One of the questions I had about the game of golf before I started researching the statistical data of the game was, “What holes should I focus the most on in practice rounds of a tournament?”

Generally, I thought the holes to focus on were the most difficult holes. But, I often wondered if the easiest holes were where I should direct my attention, because losing a stroke against the field is still losing a stroke nonetheless. As usual, after doing the research, the answer ended up being somewhere in between.

First, we have to understand that the length of the tournament plays a big factor as to what the critical holes are. In one-round tournaments, which are fairly common in amateur events, anything can happen. In those tournaments, my data has shown that the best finishers are generally are the ones who play the toughest and the easiest holes the best. However, as the number of rounds increase — almost all PGA Tour events are four rounds — things change quite a bit.

In a three-, four- or five-round event, the holes with the greatest standard deviation separate the contenders from the rest of the field. This is where the top finishers in an event usually gain the most strokes on their competitors, and for that reason I have labeled these as ‘Critical Holes.’ Using historical data and basing it on three-year, give-year and 10-year trends, I have been able to identify the Critical Holes on almost every course that the Tour plays. This allows my Tour clients to better focus their attention on the holes that have the greatest influence on where they finish in each event.

After doing more research, there were some obvious trends that started to develop as to what holes are typically Critical Holes. And I believe that the Critical Holes at Augusta National are very typical of what the critical holes are at any course in a three- or four-round tournament.

Here are the critical holes at Augusta National Golf Club, based on three-year, five-year and 10-year data compiled.

Augusta National Hole Data

I think the holes listed as Critical Holes will surprise many. Holes like Nos. 4, 9, 10, 11, 13 and 16 are nowhere to be found. To get a little better idea of what is going on, here’s the ranking of each hole’s difficulty during the past five years:

Augusta National Hole Data 2

Perhaps the most common trait is that usually the easiest hole on the course is one of the Critical Holes. Augusta is no different in this regard, as No. 15 is the easiest hole on the course and is statistically one of the Critical Holes at the Masters. Conversely, the most difficult hole is usually not a critical hole. My interpretation of this trend is that golfers who are playing well will typically play very well on the easy hole. But with the most difficult hole, golfers are not likely to deviate that much from the average score.

In fact, none of the critical holes listed are even in the top 5 as far as difficulty. Furthermore, Nos. 18, 7, 17 and 12 rank close together, Nos. 6 through 9 in terms of difficulty.

No. 12 is another great example of a typical critical hole. Obviously, it’s a famous hole known for costing golfers their shot at the Green Jacket. But that is due to another common trait of Critical Holes on Tour; holes where there is a high risk of going into a water hazard on the approach shot. That in part is why No. 15 is a critical hole — there, the water comes into play as well, which means there is a strong possibility that the hole could yield an eagle or a double bogey given the quality of the 2nd shot. We will see something similar this week at Innisbrook as one of the Critical Holes is the par-3 No. 13, which plays 200 yards over water.

Nos. 17 and 18 at Augusta are very similar in the sense that they are known as fairly difficult holes, but they do not receive the notoriety a that the more difficult holes like Nos. 10 and 11 receive. I think that is part of the brilliance of their design because they are birdie-able golf holes. However, if the golfer falls asleep on them or tries to get too aggressive off the tee, they can easily come away with a double bogey.

Interestingly enough, No. 7 has been the most critical hole at Augusta in recent years. It’s a fairly tight tee shot and a healthy distance of 450 yards with an elevated, but flattish green that is surrounded by bunkers. I tend to think that No. 7 is litmus test for those golfers who are playing well that week versus the rest of the golfers since it takes a quality tee shot and approach in order to make par.

Obviously, a golfer cannot neglect the other holes on a golf course. But if they are better able to prepare on the critical holes and that translates to better performance on those holes, they can make up a lot of strokes versus the field and that could take a lot of pressure off them on the non-critical holes. For the average golfer, they may want to see if they can get the scorecard data for tournaments if they are willing to spend the time on it. Otherwise, I would recommend trying to gauge what holes have the greatest deviation in score. That’s much more than what holes are the most difficult.

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  1. Just on the 15th – I’ve been fortunate enough to have been to AN and 15 strikes me as having one fundamental flaw: the bunker on the right-hand side of the green. It’s pretty much the go-to bail-out location. I sat at this hole for a couple of hours one Saturday and lost count of the number of players whose 2nd was aimed straight at the number, then trusted their sand game to get them a bird. I’d rather this was turned into a grass bunker, thus making any shot much less predictable and forcing players to reevaluate their strategy for the 2nd.

  2. I would like to see a follow-up article which shows how the player who wins this year’s Masters fairs on these holes versus those who come up shy of winning and/or those with no shot at winning. You know, prove your theory…

    • Thanks, Russ. But understand that there is not a 1:1 relationship between these holes and winning. It’s just in general the top finishers have gained the most strokes on these holes based on 3-year, 5-year and 10-year averages.