Witnessing Augusta National in person is wondrous for all the things that don’t readily come across on television. The hills are steeper, the holes broader. The turf is so firm and uniform, you pluck blades to test if it’s real. The black waters of 11, 15 and 16 mirror the pines and sky, masking the electromagnetic pull that hums beneath, and eyebrows raise at the impossibly static order of such a large swath of nature.
However, observant eyes will fixate on the greens and the eclectic nature of their size, shape and persona. During telecasts we watch putts swerve, bend and dip, but the forces that animate them are unclear. Seen live, the slopes and contours are sculptural, imperious. A.W. Tillinghast wrote that greens are like faces, the best ones unforgettable “with rugged profiles which loom head and shoulders above the common herd.” At Augusta National, the greens loom over their fiefdoms like 18 brooding gods of conflicting temperament. From the thin, demure visage of the 12th to the cresting narcissism of the 10,000-square-foot 14th, few appear related. But emerging within these variations are design themes that unite them into three distinct categories, each demanding adaptations of strategy, tactical approach and putting.
“One of the wonderful things about Augusta National is the variety of approaches you have to hit, and it’s a real testament to the course that not every green follows the same template,” says Tom Lehman, who played in 13 Masters Tournaments and finished runner-up in 1994. “Every green fits the type of shot you’re asked to play into it.”
Davis Love III played in 20 Masters, including two second-place finishes. “They’re the most challenging tournament greens we play,” he says. “You can’t think, I’m going to hit it in the middle of every green or hit it to the front of every green and try to make a putt. That doesn’t work at Augusta. You have to play some of the green styles one way and some of the green styles another way.”
The three genres of putting surfaces and the way they connect to their surrounds provide a near-infinite arrangement of hole locations that alter how and from where the greens need to be approached (and therefore where the drive needs to be placed). But each category does so in a unique way. Let’s call them Oceanic, Stepped and Tilted Plane. If Tillinghast was right, these are the faces of Augusta National.
Augusta's oceanic greens have no set form and are defined by swells, troughs, plateaus and false edges. Another term could be “Maxwell greens” after Perry Maxwell, who was hired in the late 1930s to initiate the first round of significant design changes. Maxwell’s preference was for large, rolling putting surfaces with prominent interior undulation, and he remodeled each of these greens—including building a new seventh green—in his preferred style.
The regal first green, for instance, sits high and crowned, an overstuffed footstool billowing into low spots left, right and in front. The fifth is molded like a parachute caught fluttering back to land, frozen in motion. It rises steeply from the fairway, perched high on the left and defined by a long fluid wave that runs diagonally across the back half. It’s one of the most three-putted greens on the course. Seventeen is similar, propped like an altar, with bowed sections that bleed out into tightly shorn surrounds.
Each of these greens, with the exception of the seventh, was designed to be approached along the ground. Paradoxically, their effectiveness has increased in proportion to golf becoming a largely aerial game, the targets within targets demanding perfect degrees of altitude and spin. Hole locations can be birdie pins if they are cut into the bowls and gathering spots, like the front-right pin on seven and the back-right on 14, or bogey pins when they are set atop knobs with little room to miss.
“With a real roly-poly green, if you don’t get it in the right spot, the ball runs and rolls,” Lehman says. “You miss your target by two feet, and instead of having an eight-foot putt, you’ve got a 58-footer. That happens on No. 7; it happens on No. 14—that ball can run down all the way to the right side pretty easily.”
The shape and contour of the Oceanic greens, where small misses can result in big up-and-over putts and where getting up and down from certain areas requires exquisite precision (like to the left of one or from behind 17), allows Augusta National to almost scientifically manipulate scoring based on where holes are cut. The club can modulate on command a mathematical equation (in relation to par) of easy pins, very difficult pins and every combination in between. “There are drastic differences day to day,” Love says. “They can control the bogeys and the birdies just with hole locations. Not unfair ones, but the greens are such that there are two hole locations where you can make birdie and two that you can’t.”
Lehman agrees. “They have two things—they have those types of pin placements, and they have the ability to control the speed and firmness. If they wanted to say the low round today is going to be 75, they could firm up the greens and put the pins in certain spots that there would be no way you could get it close,” he says. “They have a bunch of pins in their back pocket, and they could make it as tough as they wanted to.”
ANOTHER LEVEL Stepped greens, like the ninth, can help guide or reject incoming shots.
Augusta's stepped greens are defined by more linear high and low levels with steep transitions. As with oceanic greens, an approach that misses the targeted level is going to roll well away from the hole, though the platforms are generally flatter with more room to land the ball. The most visible examples are the ninth and 18th greens—the former with three clear landing areas and the latter with exaggerated high and low sections.
Not all were designed to be this way. The tongue of the fourth green, which appears to waggle back at players on the tee as if taunting them, has a more pronounced pinnable step in it today than it first did. (Four is actually a hybrid green, with the front part stepped and the wide back section a tilted plane from right to left and back to front.) Robert Trent Jones tamed the sizable transition at 18 at the behest of Bob Jones who thought the green was unfair after watching Ben Hogan three-putt from the upper to lower level in 1946 to lose to Herman Keiser by one. Alister MacKenzie’s ninth green, originally horseshoe-shaped, began mutating in the 1930s from a benign table-top putting surface into the vertical staircase players now face. (The reference data for these green illustrations was provided by StrackaLine.)
Flying the ball onto the correct terrace is critical on stepped greens—coming up short will leave monstrous putts as balls are pulled away by gravity, though the transitions can act as backstops for certain hole locations. These greens are most exacting when oriented at an angle to the incoming shot. The best example is the par-3 16th green, designed by Robert Trent Jones in the late 1940s, with an elevated back level running right to left away from the tee. Holes cut on the upper zone can create very difficult approaches because players are concerned about short-siding themselves in the rear bunkers, so conservative misfires commonly drift down the slope requiring 40-foot putts up the ridge. When flags are placed in the lower basin, the same slope will cozy up tee shots to left and rear-left pins. The green at the par-5 13th functions the same way on the opposite axis, sometimes played with a longer club from a hanging lie, though sometimes not.
“The 13th is an example of a green that you can play away from the hole and still get it close,” Lehman says. “If it’s in the middle to the back right, you can land the shot anywhere left and the ball works off the slope toward the hole, so you can be way more conservative on your second shot yet get it near that pin. But when the pin is in the back middle or on the left side, you have to go directly at it and be way more precise to get it close.”'THERE ARE DRASTIC DIFFERENCES DAY TO DAY. [AUGUSTA] CAN CONTROL THE BOGEYS AND THE BIRDIES JUST WITH HOLE LOCATIONS. NOT UNFAIR ONES.'
Stepped putting surfaces often provide the most black-and-white outcomes for approach shots. Where balls drift and waggle into the lows and valleys of oceanic greens, stepped greens can reject shots violently. You either nail the landing or you don’t. “Like No. 6, the par 3, when the hole is on that top right,” Lehman says. “You don’t see many greens designed like that today with such serious, significant elevation change where if you miss that top level, you’re 80 feet away.”
That means players have no choice but to fire at certain pins, like that upstairs bedroom on six, the rear sliver tier on nine or to carry it all the way to the back porch on 18 and risk going long. But, Love says, “If you pull it off and you stick it on the top, it kind of makes your day, whether you’re a member or a pro. If you hit the correct level where the hole is, you’ve done something.”
SLIPPERY SLOPE Long, arcing putts add to the challenge of tilted-plane greens, especially on No. 10.
The most common style of green at Augusta National is the tilted plane, a term I first heard from architect Jeff Brauer. It denotes a long, flattish putting surface angled front to back or side to side, often with a break so that portions of the putting surface slide in two directions. The slender front half of the eighth green, for instance, tapers and tilts toward the fairway, and the wider back lobe is pitched right to left. The 10th is another example, hanging like a crooked dartboard off the sloping hillside. Maxwell moved the green from its original placement next to MacKenzie’s decorative bunker in the fairway up to the higher, drier ground in 1938, and the frightening right-to-left orientation of the putting surface perched above deep swales short and to the left meant it needed no extra pizzazz. Approach shots that play away from the fall-off on the left threaten to leave the ball above the hole, and front-flag locations bring the false front into play along with similarly wicked downhill sliders for balls that travel past the cup.
The contrast of the benign-looking tilted-plane greens with the oceanic, or even the stepped, is startling, and the multiple personalities could be considered a weakness on another course. But in the matrix of high-level tournament golf, the panoply of green forms at Augusta is a strength. The green at the short par-4 third tilts strongly right to left off the shoulder of a hill. When the hole is back right, players can hit driver as far down into the bowl in front of the green as possible, leaving a pitch into the length of the green that can spin close off the right bank. When the hole is placed on the shallow front-left peninsula, they might not even be able to hit the putting surface from the same location.THIS IS THE BEAUTY OF THE COURSE’S THREE GREEN TYPES. PASSIVE OR CAUTIOUS PLAY ONLY RESULTS IN TENUOUS SHORT-GAME SITUATIONS.
At the par-5 second, the traditional Sunday pin, over the right-hand bunker, can be accessed only with a second shot that lands on the front middle and rides the contour around and behind the hole. If the hole is on the upper left side, being even far right of the right-hand bunker is not a bad leave, but being left or in the left bunker leaves virtually no chance for birdie.
The par-4 11th green has as many potential hole locations as any on the course, yet the hole is the first or second most elusive to play to—only 40 percent of the Masters field has found the green in regulation since the tees were extended to 505 yards in 2006. The entire putting surface cants toward the pond guarding the green’s left flank, meaning that bailouts on the right must chip across a shoulder back downhill toward the water. Players who draw the ball, like Lehman, have trouble with right-side hole locations, and faders and straight-ball players find left-hand hole locations quarrelsome, especially back-left flags.
“You just never feel like you have a good angle [on 11],” Love says. “If you were left, you were going to miss the green right or long, and if you were down the right, the ball ran away from you toward the water. I never could get comfortable on that one.”
The wide, shallow 15th green doesn’t look like much, but it’s one of the most terrifying to approach given the incoming shot and the way the land around it slopes toward the pond in front and runs away behind.
“Fifteen for sure is one of those think-about-it-all-night holes,” Lehman says. “When that green is firm, it’s no bargain. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve aimed at that right bunker and tried to hit a draw to the middle part of that right side and try to two-putt to anywhere. I don’t want to go long and don’t want to be short, so where’s the only place to hit it? You just hope you have a perfect yardage when approaching that green.”
The greens variety also means players encounterdifferent kinds of putts from hole to hole. Oceanic and stepped greens can leave extreme breaking putts, the kind where players might have to start with their backs to the hole—think of some of the looping putts on the ninth and 14th greens. Downhill putts aren’t touch and go, they’re touch and hope. Knowledge of the pull of Rae’s Creek is essential. Tilted-plane greens pose their own set of problems, usually long, arcing touch putts that can be the most difficult to gauge.
“The big, flat long breakers that you’re trying to lag are the most challenging,” Love says. “I remember [Ben] Crenshaw telling me, ‘You might as well try to get some speed on it.’ Don’t try to play it too high and too soft because if you try to coax it and leave yourself three feet above the hole, now you’ve got a straight downhill putt that isn’t stopping. Just remember it’s OK to hit it four or five feet past the hole on those big, long flat breakers to leave your second putt uphill.”
This is the beauty of the course’s three green types. The category and degree of contour plus changing birdie-bogey hole locations force players to approach them aggressively if they want to score well. Passive or cautious play only results in tenuous short-game predicaments.
Even putting requires a level of fearlessness. The unique demands make these putting surfaces the most endlessly interesting and respected in championship golf. At Augusta National, the greens are not only the face of the golf course, they are also its heart.
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