JOHN MCHENRY: The holes to go after — and the ones to respect

You won’t win the Masters if you cannot exploit the opportunities presented by the par 5 holes at Augusta National, writes John McHenry.

It would be very easy to underestimate Augusta National, the home of the first major championship of the year. For the untrained eye, everything is manicured to perfection and nothing about the course seems treacherous. There isn’t much by way of rough, for example, and all of the par 5’s are reachable in two shots – and still the winning is usually less than 16 under par.

Professional golfers thrive on consistency. They love targets and Augusta National gives you everything – bunkers to aim at off for your tee shots, generous fairways and huge greens with target backdrops but it also offers conundrums – phenomenal changes in elevation, sharply contoured greens which usually run between 13 and 14 on the stimp meter and a swirling breeze which funnels up through the course, making exact judgment a near impossibility.

From the competitive point of view, it is a venue where aggression is rewarded but only if it is tempered with patience. Trusting your ability is an absolute must as it constantly tries to lull you into a false sense of security but heavily penalises too much caution, errant shots and frustration or lapses in concentration.

This week a fit and extremely competitive Tiger Woods is the centre of attention once again as he returns to one of his favourite venues but where once he may have started every tournament with a mental edge over his opponents, he only has to look at the form of recent winners and past champions like Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, and of course our own Rory McIlroy to know that a victory this week would possibly go down as one of his greatest ever achievements in his stellar career.

Realistic Birdie Opportunities

Holes 2, 3, 8, 13, 15, 16.

You won’t win the Masters if you cannot exploit the opportunities presented by the par 5 holes at Augusta National. All are reachable in two but all demand precision approach shots from fairways most often configured to take you out of your comfort zone.

Take for example, the second shot to the 575 yard 2nd hole “Pink Dogwood”. The severely sloped left to right green that ideally favours a high draw approach shot (right to left) which is almost impossible from a downhill lie and a long iron in your hands.

The shot requirements for this hole heavily favours the left handers, Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, or great iron players like Tiger Woods.

So too does the risk reward 510 yard, 13th hole - “Azalea” - where an ideal fade around the corner for Mickelson or Watson will leave them with a much easier mid to short-iron second shot off a flattish lie to a green framed by tall trees and azaleas on the left, a back bunker and, of course, the famous Rae’s Creek that is so often decides the eventual winner.

The Holes You Have to Survive

Holes, 1, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, 18.

As with any great golf course, there is a wonderful blend of tough holes at Augusta which will go a long way towards players building or even maintaining a tournament-winning run. Holes like the highly underrated first - a slight dogleg right, uphill par 4 of 455 yards, “Tea Olive.”

The major obstacle players face for their tee shot is a long bunker up the right so expect them to hit a 3-wood or a driver depending on the wind direction leaving anywhere from a 6-iron to a 9-iron into a very severe green with run-offs everywhere.

Most players will look to hit the ball into the middle of the green but may be tempted to attack a pin on the right. A par on this hole will feel like a birdie.

The 11th hole, a par 4 of 505 yards, “White Dogwood” is probably one of the most intimidating in all of golf. Driving into a very narrow fairway, players have to hit the ball far enough just to give themselves a view the green far below. The second shot with a mid to long iron demands discipline and a clear head as any ball moving too fast from right to left will most probably find the water and certain disaster. Having toughened up the usual bail-out area to the right of the green by raising the putting surface, players must decide how bold they want to be with their approach shot.

The true beauty of Augusta National is that it abundantly demonstrates time and again that length isn’t everything in the modern golf game and there is no better demonstration of that than the short 12th - a par 3 of 155 yards “Golden Bell.”

For a short one-shotter, it has everything, a change in elevation, swirling winds, water and precious little to aim at. With temptation everywhere, players must stay disciplined so expect those in contention to take dead aim for the centre of the green, where there is some depth, but for those forced to gamble, anything is possible.

On form, I would probably make Phil Mickelson the slight favourite to win a fourth green jacket this week as the left hander’s power, ball shaping ability and strong short game are all ideal ingredients for a successful challenge, especially given the cool and blustery forecast.

That said you cannot overlook the form of other past champions like Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods. Tiger’s knowledge of the course, his shot-making skills and most especially the strongest short game he has demonstrated in the past decade, gives him every chance.

With only one Irishman in the field this year, I also fancy the chances of Rory McIlroy for the first time in a while. On form, there are few who strike the ball as consistently well as him, but he will only win this week if he can putt as well as he did when winning the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational and doesn’t have any of those costly lapses in concentration, which he has been prone to over the past number of years.

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