The visualization begins weeks, if not months, in advance. Shotmaking and creativity must be taken to a higher zone at Augusta National, and no matter which way a player curves the ball, he needs to spin it in his head first.
Rory McIlroy has been fine-tuning a draw with his irons, and was already thinking about likely Masters hole locations in early March, when he happened to be having lunch one table over from Jack Nicklaus during the PGA Tour's Florida Swing.
“We had a chat, and he was saying the middle,” McIlroy said, “if you hit the ball in the middle of the green at Augusta, you’re going to be OK.”
Rickie Fowler said at The Honda Classic that he had begun work on a higher-lofted wedge game. Indeed, a majority of the Masters field typically breaks out new wedges for the Tournament.
“It’s literally right out of the plastic before the round,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, the caddie for Phil Mickelson. “You want to go there with fresh wedges.”
Bubba Watson prepares by … well, just being Bubba.
“It’s Augusta National, so my juices start flowing,” Watson said. “I've been able to pull off some of the shots that you shouldn't be able to pull off just because of my energy level. I get pumped up, and I become a kid again.”
Watson embodies how imaginations are unleashed each year at the only major that’s always held at the same course. He’s authored two shots that immediately were etched in Masters history based on audaciousness alone, and both led to victory.
His crazy, curved wedge from deep in the Magnolia trees to the right of the 10th fairway won him the playoff in 2012. He hooked the ball more than 40 yards to reach the green and made par to defeat Louis Oosthuizen.
By contrast, the drive he blasted at No. 13 in last year’s final round was emblematic of the angles and power now being displayed at Augusta National. Watson said he flew the ball 360 yards over the corner, and although the ball clipped some tree branches, it cleared the creek and left him a sand wedge for his second shot, setting up an easy birdie and another Masters title.
Watson believes Augusta National constantly tempts such gambles and creativity. The second cut isn’t nearly as thick and deep as a U.S. Open, which severely penalizes errant shots, thus allowing a player’s imagination to play a vivid role. Pine straw allows for critical thinking, too.
“When you get into the high rough that most tournaments try to create, it takes away shotmaking,” Watson said. “It makes you chip out. That’s taking away some people’s strength.
“When you go to Augusta, the high trees with no limbs, there are gaps that you can pull off shots. If you hit in the pine straw, you can still maneuver the ball out and make solid contact to hit creative shots. So you can be creative with your contact out of the pine straw and out of the rough.”
Pine straw played perfectly into Phil Mickelson’s daring 6-iron between two trees at No. 13, a second shot Lefty curved en route to his third Green Jacket in 2010. Phil, of course, famously took curving the ball to new levels by using two drivers – one weighted toward a fade, the other set up for a draw – while notching his second Masters victory in 2006.
Augusta National had always been considered a haven for right-handed players who worked the ball right to left and hit it high. From there, a debate ensued as to whether the course had evolved to fit the eye of left-handers better than righties.
“It’s a course that really requires you to maneuver the ball both ways,” said Mickelson, who has combined with Watson and Mike Weir to have six Masters wins by lefties since 2003. “I don’t know why standing on one side of the ball would benefit a guy more than standing on the other side of the ball. I really don’t.”
Zach Johnson, the 2007 champion, believes the shotmaking and touch of Watson and Mickelson have spun the dynamics of Augusta National in their favor.
“If your right-to-left shot is a fade, I think it's a significant advantage,” Johnson said. “You’re talking about a right-to-left shot that comes in high and soft. I’m not suggesting Phil and Bubba should win it every year. You still have to putt. But there’s not many holes out there as a right-handed player, a baby fade off the tee is an advantage.”
"It's quite possible, I’d say a very good chance, that (Mickelson) has never had the same lineup of 14 identical clubs for four rounds." - Caddie Jim "Bones" Mackay
Still, the curve and spin of shots into the course’s undulating greens demand creativity before a player even tees off. “You have to spend a half-hour thinking about your lineup (what clubs to put in the bag) before you go out there," Mackay said.
One of first things he and other caddies check each day is the yardage at the par-3 No. 4.
“They can make that hole a distance where some of us don’t have a club for it,” Mackay said. “You wear out 4-iron, 5-iron, and next thing you know, you have to hit a hybrid in there.”
Wedges are monitored closely to match the firmness of the greens.
“You want your ball checking as much as humanly possible,” he said.
Mickelson might add a 3-iron to his bag one day, or a 64-degree wedge for the next round.
“It's quite possible, I’d say a very good chance, that he’s played that Tournament and never had the same lineup of 14 identical clubs for four rounds," Mackay said.
For McIlroy, rather than change the makeup of his bag, he is guided by the advice from Nicklaus.
“(The course is) intimidating,” McIlroy said. “It really is. It’s quite generous off the tee and definitely a second-shot golf course. You can become quite tentative, and that’s how I felt the first couple of years I was there.
“I wasn't aggressive enough, and that’s what you really need to be. You need to be aggressive. You can’t start to guide the ball around there. The minute you start doing that, you’ll start to miss it on the wrong side. You put yourself in a lot of trouble, and it’s hard to get out of that sort of mindset if you slip into it.”