US Masters – Focus on 1st hole

The tournament won’t be won on the first hole - but it could be lost

The first hole at Augusta National.

Each year, for a few short minutes before the serious work starts, three of golf's most decorated sons – Jack Nicklaus, the all-time career Major winner with 18 titles, his old foe and friend Arnie Palmer and Gary Player - joke and loosen up before firing ceremonial tee-shots up the first fairway, or sometimes off it, to get the Masters under way.

In truth, it’s a bit of fun; nothing too serious. But once those shots are out of the way, and the handshakes are completed, the truly important shots commence. On many golf courses, the designer will often start with a gentle opener. Not here, though. In last year’s Masters, the first hole – known as Tea Olive and an uphill par four of 445 yards that doglegs slightly to the right – played as the second hardest of all, averaging 4.29.

The Masters can’t be won on the first hole, but it can be lost. As opening holes go, the nerves associated with the tee shot of the opening round compounding the difficulty, this is a serious ask: indeed, Seve Ballesteros referred to it as “the most important opening hole of any Major championship because it can set the pace for the entire round.” There have been some significant changes made to the first hole through the years, most notably when the tees were moved back some 25 yards in 2002 – as part of the so-called Tiger-proofing of the course – and the fairway bunker down the right side was reshaped, deepened and extended 15th yards towards the green. A further 15-20 yards were added to the tees in 2006 which means that it takes a 300-yard’s drive to clear the large fairway bunker down the right.

Only the very longest of aggressive hitters – in the right conditions – can attempt to clear the dominating fairway bunker and, in most cases, players will aim left where the fairway narrows and trees come more into play.


The difficulty doesn’t just come off the tee shot. The green – protected by a deep bunker on the left – is raised and provides players with a first taste of the notoriously slick and undulating greens that are one of Augusta National’s trademarks. Players who miss the green left or long face very difficult recovery shots.

As Luke Donald put it of that opening tee shot down the first:"There's always some expectation of the unknown about what's going to happen."

A number of players through the years have felt the wrath of the first hole, with four players registering quadruple bogeys. Olin Browne and Scott Simpson (both 1998), Billy Casper (2001) and Jeev Milkha Singh (2007) – although it has also shown a more benevolent side, with a number of players, most recently Retief Goosen in 2011, holing out with their approach shots for eagle twos.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times