Why No. 3 might be the magic number

Most players need a minute to figure out the only non-par 3 that hasn't been lengthened at Augusta National Golf Club in the last seven years. Not Tiger Woods.

"Third hole," he says immediately after the question is asked, as if the four-time Masters champ spent the previous evening studying the multitude of course changes since Hootie Johnson became tournament chairman. When one points out that No. 3 is now the only short par 4 on the grounds, Woods has a quick answer for that, too. "Bull----," he replies. "What about No. 4?"

Nothing beats a little Tiger humor. If the recent addition of 35 yards to the par-3 fourth is likely to stir the most negative reaction from this year's competitors, Woods needn't concern himself with laying up on the 240-yard hole. In the final round of the 2003 Masters, however, Tiger paid a high price for his aggressive play off the third tee: After considerable consultation with caddie Steve Williams, he tried to cover most, if not all, of the 350 yards with a driver and blew it into the right trees.

Five strokes later -- a sequence that included a left-handed punch from the woods, a stubbed pitch through the green and a downhill bump-and-run that hung up in the fringe -- Tiger's bid for a third consecutive Masters title was over, at least for about 15 minutes. That's when leader Jeff Maggert, playing two groups behind Woods, pulled his tee shot into the bunker complex flanking the left side of the third fairway. His approach caromed off the lip and hit him, costing him 2 more strokes. Maggert would make a 15-footer for triple bogey, dropping him 2 shots behind eventual winner Mike Weir. So much for playing it safe. "With equipment nowadays, we're seeing a lot more guys hitting drivers and trying to chip it close from 30 or 40 yards," Maggert says. "I lay up a little more aggressively than most, at the top of the hill [about 240 yards off the tee] so I can see the whole green. That leaves me a full sand wedge, and I can control the shot a little better."

In a perfect world, anyway. The fates of Woods and Maggert in 2003 represent the complex strategic implications of No. 3, one of the few holes at Augusta National that has retained its original disposition. It is a fabulous short par 4 because it offers risk-reward with a cunning twist: The farther you hit your tee shot, the tougher your second might be. "Seriously, I'd like to see them make it 20 yards shorter so more guys would try [to drive it]," says Chris DiMarco, a short hitter who is partial to an approach in the neighborhood of 100 yards. "My philosophy there is, if I feel like I can get too close to the green with a driver, I don't hit it."

Amid all the stretching of Augusta National to combat the effects of modern technology, the third hole has emerged as a favorite among power players and finesse guys alike. Why? Because it is fraught with danger despite being one of the easiest holes on the course -- it yielded the lowest scoring average among the par 4s in 2002, '04 and '05 (it was second-lowest behind No. 7 in '03). Because it is a thinking man's test of planning and execution dictated by hole position, its character heightened by a sharply elevated green three-time champion Nick Faldo refers to as "shaped like a boomerang." Because a couple of yards might be all that separates a 3 from a 6. And perhaps most of all, because the club hasn't messed with it. "It's about the only hole I still like there," one major champion says. "If the pin's on the left, you hit it 230 yards off the tee and leave yourself a full club in. Otherwise, you're looking for trouble."

Without the boomerang, there's not much to talk about. Actually, the third green looks more like a heart, one surrounded by sharp edges and angled so the front of the putting surface is on the far right. In the clearest of terms, there is no back-left portion of the green. The entire left half is about 10 yards deep before widening into almost the exact opposite configuration -- twice as long from front to back but very narrow.

Then comes the kicker. A pronounced right-to-left tilt in the surface feeds everything toward the shallow half. Fred Couples swears that left side has been flattened over the years, which would be one of those little things the club doesn't acknowledge. "Front right or anything left," Couples says of the pin, "you take your 4 and run." A back-right flagstick, however, changes the third entirely. Bombers blast driver down to the low-lying area fronting the green because they can nip something from 20 or 30 yards, control their spin and leave themselves an uphill birdie putt.

There is no overstating the anxiety that can arise when a player fails to hit the third in regulation. "The hole looks incredibly easy until you miss the green and find you have no room to chip," says Faldo, who made a third-round 6 there en route to the '96 Masters title. "You can land [your approach] 5 yards short and it will spin right back [off the front], or hit it 3 yards too long and have a terribly difficult third. Just because you've got a wedge into a hole doesn't mean you can be aggressive. There are times when hitting it to 20 feet can be a very good shot."

What makes the third hole somewhat impervious to modern technology is the sharp rise on which the green sits. A huge drive would need an extraordinary amount of luck to climb the greenfront hill and stay on the putting surface. During the final round in 2004, Ernie Els tried such a shot. His drive took the slope but veered away, stopping in the seldom-visited bunker left of the green. Shortsided to the Sunday pin, Els got too cute with his escape -- it trickled down the front mound, leaving him a pitch he could get no closer than 14 feet. He made bogey.

Along came Phil Mickelson, playing in the day's final pairing with DiMarco. Lefty hit a perfect iron off the tee but flew the green with a wedge. His pitch from directly behind the hole had to be precise; it wasn't. Mickelson would miss a five-footer for par, but DiMarco, who also held a share of the lead at the time, lost his tee shot into the right pine straw. His second scampered up the rise, then rolled down, where he chipped to 8 feet and also missed his par attempt.

Players trying to drive the third hole might do well to know that it hasn't been eagled since 2000, when Rocco Mediate (first round) and Larry Mize (second) did it by holing out from the fairway. Realistically, a birdie is what everybody's after. "If you drive it down to the bottom, even with the pin on the left, you can pitch it 12 feet past the hole and make 3 that way," says Els, one of a very few who pulls out the big stick despite a red-light flag. "Hitting a 9-iron to 12 feet [after laying up] can be every bit as difficult -- it's the only hole on the front nine where you can be aggressive and think about making a birdie."

Whatever works is the right play at No. 3, which was listed at 360 yards until "shortened" to 350 in 1999. Whether it's mere coincidence or an actual effect those 30 feet had on the hole, the third played significantly tougher in the 1990s. In 1998, for instance, it ranked fifth in overall difficulty (4.19), yielding a higher average score than the fifth or 18th, a pair of much longer par 4s. In 1990, No. 3 played to a whopping 4.24 average and produced 11 double-bogeys, nearly twice as many as any hole on the front.

These days, it's 90 yards shorter than any other par 4, a wiry little mousetrap where equipment technology often stops dead in its tracks. Long live the third, otherwise known as the Hole Hootie Forgot. "At least we've got a little bit of history left there," sighed Els, who doesn't need a minute to tell you what he thinks of all the changes.