Fear is not something world class golf professionals readily admit. But the true start of any golf season comes with the playing of golf’s first major—The Masters. As annual host for the event, Augusta National Golf Club is blessed with an array of stunning holes.
Much of the attention shifts generally to the inner half—by virtue of television time received and various historic impacts from countless past Masters over the years. The reverence given to Amen Corner—holes 11 thru 13—is rightly celebrated, but there’s more to Augusta National than this splendid trio.
Long before the players get to the much celebrated back nine—it is the starting hole where the nerves ratchet up a crescendo of emotions. Getting off to a good start doesn’t guarantee a fine score but it certainly helps set the tone for the day ahead.
Just like ordinary golfers who have pangs of doubt when approaching the 1st hole for any round of golf, the impact for the world’s finest players sky-rockets many times over given the setting of Augusta National and the opportunity to place one’s name in the annals of the game forever.
Each hole at Augusta is named for a flower and the 1st is called Tea Olive. It’s anything but a cup of tea. While every contestant is looking to don the green jacket the 1st can provide a much faster fit for a straight jacket. Originally conceived by architect Alister Mackenzie and founder and golf legend Bobby Jones, the now 1st was slotted as the 10th hole for the first event in 1934. That changed in 1935—a stroke of good fortune as today’s back nine resonates with epic swings of strokes given the pesky nature of water on no less than five holes on the back nine, and the multitude of decisions players must confront when battling for lasting immortality.
Instead of coming to the hole with muscles stretched after playing 9 holes—the “new” 1st presented a series of different challenges. Unlike the “original” 1st—which plunges downhill over 100-feet—the “new” 1st plays uphill and often into the prevailing west wind. A more exacting tee shot was now called upon. Opening holes can often provide mild starts but the 1st at Augusta is anything but mild.
As with all holes at Augusta National each is named for a specific flower. Now called Tea Olive the 1st was initially named Cherokee Rose for Georgia’s state flower.
The switch in hole order meant a major change in player approach.
Originally a 400-yard par-4—the hole starts from a high point adjoining the renowned plantation clubhouse before moving downhill then rising again in the drive zone. Interestingly, a small creek ran across the bottom of the 1st hole in 1934 but was removed by the early 1950’s. In 1935, the hole featured a left fairway bunker later removed. The lone greenside bunker guarding the left side was added in 1951. A solitary bunker guards the right side of the fairway as the hole turns ever so gently to the right. Players could attempt to drive over the fairway bunker—a tee shot then of 250-260 yards—or as many were wont to do then, aim further left to avoid it. The carry over the bunker is now 317 yards. The fairway bunker was reshaped and extended 15 yards to the green a few years back. There’s also a deeper lip to contend with if the ball ends up too close to the front edge.
How tough is the hole? Tiger Woods has made just five birdies in 82 rounds of competition. On top of that — Woods is a collective +17 on the hole. That’s the same amount over par Tiger has played the demanding par-3 4th for the two most difficult holes he faces when playing Augusta National Golf Club.
Given advancements in equipment technology and attempting to keep golf club usages relevant to what was used in years past, then Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson engaged the services of heralded course architect Tom Fazio to make revisions to the entire course. Although the opening hole had been tweaked a bit for additional length to 410 yards it was the more recent upgrades that dramatically changed the role of the 1st hole.
In 2002, tees were moved back 20 yards with an additional 25 yards added in 2006 along with the aforementioned changes to the fairway bunker. What started originally as 400 yards has morphed into a more muscular 455-yard opener. The late Clifford Roberts, the long-time major domo who ran the club in a no-nonsense manner was asked about changes to the course over the years from the original collaboration of Founder Jones and architect Mackenzie. His reply was terse and direct—“We don’t change Augusta National—we seek to improve it.” In recent years the hole was shortened just a bit to its present length at 445 yards.
The closer one lands the tee shot to the fairway bunker, the easier the angle and shorter the distance for the approach shot becomes. In early years missing left off the tee was not much of an issue with just a few Georgia pines to avoid. That has since changed as more trees were added and the gaps between them significantly narrowed. The tree line also tapers in from the left side the longer the tee shot is hit. The effective width area drops to a mere 25 yards.
The putting surface at the 1st is also quite vexing. Slightly elevated from the fairway with drop-offs to the right and rear areas. How tough is the hole?
Historically, the 1st has been tied for 6th hardest, but in the 2018 Masters the hole was the 3rd most difficult with a stroke average of 4.279. The hole yielded only 18 birdies – 2nd lowest to the total earned at the equally demanding par-4 11th.
The penchant for players to use 3-metals off tees, instead of a driver, is not a likely option for many. Players opting to lay short of the fairway bunker may then face an approach shot nearly 200 yards in length. Consequently, marshalling the mental and physical skills in hitting the driver at the outset is no small task.
Other tournament venues around the world may have more demanding starting holes—the 1st at Winged Foot / West comes quickly to mind as does the starting hole at Oakmont. But, the opener at Augusta National can either propel a fast start or doom players in attempting to overcome a sour taste at the outset.
Charlz Schwartzel, the 2011 winner, chipped in for birdie during the final round in the 2011 Masters and used that start by holing his second shot from the fairway for eagle at the 3rd. Seve Ballesteros—a five-time major winner—had likely the strongest start when winning his second Masters in 1983, birdieing the 1st, eagling the par-5 2nd and birdieing the always demanding par-3 4th. “The first four holes were the best I ever played in my life,” said the late Spaniard.
Conversely, who can forget the 2016 putting meltdown endured by Ernie Els in scoring a 9 on the opening hole during the opening round. Els had six putts — all less than three feet — tying the mark for the highest score ever recorded on the hole.
Tea Olive is often low on the radar screen for many golf fans since many watching the telecast may miss out given its early role. But, the 1st is certainly high on the radar list for the players. The butterflies in starting any golf round are always on edge—even more so at Augusta.
The players are keenly aware any positive march for a possible green jacket starts at the opener. Like an honest judge, the 1st at Augusta accepts no bribes or short cuts. Justice meted out—swiftly and with utter certainty.
Make no mistake about it — the opening hole is no cup of tea.