AUGUSTA, Ga. – The youngest of the four majors has among the richest history, a product of the Masters returning to the same course every year.
Horton Smith won the inaugural tournament, which was called the Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934. He made a 20-foot birdie on the 17th hole and wound up winning by one shot over Craig Woods, and hardly anyone noticed. It was the next year, when Gene Sarazen hit the golf shot heard 'round the world, holing a 4-wood from 235 yards on the 15th hole for an albatross, that put the Masters on the map.
Since then, there has been no shortage of great shots, great moments, and great champions.
The last three years alone — none would make the top five — shows what kind of excitement Augusta National provides. Bubba Watson hit a wild hook out of the trees on the 10th hole in a playoff to beat Louis Oosthuizen last year. Charl Schwartzel closed with four straight birdies to win in 2011. Phil Mickelson won his third green jacket in 2010, helped in part by a 6-iron he hit off the pine needles and threw a small gap in the trees to within 4 feet on the 13th hole.
As for the best? Here's one version:
5. THE SHOT 'HEARD ROUND THE WORLD: The Masters was in its second year in 1935, and it looked certain that Craig Wood would atone for his runner-up finish from the previous year. He had posted a 73 for a 6-under 282, and only a few players remained on the course. One of them was Gene Sarazen.
Most of the writers were filing their stories when Alan Gould of The Associated Press yelled into his mouthpiece, "Say that again!" According to a remembrance by Charles Bartlett of the Chicago Tribune, Gould had been experimenting with short-wave radio to receive dispatches from the golf course. One of his assistants reported that Sarazen had made a 2 on the par-5 15th. Sure enough, Sarazen holed out with a 4-wood from 235 yards for an albatross — a double eagle it was called that day — the rarest shot in golf. He closed with three pars for a 70 to force a playoff.
Sarazen had a 144 in the 36-hole playoff to win by five shots over Wood.
The newspaper coverage brought so much attention to this quaint gathering in the South, and the Masters was never the same.
4. CLASH OF THE TITANS: Byron Nelson already had won three majors and it looked as though he would win another when he opened with rounds of 68-67 to take the halfway lead in the 1942 Masters. Ben Hogan shot a 67 in the third round to cut into the deficit, and then closed with a 70 — only one player broke 70 on the final day — to catch Nelson and force an 18-hole playoff.
At the time, Nelson had Hogan's number. Nelson beat him in a playoff to win the Texas Open, and he beat him in quarterfinals of the PGA Championship a year later. Hogan had yet to win a major at this point in his career. That figured to change in the 18-hole playoff when Nelson sliced his tee shot into the woods and made double bogey, and he fell three shots behind with a bogey on the par-3 fourth hole.
But there were a pair of two-shot swings — Nelson made a birdie on the par-3 sixth to Hogan's bogey, and then Nelson made eagle on the par-5 eighth to take the lead. He stretched his lead to three shots with six holes to play. Hogan pulled within one shot with a birdie on the 15th, but then made bogey on the 16th. Nelson, despite a bogey on the final hole, shot 69 in the playoff to win by one shot.
3. THE TIGER SLAM: Tiger Woods closed out the 2000 season by winning the final three majors — a 15-shot win in the U.S. Open, an eight-shot win in the British Open and a playoff win at the PGA Championship. He arrived at the Masters with a chance to hold all four professional majors at the same time, an unprecedented feat.
The debate leading up to the 2001 Masters was whether it could be considered a real Grand Slam. Arnold Palmer created the modern version of the slam in 1960 with the idea of winning all four in the same year. This would be all four over two seasons. Lost in the debate was a back nine filled with incredible star power — Woods playing in the final group with Phil Mickelson, and David Duval making a charge to get into the picture.
Duval missed birdie putts of 12 feet and 6 feet on the last two holes and had to settle for a 67 that left him one shot behind. Mickelson, who twice had a share of the lead early in the round, was one shot behind with three holes left when his tee shot stayed on the top shelf at the par-3 16th, leading to bogey. He failed to birdie the last two holes and closed with a 70.
Woods knocked in one last birdie putt at the 18th for a 68 and a two-shot win over Duval. He had swept the four professional majors in a span of 294 days. And he beat two of the best players from his generation to do it.
2. ONE FOR THE RECORD BOOKS: In his last Masters as an amateur, Tiger Woods played a practice round with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, and Nicklaus later said that Woods' fundamentals were so polished that he might win more green jackets and Nicklaus and Palmer combined, which adds to 10.
In his pro debut at the Masters in 1997, Woods opened with a 40 and was an afterthought. He turned it around on the back nine with a 30 to salvage a 70, and then dismantled Augusta National like never before with frightening power. He took the lead on Friday with a 66, and played the third round with Colin Montgomerie, who was curious to see how the 21-year-old Woods might respond to the pressure. Woods shot 65. Montgomerie had a 74.
Woods closed out his record performance with a 69. He became the youngest Masters champion. He set a tournament record at 18-under 270. And his 12-shot victory margin remains the largest in Masters history. He was the first player of black heritage in a green jacket. And his win made him the game's most transcendent figure.
1. JACK IS BACK: As much as Woods' victory in 1997 was a watershed moment, Jack Nicklaus winning his sixth green jacket remains the most popular Masters.
Nicklaus was thought to be washed up, and an Atlanta sports writer essentially said as much in the days leading up to the Masters. It had been five full years since Nicklaus won the last of his 17 professional majors in the 1980 PGA Championship. The game had been turned over to a young generation of Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman.
Not so fast.
Nicklaus was on the ninth green when he heard two sets of explosive cheers behind him — Tom Kite holed out for eagle on the par-5 eighth, and then Ballesteros chipped in for eagle moments later. Nicklaus turned to the gallery and said, "Why don't we see if we can make up here ourselves?" He made the birdie, and then headed to the 10th hole to begin one of the most famous charges in Augusta history.
Nicklaus shot 30 on the back nine, blowing past Kite, Norman, Ballesteros, Nick Price and Tom Watson, all of them now in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He made eagle on the 15th hole, and then 5-iron to 3 feet for birdie on the 16th and rolled in a 15-foot birdie on the 17th. Norman rallied and had a chance to force a playoff, but his second to the 18th sailed into the gallery and he made bogey. Nicklaus closed with a 65 for his 18th and final major, the record that has become the benchmark in professional golf.