“It’s in the hole”, exclaimed a stunned Larry Nelson.
My brother and I joined the crowd behind the 10th green at Walton Heath in trying not to laugh.
An Albatross at the Ryder Cup! How Jack Pranked Larry
We all knew exactly where his ball was because we’d just seen Jack Nicklaus pick it up and put it there. “Don’t say anything,” the Great Man had instructed the gallery, and no one had dared to disobey.
It was a practice day before the 1981 Ryder Cup at Walton Heath in Surrey, England.
Now, the 10th hole on the Walton Heath championship course is a dog-leg par four, drivable by highly skilled players, but only if they’re prepared to take on a blind tee shot over tall and luxuriant trees.
So Jack and his group were still putting out when Larry’s ball came bouncing onto the green.
As the recently crowned PGA champion, at the height of his powers, Nelson no doubt had a shrewd idea of how well he had swung and where his ball was likely to be when he came striding on to the green.
But there are good reasons why he probably didn’t think he’d achieved an albatross or hole in one.
An Albatross or a Hole in One – What are Your Chances?
Strictly speaking, an albatross – also known in America as a “double eagle” – is a score of three under par on a particular hole.
And like the soaring and beautiful bird after which it is named, it’s something very seldom seen.
The National Hole-in-One-Registry (yes, there is such a thing should you ever be fortunate enough to make one), as reported by PGA.Com, calculates the average golfer’s chances of making an ace at any given hole as only 1 in 12,500.
And even for tour players, the odds are no better than 1 in 3,000.
But it’s nevertheless true that around 40,000 American golfers score an ace each year. More surprisingly still, perhaps, their average handicap is 14.
The reason is that even the most indifferent player or outright beginner is capable of sometimes hitting the green at a par 3 – and if you can hit the green, you have a chance of holing out.
Why the Albatross is so Rare
Scoring an albatross, however, is a far more difficult and elusive proposition.
Obviously, it’s mathematically impossible on par three holes.
And while modern equipment has made more par fours drivable, to hole out from the tee remains a vanishingly rare accomplishment. Some commentators, moreover, insist that such feats should be recorded as holes in one rather than albatrosses.
So for practical purposes, your best chance of an albatross is to reach the green in two on a par five.
How to Get an Albatross
That may not be so much of a problem for the tour pros, with their ever-increasing muscular power. Still, even with the recent huge advances in equipment technology, experts estimate that only around 10% of golfers ever reach a par 5 in two shots.
It generally requires, after all, two accurate shots of more than 250 yards, the second of which must be hit from off the deck.
Golfers are notoriously prone to overestimate the distance they hit the ball. But the truth is that in the absence of a strong downslope or following wind, this is a feat that will normally be beyond the reach of all but the best amateurs.
For all these reasons, the Double Eagle Club, which tries to keep records of all albatrosses scored, estimates the odds of one occurring at no better than 6 million to one.
Other experts such as Dean Knuth, for example, a former senior director at the USGA and now a contributing editor at Golf Digest, suggest that a figure of a mere million to one may be closer to the mark.
But the argument is largely academic. Whoever’s right, you are far more likely to be struck by lightning on the course than to score an albatross.
That said, the history of the game offers a number of celebrated examples.
“The Shot Heard Around the World”
Undoubtedly the best known is Gene Sarazen’s “shot heard around the world” in the 1935 Masters at Augusta National.
In the final round, Sarazen came to the par 5 fifteenth trailing the leader, Craig Wood, by three shots.
From the fairway, he unleashed a spoon shot – in today’s terms, a four wood or hybrid – that flew more than 230 yards, cleared the famous water hazard that guarded the green, and bounded into the hole.
This single-shot brought him level, and on the following day he won the tournament by five shots after a 36 hole play-off.
A plaque in the fairway marks the spot from which Sarazen struck, and in 1955 the bridge to the green was named in his honor.
His remarkable shot helped Sarazen to become the first man to claim the career Grand Slam of both the US and British Opens, the Masters, and US PGA, a feat that to this day only four other players have ever achieved.
Albatrosses at the Majors
No other albatross has been seen at the fifteenth hole, and it remains one of only four ever recorded at the Masters, all at other par 5 holes, in the 85-year history of the event.
The US Open, arguably the toughest of all events to win, has seen only three, all since 1985.
And even the British Open – or the Open Championship as purists prefer to call it – has produced only 8, despite having been contested annually (wartime excepted) since 1860.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, five of these have happened in the 21st century – a testament to the improvements in equipment that have made so many par fives reachable in two shots by the pros.
The First Albatross?
All the more remarkable then, surely, is the achievement of “Young Tom” Morris in holing out in three at the first hole at Prestwick, Scotland, during the 1870 tournament.
The hole was 578 yards long, which would be a considerable challenge even today, that Morris had to negotiate with hickory shafted clubs and a “guttie” ball, playing from a fairway managed by free-ranging sheep rather than today’s expert agronomists.
With all these disadvantages, listing the hole as a par 6 would not seem ungenerous to Morris – though the concept of par was not known at the time.
And a score of three was, in any event, a remarkable demonstration of the skills that saw him win four consecutive Open titles, a record that remains unmatched after a century and a half.
But, in the end, it is not the terminology that matters so much as an appreciation of the skills and, yes, an enjoyment of the necessary luck that occasionally brings this rarest of birds to our notice.