Masters: Augusta’s terrible 10th hole is where nothing good ever happens

[This story originally appeared in the April 8, 2013, edition of Sports Illustrated Golf+.] 

There is only one thing you really need to know about Augusta National’s 10th hole: Nothing good ever happens here.

Martin Kaymer, the 2010 PGA champion, uttered that line after his misadventure through the foliage left of the fairway led to a double bogey and a 78 during his second Masters, in ’11. “That hole does not like me,” Kaymer said.

He is not the only one. The 10th is an ­equal-opportunity dream crusher. Would it surprise you to hear that this dreaded par-4 ranks as the most difficult hole in Masters history (4.317 stroke average)? Perhaps more telling, the 18 players who have taken on the hole in ­sudden-death playoffs have combined to shoot 81 on it—10 pars, seven bogeys, one double.

You may argue that Bubba Watson’s off-the-pine-straw-and-around-the-cathedral-of-pines shot in last year’s playoff disproves the theory, that something good has happened here. Not so fast. Remember, Watson executed a shot for the ages just to make par, which was enough to beat Louis ­Oosthuizen.

Last year’s dramatic finish cast a light on this underappreciated hole, which has kicked butt forever. The Augusta National Invitational Tournament (as the Masters was christened) began at the 10th on a crisp March morning in 1934. The great Ralph Stonehouse hit the first shot there because it was originally number 1 on the scorecard. The nines were reversed the next year, supposedly because low-lying areas like Amen Corner were shadier and slower to defrost than the sun-drenched holes on the other nine.

The 10th is called Camellia, after a genus of a flowering Asian evergreen shrub that still grows left of the fairway and behind the green. Camellia is unloved for three simple reasons. One, the tee shot is a beast: a hard right-to-left shot that must catch the downslope of the dogleg to pick up an extra 30 to 50 yards of roll. Two, the approach shot is a beast: typically a mid-iron off a downhill, sidehill lie to a green around which there are no bail-out options. Three, the green is a beast: steeply sloped from back right to front left and one of the course’s most-feared putting ­surfaces.

Then there’s the elevation change that messes with club selection. The drop from the tee box to the fairway bunker that guarded the original green is 108 feet. In 1937 the green was moved 50 yards back, creating today’s picturesque setting. “I’m a skier, and I think the 10th is a blue run on any given mountain,” says Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters ­champion.

A few strokes of genius have been played here over the years. Ben Crenshaw drained an ocean liner of a putt when he won in 1984, a 60-footer across the late-afternoon shadows with 10 feet of break. Sam Snead chipped in for birdie from behind the green—a dangerous 65-foot downhill ­slider—when he beat Ben Hogan in a ’54 playoff.

The body of evidence, however, is filled with bodies. Take 1940, when Lloyd Mangrum played one of the Masters’ great rounds. He hit all 18 greens in regulation and shot 64. Mangrum’s only glitch? He three-putted the 10th. On the first hole of sudden death in 1989, Scott Hoch missed a 21⁄2-footer that ­would’ve won the green jacket. Two shots back in ’81, Greg Norman made double bogey, and forgotten during Jack Nicklaus’s remarkable comeback in ’86 is the Shark’s double at the 10th that year as well, when he was tied for the lead with Seve Ballesteros. Norman finished one back.

Len Mattiace’s final-round 65 in 2003 included a final-hole bogey. Then in the playoff Mattiace hooked his approach shot into the trees and the 10th squashed him like a bug on a windshield. When Mike Weir holed his bogey putt, Mattiace was still facing a five-footer for double. In ’11, Rory McIlroy walked to the 10th on Sunday with a one-shot lead, hit his tee shot way left and walked off with a triple bogey.

The record for the highest score? That belongs to Danny Lee, who in 2009 was 18 and the reigning U.S. Amateur champ. Coming off an eagle at the 8th and a birdie at the 9th, Lee had a 10-foot par putt at the 10th. He promptly six-putted for a nine.

And just last year, Phil Mickelson’s tee shot was lost in the trees on Thursday. He made triple bogey and finished two back. The location of Phil’s costly tee ball remains unknown. So, too, does the final resting place of a longtime British golf writer who died a dozen years ago. When a request to spread his ashes at Augusta National was turned down, several colleagues discreetly got the job done.

The exact location cannot be revealed, but it was somewhere alongside number 10. It’s a fitting memorial since the 10th is where Masters dreams go to die.

Here is what Arnold Palmer wrote in the 1995 Masters Journal while describing Augusta National’s challenging tenth hole: “If you could inject a truth serum in most Masters contestants… I believe the majority would favor skipping the 10th, 11th and 12th holes. This is where the golf course becomes a perilous journey, where the reward for good shots is often overshadowed by the potential for disaster.”

Skip the first three holes on the back nine? Well, four green jackets say no one argues with Arnie about the Masters. It’s true that nobody looks forward to the start of The National’s back nine except the fans but bypassing 10, 11 and 12 would definitely improve a lot of scores. Just skipping the 10th might be enough. How about that, Arnie?

“It didn’t take me long to discover how fatal a mistake can be at the 10th,” Palmer continued in the Masters Journal. “In my third Masters in 1957, I calculated at the turn that a 32 or 33 could put me into position to win. Well, I hooked my drive into the trees and there went my dreams of a green coat that year.”

The 10th, a ski slope masquerading as a downhill, dogleg par 4, is the most visually impressive hole on the course with its dramatic elevation change and its surrounding greenery. The Masters cliché, “cathedral of pines,” perfectly describes the setting around the 10th green.

Historically, the 10th has played as the most difficult hole although technology has taken a little of the bite out of the hole’s once-prodigious length. It’s 495 yards now, up from 480, but today’s players still often have no more than a 7- or 8-iron in. And, of course, the hole’s most famous shot is courtesy of Bubba Watson last year out of the pines in the playoff. He hit wedge, hooked it onto the green and two-putted for victory.

The 10th has always been a thorn in the side of Masters contestants. It’s a tough par and a rare birdie. In the 1992 Masters Journal, here’s what legendary Gene Sarazen said about the tenth while writing about his first Masters: “The course wasn’t the same as it is now. In fact, it was a very mediocre course with a lot of mediocre holes. The 11th tee was where the 15th tee is now. The 11th wasn’t a very good hole and neither was the 10th, which was a lot shorter. The 16th was awful, just a wedge shot over a ditch, not the pretty shot over a pond that it is today.”

In the first Masters in 1934, the 10th hole played as No. 1. Then the nines were reversed, partly because the current back nine holes were lower and shadier and prone to frost, which had the potential to delay play. The 10th got a dramatic facelift in 1937 when Perry Maxwell, an associate of Augusta National designer Alister Mackenzie, transformed it into something special. Maxwell, by the way, helped Mackenzie do Crystal Downs in Michigan, a superb exercise in subtlety. Anyway, the original 10th hole featured a green next to the mammoth bunker that still remains in the current fairway. There were drainage issues with that area, however, and Maxwell decided to move the green 50 yards farther back to a small plateau on a hill. That solved the drainage problem, put a perfect frame around the green and made the second shot that much more demanding. Maxwell also gave the green a severe pitch. And for that era, he made the 10th one of the longest and most feared par 4s in golf.

Plenty of memorable moments have happened at the tenth but few with the impact of Watson’s recovery shot last year. There are eight more holes to play after No. 10 and as the saying goes, the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday. The tournament isn’t usually won or lost at the 10th—there’s just too much golf left, including the risk-reward par 5s, the 13th and 15th. Mike Weir, Craig Stadler and Angel Cabrera won playoffs at No. 10 but all because their opponents failed to make pars on the hole.

Perhaps the second-most memorable shot after Watson belongs to Ben Crenshaw, whose 60-foot birdie putt through the long shadows in 1984’s final round, followed by pursuer Tom Kite’s three-putt bogey there minutes later, was the difference-maker.

“Crenshaw had to play a monstrous break on his uphill putt,” Ken Venturi wrote in the 1992 Masters Journal. “On the air for CBS, I remarked that the putt went through a time zone.”

It was No. 10 where the Tiger Woods legend began. He shot a struggling 40 on the opening nine of his first Masters in 1997, then had a swing thought while making the walk from the ninth green to the tenth tee. It involved shortening his swing and as soon as he blistered a tee ball around the corner at 10, he knew he had it. He made birdie there, shot 30 on the back nine and played the tournament’s last 63 holes in 22 under, dominating the course to such an extent that a new word was born — Tiger-proofing.

A few highlights at No. 10 have been overlooked. Brandt Jobe isn’t in the field for this week’s Masters but he is in the tournament record book, twice. In 2006, he earned a line in Masters lore by joining a handful of players who have eagled two par-4 holes in the same Masters. Jobe holed out with a 6-iron for a deuce at No. 10 and with a 9-iron at No. 7 (but not in the same round). Jobe is also one of a handful of players who holds the scoring record at the 10th hole for one Masters, playing it in a total of three under par for four rounds. The others are Jerry Heard, 1974; Jack Newton, 1979; Nick Price, 1991; Jim Furyk, 1998; and Casey Wittenberg, 2004. Wittenberg, like Jobe, holed out from the fairway for an eagle. The others made three birdies in four rounds.

“I’ll never forget that shot at 10, it shocked me,” Jobe said. “I kind of jumped. I wasn’t ready for it. You’re out there grinding and grinding and grinding—and then it goes in. It’s certainly not my favorite hole at Augusta. You’re standing on your head to hit your second shot there.

“On the tee, you’ve got to get it out there 270 or 280 to get the rollout and carry down the hill. There’s a guy named Bubba who can hit wedge in on his second shot but I’ve never experienced that. Then you’re on a downhill lie hitting to an uphill green, anticipating it to draw and aiming at the right bunker. It’s a very demanding hole. That’s the course. There are no breather shots out there. The second shot at 10 is one of those shot where you’ve got to man up and hit a good one.

“It’s a great hole and has withstood the test of time. That’s why it’s a great hole. Everybody is getting ready for 12 and Amen Corner and they know 11 is a bear and 13 can be dangerous but 10, 11, 12—that’s the gantlet, the toughest part of the course.”

The Masters Tournament awards pieces of crystal to players who make eagles. Jobe said he got goblets for his two eagles. “They’re big glasses — you could drink a cold beer of out one,” he said. “They’re sitting in my study up on a shelf. I had never gotten any before so I was wondering what kind of crystal it would be. They’re neat memories. It’s the neatest tournament and my favorite place I’ve ever played.”

Wittenberg, a star amateur who played college golf at Oklahoma State, made his eagle at No. 10 in the third round of ’04 while playing with Justin Leonard. It was dry and firm that year, he recalled, so he hit 3-wood off the tee, even though he’s not a long hitter, and put a 7-iron shot into the cup.

“The pin was in the shadows, middle left,” Wittenberg said. “I knew it went in but I couldn’t see it. The ball landed four yards short and rolled in. It was exciting. It seems like a long time ago now. It was definitely something I’ll never forget.”

Australian Robert Allenby, like Jobe and Wittenberg, is also part of the exclusive eagle club at the tough 10th. He made a 2 there in 2008.

“That hole is always hard,” Allenby said. “There really isn’t a place to miss the green. The right trap is a no-no. The left isn’t easy and short of the green is very difficult, an uphill chip into the grain. The year I holed the 6-iron, I had everything perfect. There was no mud on my ball, I hit a great shot, it landed perfect, rolled about ten feet and went in. The pin was middle-leftish.

“I’ve played that hole fairly well but I’ve had my moments there, too. I’ve landed it short of the green and had it roll all the way back down and then chunked it. I think I double-hit it once there, too. I hit it fat and then hit it again and it went over my head. That was a nice moment in my career.”

Allenby laughed at the recollection of his gaffe and said, “I think 10 is definitely the start of Amen Corner. Ten, 11 and 12 are really tough holes, no question about it.”

Skipping those three holes as Arnie suggested may be tempting but come Thursday at the Masters, it’s not an option. Good luck, gentlemen.