if you’re down the left, you’re going to have to hit a 30- to 40-yard hook to get it anywhere near the green. You want to drive it up the right side, and you’re going to have anything from a 5-iron to an 8-iron, depending on the wind.”

Mike Weir, a playoff winner in 2003, says he tries “to create a little bull’s-eye in the middle of the green and then putt to the corners [hole locations]. I mean, you might sneak one close to the hole, but the pin placements are severe on those precipices.” He adds, “Sometimes that back bunker is better than being short.”

And sometimes it’s better to forget how you played it last time and to make certain you’re alert to changing conditions. “They’re experimenting with two new pin positions,” says Harrington, “one on the right of the slope and one on the front left. When those come into play, it might get even tougher.”

None of the pros, you’ll notice, mention throngs of spectators in their analysis. “They do have that grandstand behind the green,” says Bill Haas, “but it doesn’t really get packed there.” Asked if he’s seen more traffic since the National opened a 90,000-square-foot hospitality structure in the woods adjacent to the fairway, he says, “I haven’t yet. It’s in a corner of the course that’s quiet.”

Finally — and only so I can check off all the boxes — we ask Haas for his most vivid memories of the 5th. Drum roll … shrug. “Nothing, really.”

Poor, sad Magnolia. Never ranked among the world’s great golf holes. Never photographed for the coffee table books. Never cited in a Golf Channel top 10 show. All it does is frighten the world’s best golfers over four days every April.

Now you know.