Masters Countdown: Ninth Hole

Augusta National's ninth green, 1935.

Clifford Roberts, Augusta National’s co-founder and first chairman, liked to say that he made only one contribution to the original design of the course. During the construction of the ninth hole, he persuaded the contractor to create a level landing area in the steeply tilting fairway at the distance he normally drove the ball (about 180 yards). “The engineer was not at all enthusiastic about accommodating me,” Roberts wrote in his book about the club, “but finally agreed to bring back a tractor and do the job.” Roberts later told friends that he had requested the change because he didn’t want any of his matches with Bobby Jones to be decided by his luck at hitting a fairway wood to an elevated green from a downhill, sidehill lie. The current ninth hole was then the eighteenth, and Jones customarily either gave Roberts nine strokes or allowed him to begin their matches with a nine-up edge. Even so, Roberts needed all the help he could get.

(Augusta National doesn’t use the U.S.G.A.’s handicapping method. It has its own simple system, devised by Roberts, which is based on the number of pars a player ordinarily shoots, with a small adjustment for birdies. Essentially, if you make six pars, your handicap is twelve. The Roberts system works well, is easy to compute, and allows daily modification.)

Roberts’s difficulties with the second shot on the ninth hole were shared by most of the club’s other members, who, like him and unlike Jones, weren’t long enough off the tee to come close to the ideal driving area, at the bottom of the hill. And neither Jones nor Alister MacKenzie, who designed the course, was at all disapproving of Roberts’s modification. In consultations among the three, Roberts’s role was to supply the viewpoint of the average golfer, and Jones and MacKenzie both solicited his opinion. Roberts’s landing area is still visible in the ninth fairway, and it still receives plentiful use from members and guests, as well as from occasional Masters competitors.

Hord Hardin, who was the president of the U.S.G.A. from 1968-69 and was Augusta National’s third chairman, between 1980 and 1991, told me a story in 1996, shortly before he died, that I’ve heard in several versions. Augusta National had a few women associate members in the early years. (Most, if not all, were members’ wives—possibly including Roberts’s first wife, Mary Agnes Bishop, whom he married in 1937 and from whom he was divorced not long afterward.) In the clubhouse one day, one of the women told Roberts that she had just made a hole-in-one on the eighth—a 500-plus-yard uphill par 5—and Roberts asked how that was possible. Hardin told me, “She was playing the ninth, and flat missed her tee shot. The ball hit a something off to the right, flopped up in the air, and went in the hole on the eighth green, no more than fifty yards away. When he heard that, Mr. Roberts is supposed to have said, ‘That’s it. No more women members.'” Roberts and Jones’s original plan for the club had included a second course, intended mostly for women, and a large women’s locker room, which was to have been situated in the huge new clubhouse they intended to build as soon as they could afford to tear down the dilapidated old plantation house. The Great Depression forced them to scale back their ambitions, and prevented them from demolishing what today is probably the most recognizable building in golf.

As the photograph above shows, the ninth green’s famous false front, which contributed to Greg Norman’s spectacular final-round collapse in 1996, was originally more pronounced. (Look at the far right-hand edge of the photo.) The ninth hole is also seventy yards longer than it was during the first tournament. The most recent extension was during the summer of 2001, when the Masters tee was moved back thirty yards and a high stone wall was built to seclude it from a service road just beyond it. At the same time, additional trees were planted on the left between the new tee and the members’ tee, to eliminate the possibility of tournament players’ using the first fairway as an alternate driving area, and new pine trees were planted along the right side of the ninth fairway, to tighten the landing zone. Even though the hole today is 460 yards long from the tournament tee, Masters competitors often have as little as a nine-iron or a wedge for their second shot.

Players, fans, and television commentators who claim that Augusta National had no rough until Hootie Johnson added the “second cut,” in 1999, should study the photograph below, which was taken at the 1949 Masters. The rough in the foreground is several times the height of any grass on the course today. And note the greenside bunker configuration. MacKenzie’s original large bunker was later reconfigured and divided into three, and then at some point after 1949 the bunker nearest the tee was removed.

Ninth hole, Augusta National, 1949 Masters.

That’s the end of my hole-by-hole Masters Countdown for this year. I’ll take it up again next spring, beginning with the tenth hole—although I’ll have one or two more things to say about the Masters before this year’s tournament is over.

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