I have seen Augusta National's 13th hole a hundred times on television, and like a face I've seen my whole life, I know its every contour. But until today I've never played that storied acreage, where, with a felicitous stroke of a three-iron and a delicately wrought putt, the proficient are transformed into the Masters. I immediately recognize the hole's signature details: the dogleg left, the gurgling creek, the sloping green ringed with bunkers and azaleas. A lot of people who ought to know (Greg Norman and Curtis Strange among them) call it the greatest hole in golf. I've watched it humble the finest players in the game. I've seen Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo and Fred Couples survive it—and sometimes conquer it. Now, as though in some sort of hacker's fugue state, I am teeing up my ball, saying my prayers and playing the final test of Amen Corner.
Well, sort of.
This version of Augusta's par-5 13th is about 800 miles from the real thing, on a course near Houston called Tour 18. Along with The Blue Monster from Doral, the Lighthouse Hole from Hilton Head's Harbour Town, the Island Hole from Sawgrass and other famous challenges, this rendering of the last leg of Amen Corner is a startlingly faithful recreation, an accurate-to-within-six-inches reproduction of the original. Using computer imaging, aerial photography and architectural plans, three golf-loving Texans have built a $7.5 million public course that they unabashedly call America's greatest 18 holes.
When I was a boy, the putt-putt golf course near my home in Milwaukee featured the same theme. Each AstroTurf hole was a small-scale re-creation of an actual hole played on the PGA Tour. The course even had imitation bunkers and water hazards. This fantasy layout fired my imagination, inspiring dreams of one day shooting on the courses the professionals tame. Alas, on growing older you learn certain truths about life, one of which is: There are some golf courses you are never going to play.
Barron Jacobson, who was in commercial printing, and his partners, Dennis Wilkerson and Jim Williams, who were both real estate developers, recognized this unfortunate fact and decided to do something about it. "It doesn't take a golfer long to figure out that there's a big disparity in quality between a good public course and a good private course," says Jacobson, Tour 18's director of public relations and marketing. "Unless you've got $25,000 for an initiation fee and don't mind sitting on a waiting list, the country-club courses are out of reach. We wanted to build a public course that plays like the best private ones."
Having acquired an 800-acre parcel of land in the oxymoronically named Humble, Texas, the partners decided to build, as Jacobson puts it, "something different from the typical Houston course of the mid-'80s." From 1989 to '92, after compiling an encyclopedic list of potential holes, the trio visited more than 300 courses, cashing in favors, pleading with managers and bribing security guards—all to glean the experience of playing the great ones. "We weren't necessarily looking for America's toughest," Jacobson says. "We wanted the greatest."
Their selections were based on four criteria: overall enjoyment, generosity of play ("None of the holes we picked are supertight through the fairways," says Jacobson), history and reputation. "We wanted holes that people see on TV every year," says Jacobson, "the holes Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones have walked."
Because of Houston's topographic limitations—a dearth of towering trees and rolling hills—holes from some courses, notably Olympic, Pine Valley and Firestone, failed to make the cut. After taking into account such factors as elevation changes and drainage, Jacobson, Wilkerson and Williams, working with local engineering and construction firms, settled on a complement of holes that would simultaneously confound and delight those who know and love the sport.
Thanks to coverage on CNN and in the golf press, Tour 18, according to Jacobson, is on a 70,000-round pace for its first year, even given its greens fees of $55 on weekdays and $75 on weekends. "We only opened last November," he says, "and the reception we've received is better than we ever dreamed it would be. I mean, we knew there was a pent-up demand for this type of course, but we're not just talking golfers from Houston, we're talking from all over the world."
The golf community's enthusiastic reception is due, in part, to the painstaking accuracy of Tour 18's re-creations. Having spent at least twice as much on construction as the average public course, the founding fathers didn't skimp on the details: the dips, the mounds, the shrubbery. Indeed, the results of their labors are sometimes eerie.
During my round with Jacobson, I left Tour 18's 2nd hole—a re-creation of the 543 yards of watery danger that make up Bay Hill's 6th—and turned the corner to the one hole that I had played before, the 3rd hole on Pinehurst's No. 2 course, and everything was right. Even when we played the other holes, ones I had never visited, repeated viewings on television made them seem like old friends. In fact, the weekend I was at Tour 18, Sawgrass was hosting The Players Championship. In the space of an hour I was able to play the Island Hole and return to my room at a nearby hotel, turn on NBC and witness Nick Price match my score on what Johnny Miller was calling "Golf's ultimate gut check."
Making this sort of identification with the game's greats is what playing Tour 18 is all about. The course allows the average golfer, if only for a few brief moments, to share something wonderful with far more talented golfers—and then tell all his or her friends about it.
I have Tour 18 to thank for this privilege: For the next 50 years, whenever I watch the Masters, I will be able to annoy my wife with annual declarations of "Honey! See that hole? I parred it!"
Among the courses represented at Tour 18 are Augusta, Doral, Oakmont and Pinehurst No. 2.
Michael Konik lives in Hollywood and writes for television and magazines.