Here’s a take: #17 at Augusta National (Nandina) stinks.
Before the congregation comes at me for blasphemous statements against the hallowed sanctuary that is Augusta National Golf Club, I'll say that on most other courses, it would be a solid golf hole. But its current circumstances don’t allow for the benefit of the doubt. Please think about Nandina and answer two questions:
1. Why is it hard?
2. What is unique about it?
RIP Ike, his tree, and the excitement of #17. Long live the left to right ball flight.
The first question is the most difficult to answer based on what I see via the telecast and have learned over the years from Ian Baker Finch, who covers the hole for CBS. The hole clearly plays as one of the harder on the back nine with a 4.19 historical scoring average, but unlike 11 with the intimidating second shot and obvious trouble left, 17 possesses no real hazards. 14 has carved out its role as a unique test with one of the crazier greens on the course, a bunker-less breath between the excitement of gettable par 5s. Augusta already has the onerous par 4 with a deep front bunker and segmented green in number 18, a classic uphill finisher making 17 a bit redundant in its current form.
With the loss of the Eisenhower tree in 2014, CBS lost its narrative for Nandina. That tree was the hole’s identity and an easy anchor for what made #17 unique. When the final groups walked up the back hill from #16 green, Nantz just had to play the hits: mention Ike, play up the tradition and lore of Augusta, and let IBF take over. Nandina was a potent elixir of patriotism and nostalgia, but without that tree, it’s now just a long par 4 they’ve had to make longer due to modern technology. On top of that, the CBS cameras are poorly positioned and don’t give us a feel for the blind second shot into what’s one of the hardest greens on the course. How about giving us a topographical map or view of where the green breaks instead of the watered down fly over of a bland hole that hardly mentions the difficult green complex? But hey, I should cut CBS some slack…
On both my visits to Augusta I’ve found myself crisscrossing the 17th fairway repeatedly on my way more interesting holes. During those traverses, I’ve watched a number of approaches into 17 before the marshals open up the walkway at the crest of the fairway, and each time I’ve found the shot leaving much to be desired. The bombers get up on top of the hill for an easier 8 or 9 iron in while the Kuch’s and ZJ’s have a much tougher blind mid-iron into a rock hard green. Yes, I do respect the degree of difficulty watching pros sling darts into a difficult pin, but I’d love to hear someone tell me that a drive or approach on 17 was a shot that stuck with them. Shit, other than Jack’s putt in ’86, I’d love to hear any other iconic shots anyone can list from anywhere on the current 17th, pictured right. This is pretty remarkable for the penultimate hole at The Masters Tournament. The back nine on Saturday and Sunday is a rolling crescendo of energy through the 16th. Once the action reaches 17 it feels akin to one of those generic IBM commercials – a vague placeholder that’s just there because it’s always been that way. The hole sets that a par-par finish for the leader will be good enough. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Fear not, there’s a better way forward: take the spirit and concept of the 3rd hole (Flowering Peach), which is the most interesting par 4 on the course, and apply it to the land which currently constitutes 17. According to the Master’s Website, Alister MacKenzie “believed the third hole to be nearly perfect in design. Thus, this hole has been changed less than any other on the course.” Year after year, I listen to Peter Kostis rave about the risk reward elements of the tee shot, and how even the longest hitters don’t gain much of an advantage going for it off the tee due to the delicate touch required around the table top green.
Using the 3rd hole (pictured left) as a template for improving 17 is the perfect antidote to a barrage of tweaks and lengthening over the past two decades that’s denuded the course of personality and creativity. Picture an uphill 310-325 par 4 with that same rock-hard green and a bit more penal collection area off the back. I’ll let the real architects do what they do and handle the details and execution; I’m an “idea guy!” But the idea might be too good: guys chasing the leader, fresh off the cauldron of 16 with adrenaline pumping, knowing they need birdie and grabbing driver instead of the sensible iron.
Augusta National is one of the most altered courses in the history of the game, a fact which should provide a license to make an improvement that would add variety to the course and elicit drama beyond the usual suspects down along Big Play Rae’s Creek (and its tributaries). A wise man down in Australia once told me that a golf course is a living organism that ebbs and flows with the tides of time and can always be improved. ANGC obviously subscribes to that philosophy given the myriad changes from Mackenzie to Maxwell to Jones Sr. to Fazio (and everyone in between), but often misses the boat on what those changes should be. With Eisenhower’s Tree long gone, a reimagining of 17 would be a great start to unlocking some of the unrealized potential of ANGC, which is surprisingly plentiful.