News & Opinion

Augusta’s revised 16th often shapes fate

One of the most exciting holes at the Masters Tournament, which starts Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, is the par-3 16th

One of the most exciting holes at the Masters Tournament, which starts Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, is the par-3 16th. At 190 yards from the tournament tees, the hole plays over a pond, with bunkers right of the green and water on the left. The hole requires an exacting shot and comes at a pivotal point in the round. A stroke lost at No. 16 is not easily made up on either of the two finishing holes.

But this devilish hole was not part of Augusta National’s original design in 1933. Course architect Alister MacKenzie laid out an entirely different hole, which was replaced in 1947.

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Augusta National’s par-3 16th hole, in its original routing by Alister MacKenzie, presented a dramatically different look until a 1947 redesign.

AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB
Augusta National’s par-3 16th hole, in its original routing by Alister MacKenzie, presented a dramatically different look until a 1947 redesign.

MacKenzie and Augusta founder Bob Jones envisioned an inland course with features from some of the great links in the U.K. and the U.S. which had stood the test of time. There was no intent to copy any holes, just to use them for inspiration.

The site for the 16th hole was bisected by a stream which ran below the adjacent sixth green down to the front of the 13th green and then into Rae’s Creek. It was along the left side of this creek where MacKenzie placed the 16th green, with the tee just to the right of the 15th green. There was a 10-foot drop in elevation between the tee and the green, making the target easily visible in keeping with MacKenzie’s aversion to blind shots. Later, an optional tee was placed to the left of the 15th green to lengthen the hole.

The plan required a shot of 120 or 140 yards, depending on which tee was in play, to an angled green guarded in front by the creek and in back by a bunker. The green was narrow, with a mound dividing the putting surface, and required a precise shot to secure a par. The mound, sometimes described as a “buried elephant,” was reduced in 1938.

MacKenzie described the 16th as “a somewhat similar hole over water to the best hole [No. 7] at Stoke Poges, England. It is probably a better hole than the one at Stoke Poges, as the green is more visible and the background more attractive.”

The Stoke Poges Golf Club course had been designed by H.S. “Harry” Colt in 1908. MacKenzie was quite familiar with Colt’s design philosophies and previous work, and the two were partners briefly in 1928 in a course-design firm.

Bernard Darwin, the golf correspondent for The Times of London, was captivated by the seventh hole at Stoke Poges, describing it "as one of the most charming of short holes. Its special virtue is to be found in the fact that we have to approach it at a peculiarly diabolical angle, so that the green becomes exceedingly narrow; a slice takes us into the brook, a pull into a road, and, in short, nothing but a good shot will do."

Why, then, with this impressive lineage, was Augusta National’s original 16th hole replaced? Though it was well liked by the club members, it didn’t present enough of a challenge for the Masters field. It was a bit too short and became an easy par or birdie.

In fairness to MacKenzie, who died in 1934, he never saw the completed course. Perhaps the original 16th would have been altered to meet a higher standard if he had been present throughout construction. Maybe the hole looked better on paper than in its finished state. Or perhaps, as the seventh hole on the course before the nines were reversed, it fit better in the flow of play than it did as one of the defining finishing holes.

Some thought the original 16th hole bore too much of a likeness to the 12th. The length was about the same, and both required a shot over water to an angled green. The 12th seemed to be the more challenging hole, with the swirling breezes which can play havoc with the precise shot demanded of the player.

In any event, Jones recognized that the hole had some weaknesses and didn’t think alterations to the hole itself would bring it up to snuff. Jones sketched out a new hole with the tee behind the 15th green, the green moved to the right and the creek dammed to form a lake situated between the tee and the green and bordering the left side of the green.

Golf course architect Robert Trent Jones (no relation to the club founder) was brought in to draw plans for the new 16th based on Bob Jones’ design concept.

The new green at the 16th features a ridge which runs from the middle of the bunker on the right across the putting surface to the upper left edge of the green, creating upper and lower tiers and treacherous breaks. There are four hole locations for the Masters, in each of the four quadrants. Each spot demands the correct shot to avoid a three-putt. Essentially, the hole can be set up to require four different shots from the tee.

When the new 16th was built, Bob Jones thought that players would use a 2-, 3- or 4-iron to the green, depending on the wind conditions. Jones preferred that long par 3s not require a wood from the tee. With modern equipment and ball improvements, and better-conditioned players, a mid- to short-iron is the club of choice today.

Traditionally, the Sunday hole location is back left, tucked below the ridge, with the pond and a small bunker hard left. It’s a tough location, but rewarding if the ball ends up in that narrow slot with the ball below the hole.

To play to the Sunday position, Bob Jones said: “A tee shot played for the middle of the putting surface, but with a slight draw, can be made to curl down toward the hole. This, of course, involves risk that the draw may be overdone, landing its perpetrator in the sand or water. A shot played to the flag over water and sand must be very accurately adjusted for length.”

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Augusta National Golf Club's par-3 16th hole, as it looks today, often plays an outsized role in deciding the Masters champion.

MORNING READ/ALEX MICELI
Augusta National's par-3 16th hole, as it looks today, often plays an outsized role in deciding the Masters champion.

Over the years, the 16th has provided holes-in-one, chip-ins, brilliant or disastrous bunker shots, three-putts, and many a splash in the water. It is an exciting hole to watch and has proved pivotal on many occasions.

Ben Hogan, an eventual two-time winner of the Masters, found trouble in 18-hole playoffs at the original 16th and the revised 16th, which denied him two more green jackets. The first playoff occurred in 1942 against Byron Nelson after being tied at 280 at the end of regulation play. Hogan and Nelson had been competitors since their caddie days at Glen Garden Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, and this playoff was hard fought. Hogan was one shot behind Nelson as they headed to the 16th. Nelson’s shot hit the green, and Hogan landed in the bunker. Nelson two-putted for par, but Hogan couldn’t get up and down from the sand, leaving Nelson with a two-stroke lead. Nelson would win his second Masters, by one over Hogan.

In 1954, Hogan, the defending champion, faced Sam Snead in an 18-hole playoff. Each had won two Masters titles, and they were the top golfers of the time. At the new 16th, Snead placed his tee shot near the cup; Hogan, however, hit a poor shot to the left front of the green and three-putted, muffing a 3-footer for par. Snead made par, picked up a stroke on Hogan and ended up winning his third green jacket, by a one-stroke margin.

Observers can expect similar excitement at the beautiful but precarious 16th each April. The hole often shapes destiny at the Masters.

John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: jfischeriii@icloud.com