When a longtime TV fan of The Masters thinks of the most memorable scenes from the Augusta National golf course, the 6th Hole isn't likely to spring to mind. But I'll never forget it.
After more than three decades of watching the most consistently entertaining of golf's major tournaments, more than three decades of marveling at Augusta National's unique combination of sheer beauty with finely calibrated demands on a player's skill, I finally found the opportunity Monday to see the place in person for the opening practice round of this year's tournament.
And I am in awe.
At the course entrance we used, it just so happens that the first view of the course itself comes from a hilltop overlooking both the justly famous 16th Hole and the far less famous 6th. Fame isn't always fair. Until very recent years, television did not cover the front nine of Augusta, so none of its holes are as familiar as the ones on the back nine. And, as in any competition, events early in the round (or game of whatever sort) seem less dramatic because they come so far before the event's climax.
But 30-something years of watching the Masters could not prepare me for my first view of the course, nor could it prepare me to appreciate so much the panorama of the 6th, known as "Juniper." A par three hole of 180 yards, Juniper features an elevation drop from tee to green of what must be 50 feet. The mounded green slopes dramatically from back to front. Majestic pine trees loom over the vista. The grass everywhere is a shade of new spring green so pure that it feels somehow sacred. And from a golfer's sheer shot-making perspective, the effective target area on the correct side of the golf green's mounds looks small enough to make your throat tighten.
Then, when you walk down the hill toward the green, you look back up the hill from whence you came -- and the explosion of color is almost indescribable. The entire hillside is covered in azaleas, of multiple hues. Purples battle pinks while whites peek through and orange-ish blossoms intermittently strut their stuff as well. Not even Matisse's palette could do justice to the scene if he tried.
You've been on the course less than 15 minutes, and already you understand why the Masters announcers always sound like they are in a house of worship. The sun beams through the pines and magnolias and dogwoods as if illuminating the finest of ancient stained glass. And in the midst of all this natural-but-manicured beauty, throngs of people wander through and their excited murmurs or full-throated cheers echo or even reverberate across the landscape.
And you've only seen parts of two golf holes so far -- and not yet a single golf shot.
IF IT IS IMMEDIATELY APPARENT that Augusta National is everything scenically you've always been told, only even better by a large degree, it takes only a little longer for the golf purist to see that as a test of his game, the course is even more superb than it looks on the best of TV broadcasts.
Most of the greens are smaller than they appear on TV -- smaller, but even more undulating. The hills are higher. The trees taller. The sand traps are deeper and more steeply banked. The fairways wider, which would make the course easier except that the level spots on them are few and far between. These aren't merely rolling hills; they're billowing.
Other impressions: The famous Eisenhower Tree on 17 is enough to the side to be fair, but definitely sprawling enough to be menacing. The tee shot on 18 must traverse what looks like a frighteningly narrow avenue. The 8th hole is much more uphill than it looks on TV. The dogleg on the 9th seems more severe, while its tee shot is more steeply downhill. (The second shot back up the hill makes the target look exceedingly tiny.) The water on 11 looks designed to suck in any ball in its same zip code. The green on 12 seems impossibly tiny -- but the front bunker larger than it looks from the usual TV camera spot behind the green, and it actually looks like enough of a comparatively safe option amidst slopes and bushes and water that you wonder why more players don't end up there.
The famous par fives, 13 and 15, are everything they always have seemed to be, probably the best pair of risk-reward holes in the entire world of golf. From atop the hill in the fairway, the 15th green appears frighteningly small. Standing there for the first time, you finally understand how easy it was for Seve Ballesteros to feel the pressure and pull an ugly duck-hook into the pond when shaken by Jack Nicklaus's charge in 1986.
And then there is the famous 16th, the site of so many great Nicklaus memories and also of the Tiger Woods chip-and-roll-and-hang-and-drop that will probably grace highlight reels for the next half century. The tradition in the practice rounds, after the players have hit their real shots, is for each player to take at least one chance at deliberately skipping his tee shot across the pond, like a child skipping rocks on the water, at just the right angle and speed to bounce up the bank onto the waiting green. Every ten or 15 minutes, no matter where you are on the course, you can hear the crowds surrounding the 16th moaning or cheering as the balls drown or survive, respectively. When Tiger got his turn, he obviously succeeded -- because the roar was so loud, it sounded like the response must be to a final-round eagle in the real competition.
Oh -- and yes, you're also there to actually watch the players. Chris DiMarco seemed tight. Davis Love III looked at ease, almost casual. Impossibly lanky Geoff Ogilvy, last year's U.S. Open champion, had a confident air. And Tiger had the mien of a highly engaged tutor as he gestured at various humps and hollows while explaining the intricacies of the course to first-time Masters participant J.J. Henry.
The tournament begins on Thursday, a living monument to the grace and genius of its great founder, Bobby Jones. As the story goes, the first time Robert Tyre Jones Jr. saw the land, he said: "Perfect! And to think this ground has been lying here all these years waiting for someone to come along and lay a golf course on it."
But it's not just a golf course. What Jones created is hallowed ground. All golf lovers should make at least one pilgrimage there. But take fair warning: Once there, you'll want it to be not your only pilgrimage, but merely your first. Bobby Jones might have found land perfectly suited for a golf course -- but only he could, and did, turn it into a Masterpiece.