AUGUSTA, Ga. - The Masters is special because of Sundays. And Sundays are special because of the back nine at Augusta National Golf Club.
It is where the heat rises and the winds swirl, where pulses race and the throats of even the most pressure-tested golfers are as dry as extra-fine sandpaper.
Are the holes that tough? Yes and no. Tiger Woods says the legendary 12th hole in the heart of Amen Corner is one of the easiest par 3s around, unless the wind is blowing and unless it is Sunday.
There are two par 5s that are reachable with a second-shot iron. The Sunday pin position on No. 14 is nestled at the foot of a funnel that all but steers balls to the cup.
No, the back nine at Augusta isn't tough in the way that the back nine at a U.S. Open course turns into Chinese water torture or the way that British Open links with ample, almost hardpan, fairways suddenly shrink to become all gorse and pot bunkers and burns.
The back nine at Augusta is steeled by tradition and emotion and nerves.
Hogan walked here. Sarazen and Snead did too. The Bear and The King.
Last year, the funniest thing happened.
The golfers made the turn to the back nine on Sunday afternoon and just ate it up. The shot-making was breathtaking and the scoreboard had three gears - low, lower and lowest.
Phil Mickelson won by making birdies on five of the last seven holes, coming home in 31. The runner-up, Ernie Els, had the second of his two eagles at No. 13 and matched that score.
K.J. Choi holed his 5-iron shot
for an improbable eagle at the dangerous 11th hole. Padraig Harrington had a hole-in-one at No. 16 and, before the crowd had stopped buzzing, along came Kirk Triplett in the next twosome to do the same thing.
"It was the most special Sunday afternoon stroll that I've ever had," Els said. "It was just electric, really. It was a wonderful afternoon."
Added Mickelson: "You're not going to get any argument from me. I certainly enjoyed it."
Mickelson said much of the great golf was "a function, or result, of the course setup."
Els felt the front nine was a severe test, but he knew before the round began, after his caddie had told him about pin placements coming in, that "the back nine was there for the taking."
Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson let it be known yesterday on the eve of the 69th Masters that there could be more of the same this year, providing golfers manage their nerves and execute the shots.
"We were very excited with that," Johnson said of last year's finish. "I mean, [tournament officials] set it up with hopes that will happen. I expect you'll see [the pins] pretty close to the same spots. If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Els knows that attitude, among major championships, is pretty much exclusive to the Masters.
"It's nice to know that the guys give you a little bit of a break on the back nine, and I think it's great for Sunday-afternoon charges like Phil made over the last seven holes," he said.
Mike Weir, the champion here in 2003, had to play over an eagle at No. 13 by Len Mattiace that helped force that year's playoff between the two.
"I think what's intriguing about this event is, providing you're on top of your game, you can be six behind going to the back nine and still win the tournament," he said. "You can shoot a 31 or 32."
Vijay Singh isn't sure that opportunity exists if the course is firm.
"It's easier when it's wet and, last year, you saw a lot of birdies because the pins were tucked where the ball would feed to the hole," said Singh, the winner here in 2000. "When it's firm you can't do that."
Wetness is one factor. Wind can be the other.
"Take No. 12," said Woods, a three-time Masters champion. "It's a simple 8-iron or 9-iron to the back pin if the wind is not blowing. But with just a 10 mile-per-hour wind that is switching all over the place, it's one of the most difficult holes around because there's no room to bail out. If you misjudge short, you're wet. If you misjudge long, you're above the green in high, sandy grass. It's an unbelievably difficult pitch. You try to play bump-and-run and [the ball] gets caught. You hit it too hard and you're back on the other side flirting with the water.
"It's the unpredictability that makes Amen Corner and the rest of the back nine so great. Of the four majors, overall, it's the toughest test of your iron play, your short game, your creativeness and your putting. You have birdie opportunities. Granted, they're still difficult golf shots, but if you're in the final group you're playing pretty well and you can handle that."
Just about everybody at or near the top of the leaderboard handled it a year ago and the finish was dramatic and delicious.
"It was an experience that we don't get in golf very often as players," Mickelson said. "It was something I'll never forget and something I'll re-live every time I come back here."
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The Masters is special because of Sundays. And Sundays are special because of the back nine at Augusta National Golf Club. It is where the heat rises and the winds swirl, where pulses race and the throats of even the most pressure-tested golfers are as dry as extra-fine sandpaper.