There are certain shots at Augusta National that will make a golfer cry, even one with a far better grip on his tear ducts than Bubba Watson.
There are shots that, on the best of days, will turn connective tissue to jam, where a player may survey it from all angles and find it almost impossible to imagine anything good happening.
Then, on a Masters Sunday, when the pressure and the pollen make it equally difficult to breathe, those same shots are made doubly nettlesome.
What will be the most difficult shot at Augusta National on Sunday? What will be the shot that presents the greatest challenge and ultimately the one the winner will have to answer to before collecting the coveted green apparel?
A bigger question: How are you going to pick just one?
The discussion on Augusta National’s most difficult shot begins, well, with the beginning.
“I always find the second shot on No. 1 tough,” said Graeme McDowell . “That one, especially when the fairways are wet, that’s a long hole (445 yard, uphill par 4). Going in there with 5- and 4-irons to that kind of up-turned saucer green, you’re just trying not to miss it in the wrong place.
“It’s kind of intimidating. It unsettles you right away. It sets the tone for unsettledness for the rest of the day.”
So right away, this place gives you the Rutgers basketball practice treatment. Ask Lee Westwood, Rickie Fowler, former champion Charl Schwartzel, who all began their 2013 Masters with double bogeys on the first hole and spent the day digging out.
Last season, No. 1 ranked as the most difficult hole in the tournament and the ninth most difficult par-4 on the PGA Tour. It seems intent upon defending its title this year.
Adam Scott will concur: “I think the most difficult hole out here is the first hole. We all build up the nerves before we go to the tee and it’s just a difficult golf hole. I think it demands a lot out of the drive and quite a long second shot up the hill to a very severe green. When you’re just trying to gather your thoughts and get composed out there, it asks a lot out of you.”
Scoring has been on the uptick lately, as Billy Payne and his fellow green coats have made fewer drastic changes to the course and tried to encourage more Sunday roars. Since 2009, the field scoring average has gone down by a stroke and half. The average winning score the last five years: 12-under. The five years previous to that: 7-under.
Phil Mickelson, something of an expert on the layout, has spoken on the general easing up on the severity of the greens. One of the most defensive features at Augusta National has been weakened, he said.
“These greens are softer than what we play week in and week out,” he said. “Nothing scary like they used to be. Quite honestly they have been softer the last five years than anything we play on Tour, other than Pebble Beach. The fear factor has not been there and I don’t anticipate them going back to the way we expect.”
But don’t for a moment think this course has run out of ways to keep these players honest.
It’s not like when a pro is asked to name the toughest shot at Augusta National that he can’t find one. He doesn’t start comparing the place to some pitch-and-putt in Scottsdale. If anything, there are too many choices.
“There’s a lot of them,” said Steve Stricker. “And depending on where some of the pin locations are, it could be every hole.”
Then Stricker begins ticking off some of his personal torments:
With the pin down on the front left tier of the preposterously long (240 yards) par-3 fourth hole, that’s no fun, he said.
Then you get to another bi-level green on a par-3, the sixth, where on occasion the masochists sink a hole on the very top right shelf. Then they cackle with glee as shots run away from the hole like an acorn in a downspout.
Don’t overlook the par-3s. Mickelson is a career 55-over par on Augusta National’s shortest holes. He has deemed the tee shot to No. 16 — pond in front, another tilting, yawing green — the most difficult shot for him at the joint.
The degree of difficulty on any one shot here of course depends upon who happens to be standing over it.
The par-4 ninth, a big dogleg left to a narrow green perched on a slope, makes Ian Poulter sweat through his colorful Euro wear.
“For me personally, (the toughest shot) would be the second shot to nine,” he said. “The ball is below your feet and you’re on a downslope. It’s not an easy shot when the green is perched up way above that fairway and you need to get it to stop.”
“Hardest shot?” mused David Toms. “For me a lot of the times, it’s probably the second shot on 10 (the 495-yard par 4) because sometimes, I’m not all the way down the hill.
“Or the second shot on 11 because I got such a long shot (that one has been let out to 505 yards, with the fairway tightened by some additional trees and the green blocked on the left by a pond). For me, it’s a lot of times such a long shot with such a small margin on holes like 10 or 11, those are the hardest for me.”
One shot that received multiple votes actually involves the hole that thus far in this Masters has played the easiest of them all — the par-5 15th.
In Sports Illustrated, Johnny Miller called the second shot to the reachable par-5 (with a creek/moat in front) the most difficult kind. Trying to hit a high ball off a sloping fairway to a shallow green is not something these fellows get to practice on the Florida swing.
Trying to find a flat lie on that — and on many other holes on this rolling former nursery — is like searching for a Ritz Carlton on a dirt road.
“I think (the most difficult shot) is, if you’re going for the green in two, 15,” Matt Kuchar said.
“Even if you lay up, I think the approach shot into 15 is one of the hardest. Even from a wedge distance, it’s a hard shot. You’re on a downslope that kind of pitches with the ball above your feet. Then if you take that back to 220 yards, 250 yards, trying to judge the distance is tough with that much downhill, with water in front and water in back.”
Really, it condenses to this: Any time you pull a club on a Masters Sunday at Augusta National, you take your chances. That is why we watch every swing that the lords of the manor allow us to view.