Great players and their major championship venues are inseparable. The shot was no more important than the hole on which it was played.
The lie was pine straw. The sight line was a stand of trees that could have been guarding an in-bound pass. The green was in the distance a few yards beyond 200 and fronted by a creek.
A meandering and otherwise innocent looking gully with the name of Rae.
The decision for Phil Mickelson was easy. Either lay up safe and possibly lose, or thread a six-iron approach and putt for eagle -- and possibly lose.
Augusta National has seen its share of great shots - Gene Sarazen's four-wood double eagle in 1935; Larry Mize's sand-wedge chip in 1987.
Mickelson did not eagle, but his brilliance on 13 produced one of three birdies on the back side at the 2010 Masters to underscore all that makes golf great, its champions nonpareil, the courses that serve up the game peerless.
"The gap, it wasn't huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through," Mickelson told reporters afterward.
It is the players, who make the shots, but it is the golf course that sets the stage and like them, the golf course is a living thing.
It grows, it ages, it dies.
It regenerates; it grows dormant. It responds positively to care, nurturing and love. It turns south through neglect, disinterest and abuse.
While it has no emotions, it rewards skill, talent and imagination. And yet without human nature, it can be equally capricious and turn execution to failure, planning to ruin, exhilaration to despair.
And, it is this game that reveals the true character of the golf course - its nature, its moods, its personality.
Tournament golf is elevated each year through the staging of major championships where the courses are equally competitive to the players. This season will see the Masters conducted as it is each year at Augusta National, while Pinehurst #2, Royal Liverpool Golf Club and Valhalla Golf Club will host the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship, respectively.
While team sports can effectively single out a titlist with a season-ending game, tournament or playoff series, the individual sports often fail to identify one who is best.
Golf, like tennis, employs this handful of tournaments each year to elevate a few to a higher class.
"The gap, it wasn't huge, but it was big enough, you know, for a ball to fit through." — Phil Mickelson
Two reasons the Masters is the best major to win. They invite you back every year for dinner and a spot in the tournament, and they give you a jacket.
They even let you keep the green blazer in your own closet for a year before returning it to the champion's locker room.
How many trophies does one really need?
"If there's a golf course in heaven, I hope it's like Augusta National. I just don't want an early tee time". - Gary Player
What also sets the Masters apart from the remaining grand slam tournaments, is it is the only one played on the same golf course - Augusta National - each year - and it is the first on the calendar.
While the U.S. and British Opens and PGA cluster into the summer from June-August, invitees tee it up at the Masters in early spring - always in April and often near Easter - when Georgia somehow routinely finds itself in full bloom.
The Masters speaks of new beginnings of a new season and hands one player a shot at the slam.
But even if it were not host to arguably the most prestigious golf tournament in existence, playing Augusta would still yield championship moments.
"The course opened in 1933 and hosted its first Masters the following year."
"To me, the Augusta National course has character, individuality and personality," Smith was quoted as saying after his 1936 victory. "It is one of the few courses that really presents two games on almost every hole; a game to reach the greens and another to figure the ever-challenging contours after reaching the greens."
That character helps define the course and also the Masters to produce a final round, more specifically a Sunday back nine, that is tournament golf distilled.
Nicklaus described it as a golf course where if you hit it long, straight, pitched it high and putted well, you would be fine.
He should know; he won there six times.
But, the list of failures is no less notable: Roberto De Vicenzo signing an incorrect scorecard in 1968; Curtis Strange hitting into Rae's Creek in 1985; Greg Norman's final round 78 in 1996.
The course both invites and allows for creativity; success is not guaranteed.
Never long by pro tournament standards (though lengthened in recent years in response to new equipment), Augusta has always placed a premium on shot location, both onto the fairway and into the greens.
The wide and undulating greens provide the final barometer for every player and have been so fast that a TV commentator once referred to them as being "bikini-waxed." CBS was later asked to not have him as part of future Masters telecasts. He hasn't returned.
Reduce the speed, though, and water down the moments provided when putts like Ben Crenshaw's on 10 in 1984 or Nicklaus' on 15 in 1986 or Tiger's pitch and roll at 16 in 2005 found the bottom of the cup.
Jack Nicklaus won 6 Masters titles, the first in 1963 and the last in 1986.
All three won because great players make great shots, and it is the course that makes these shots special.
Following his Masters victory in 1979, Fuzzy Zoeller was quoted as saying: "I've never been to heaven, and thinking back on my life, I probably won't get a chance to go. I guess winning the Masters is a close as I'm going to get."
Payne Stewart struck an indelible figure at golf tournaments. His cap and plus-fours became a signature that left no mistake who it was.
His game also came to indicate an enduring star with three major victories. But perhaps his most lasting impression is when he grasped the cheeks of his friend and playing partner Mickelson to remind him he was going to be a father.
That was shortly after Stewart drained a 15-footer at 18 on a cold Sunday afternoon to win his second US. Open.
For Mickelson, the moment at Pinehurst was bittersweet - it was the first of his six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. His most recent coming last year at Merion. For Stewart, it was major victory No. 3. Four months later, he was dead, when the chartered jet he was on nosedived into a South Dakota field.
But how Stewart died can only be a footnote to how he lived and more to the point of how he played. That was Stewart's second win that year and later in 1999--and just weeks before his death-- Stewart was part of a dramatic comeback victory for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup at Brookline Country Club.
At 42, his prime competitive years may have been in the past, but it is not a stretch to think Stewart would have challenged in future major titles if not won.
Pinehurst #2: "They restored the awe factor." — Eric Alpenfels
The role of the golf architect is to look at a plot of land and find the golf course that is there.
Donald Ross looked at the pines and the sand hills of North Carolina and visualized the gem that became No. 2. More than 100 years later, Ben Crenshaw and design partner Bill Coore saw the golf course, had the same vision as Ross and took a restorative approach to their course renovation.
The result is a golf course that will likely be familiar to its initial designer.
"It really kinda restored the golf course to its original state," said Eric Alpenfels, director of instruction at Pinehurst Golf Schools.
That original state is a wide open look that is a slight departure from so many previous U.S. Open tracks that have put such a premium on driving accuracy and hitting fairways, where any shot beyond the first cut leaves few options.
With wider fairways, more natural waste areas and rough the exception and not the rule, the course for both the men and the women could see higher degrees of shotmaking than before.
"In 2005, I couldn't see my shoes," Alpenfels said.
Pinehurst® Resort and the Tufts Archives
With Pinehurst hosting both national championships this year, the men's and women's U.S. Opens will see a departure from that tall grass.
"We've never done that before," USGA executive director Mike Davis said at the USGA annual meeting. "So when you miss a fairway here, you may be on a sandy, hardpan lie. You may be in a soft foot-printed sandy lie. You may be up against wire grass on pine straw. You name it."
But very much like a U.S. Open course, No. 2 at 7,500 yards and a par of 70, will play fast, at least through the fairway, with the greens running a little slower than normal Open standards but in line with Pinehurst, which Alpenfels said was a good thing. That will help with pin locations.
What will come in to play for the field is a variety of shots as Alpenfels described the course as attackable. While many eventual champions of U.S. Opens have been the players that survived, Pinehurst is more likely to reward the aggressive shot as penalize it.
Length and accuracy off the tee will be required but so will a variety of shots - both the high pitch and the low runner. With the course playing drier in 2014 than its well-irrigated and more manicured former self, landing the ball short and running it up will be the occasional smart play.
"You will need low trajectory shots to deal with the elevation changes; utilize the ground. Rolling it up," Alpenfels said. "Wind is also an issue, forcing you to hit different trajectories."
"Hoylake, blown upon by mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions." — Bernard Darwin
Some players love it, others never get used to it, but golf at the Open Championship is unlike any other among the majors.
Oldest of the four tournaments, and one of two that is open to qualifiers, the tourney also known as the British Open presents a different look, a different style and an entirely different feel.
But its winners are legendary - Old and Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
Royal Liverpool, host of this year's championship can stake its own claim. The links course dates to 1869, nine years after the first Open Championship and has hosted the event 11 times. The first in 1897, which was won by Harold Hilton and the last time in 2006 when Tiger prevailed.
But it was in 1930, when Bobby Jones claimed the elusive Grand Slam, so-named at the time for winning four major events, and not won since in a calendar year, that cemented its legacy. Jones won his other three major titles at the U.S. Open, the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. The two amateur tournaments have since been replaced as majors by the Masters, which didn't start until 1934, and the PGA Championship.
Known also as Hoylake, along the English coast of the Irish Sea, Royal Liverpool is a classic links course, with most greens visible from the tee. Measuring more than 7,300 yards from the tips, the course goes out in 35 and back in 37 with three of the four par-5s in the second nine and two in the last three holes.
And like the other championship tracks in the grand slam queue, imagination, shotmaking and some luck will be needed for the contenders.
"Hoylake tests every aspect of the golfer's game from subtle chip-and-runs and bunker shots over steep revetted faces to shot shaping and ball control should the wind blow," said John Heggarty, PGA master professional Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
While the course is familiar to the locals, the routing will differ slightly with the tournament starting at 17 and continuing onward to finish at 16. Heggarty said the inward leg could decide the title, specifically a pair of three-hole stretches - 11 to 14 - which includes the signature 14th, a 456-yard, par-4 dogleg left - and 16 to 18.
"The fact the last three holes are par-5, par-4, par-5 means there are opportunities for big swings at the end of the championship," Heggarty said.
The improbability was not that Tiger was in contention at a major, it was that he was extended to a playoff by Bob May - a player who would conclude his PGA Tour career without a victory.
For Tiger, this was the first dynasty - maybe the best run of his career. The Butch Harmon-coached, six-wins-in-nine-majors Tiger. The Tiger who would complete his own version of the slam as holder of all four titles at one time.
In 2000, Tiger was seeking his third straight major victory after wins in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the Open Championship at St. Andrews. The PGA Championship was held at Valhalla, a title Woods was defending.
He had 21 victories to his credit at the time and was only 25. A formidable stat he would continue through several more major victories, Woods had not failed to close out a major tournament when leading through 54 holes.
May trailed by one going into Sunday, but his 66 caught Woods' 67, who needed birdie at 18 to tie. In the three-hole playoff, Woods opened with a birdie and held on for a one-stroke victory.
With that PGA title at Valhalla and later a British Open title at Royal Liverpool, Woods will find himself in position to put a different spin on the slam.
Along with his four victories in the Masters, Woods can make it four wins in majors at this year's four slam venues if he prevails at Pinehurst in June.
Back surgery in late March caused Woods to withdraw from the 2014 Masters, leaving in question his schedule for the remainder of the season.
Woods has played well enough to win another major since his last - a U.S. Open victory in 2008 at Torrey Pines - with six top-5 finishes and nine top-10s. But, his game has deserted him over the weekend rounds.
Stuck on 14 major titles, Nicklaus' record of 18 victories in the majors has begun to look more distant. But in 1999, Woods finished in a tie for third at Pinehurst so playing well there or any of these courses is not out of his range.
"Is (the window) closed? By no means, no way," said Chris Hamburger, head golf professional at Valhalla GC. "Could he go to Pinehurst and run the show? Absolutely. He is Tiger."
"To play here you've really got to be a pretty good striker of the ball." - Chris Hamburger
Building its own resume among the exclusive group of majors tournament tracks is Valhalla, which has hosted the PGA Championship twice and the 2008 Ryder Cup, as well as the 2004 and 2011 Senior PGA Championships.
And like Pinehurst, Valhalla has undergone a major overhaul to bring it more up to date, this under the direction of the PGA of America and the guidance of Nicklaus, the original course designer.
The green complexes were rebuilt with new drainage systems, while the slope and contour of the greens was lessened a bit. Some bunkers were eliminated, others reshaped and some like the new greenside bunker at 18 were reduced by 25-30 yards to keep them more in play with short approach shots.
What PGA champions Mark Brooks (1996) and Woods (2000) saw when they claimed the Wanamaker Trophy will not be in play in August.
"It is going to be interesting to see how this group of player will handle the new golf course," Hamburger said.
Valhalla, near Louisville, Ky., derives its nature from the character of its two nines. The front, which lies in a flood plain and is built around Floyd's Fork, a tributary of the Salt River, has a links feel to it.
The back is more reflective of Nicklaus' signature course - Muirfield Village - with tree-lined corridors and a few rock formations, specifically the short, par-4 13th that occupies space from an abandoned rock quarry.
Valhalla is a generous driving course, and while the rough can be heavy, the driving areas are wide enough to allow for a variety of club choices off the tee.
Putting will be critical as it is in any championship, but where the tournament could turn is iron play.
"To play here you've really got to be a pretty good striker of the ball," Hamburger said. "If you look at who has won here through all of our events. Mark Brooks in 1996 and Tiger in 2000. Tiger, yes he drove the ball well that week, but gosh he was just fantastic with his iron shots."
Hamburger said weather might dictate type and quality of shots, and while hot and muggy weather is not uncommon in August, the region can be cool in the mornings.
What that increases is the variety of shots the players will face and not all of Valhalla's holes have rough fronting the greens so the putter could be utilized from lies beyond the greens.
Tipping at about 7,500 yards, Valhalla will play to a par-71 with the second hole playing as a 4 and not a 5 as it is for the members.
Both par 3s on the back will be 200+ yards and Hamburger said the finishing stretch of 16, 17 and 18 could decide the title.
"18 is a game-changer," Hamburger said of the finishing par-5. "A lot can hang in the balance on 18 because a 3 is in the equation. There are going to be eagle opportunities on 18."
Jason Dufner is the PGA defending champion while Tiger was the low medalist at Valhalla last time 'round, but whoever wins will require a full effort.
"The person who putts the best is probably going to be near the top, if they don't win," Hamburger said. "But the ballstriker is the guy who is going to get it done at the end of the day."
And in the end, the winner will hold the trophy but the golf course will be equal as champion.