A skywriter maneuvered slowly over Dove Mountain early Thursday morning, spewing enough white smoke to form a happy face. This caught the attention of Rory McIlroy, who stopped and tilted his neck skyward as he approached the third tee.
And then McIlroy's tee shot drifted 170 yards into Lake Nicklaus, or whatever the people at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Course, Dove Mountain, call the only body of water on the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship course.
By the time McIlroy conceded the hole to Ben Crane, the happy face had evaporated and the skywriter was gone. Shockingly, McIlroy lost in 11 holes. It all began to unravel at the third tee.
For the lack of a more menacing hole, or a signature hole, or any hole that can be made famous the way the 17th at TPC Sawgrass has been made famous for sending tee shots to a watery grave, the No. 3 hole at the Ritz presents the most harrowing shot on the course.
Perhaps the only harrowing shot.
It's not the Blue Monster at Doral, and it can't touch the terrifying No. 10 at Riviera. As par-3 holes go, it's in the junior varsity compared to the holy No. 12 at Augusta National's Amen Corner. But if you want to see a happy face disappear this weekend, if you want to see one of the world's best golfers rinse one the way you rinse one, No. 3 is your only chance.
"Par 3s are pretty tough on this golf course, because the greens are extremely firm and very undulating," said world No. 5 Graeme McDowell. "They are really stiff."
After two days at the Ritz, the No. 3 hole is the most difficult against par. The average score is 3.21. Of the 98 men who have played it, only 50 hit the putting surface from the tee, 208 yards away. Ten have hit the water.
The first man at No. 3 Thursday morning, Ross Fisher, hit his tee shot into Lake Nicklaus. Much like McIlroy, he was soon eliminated.
When Nicklaus designed the 27-hole Ritz-Carlton facility, he unaccountably did his best work on the Wild Burro nine, which is not used for the Match Play Championship. The signature hole is surely No. 6 on the Wild Burro nine, a 586-yard par 5 that nobody but hotel guests and a few daily-fees paying locals get to see or play.
The Wild Burro sixth hole has an elevated tee shot, over water, with a serious dogleg left over a world-class wash. But because the terrain on the Wild Burro is so rugged and access-challenged, the PGA Tour and WGC people decided to use the Saguaro and Tortolita nines for Match Play.
"It's not my way to trick them up just to trick them up," Nicklaus said on his last visit to the Ritz, two years ago. "I used the natural landscape. This isn't Miami Beach."
Nicklaus' signature work at the Ritz is the multitiered, wild-mouse-ride greens.
The February colors of the Saguaro and Tortolita nines are fabulous on an HD television screen, but they are drama-challenged. There's nothing to fear. If you like birdies, if you like eagle attempts on the par 5s, you'll like the Ritz.
"I wouldn't consider it an easy course," said Crane. "It just depends on how they set it up. They can make us shoot whatever they want, with the greens having so much undulation."
Thus, there will be no challenger from this world-class event, no horror stories of shots gone awry the way Tucson National's 18th hole spoiled round after round and was, for two decades, ranked among the PGA Tour's most-difficult holes.
The Ritz's No. 3 hole is understated. There are no bleachers. For the first 20 golfers to play it Thursday, there were never more than 100 people around the green at any time. And yet the third green is ridiculously difficult, sloped toward the water, a triple-tier surface spliced down the middle by a 34 yard-spine.
You can three-putt from anywhere without warning. Every putt is an adventure, as Matteo Manassero found out Thursday morning.
Since leaving El Rio and Forty Niner Country Club 50 years ago, all of the courses to play host to a PGA Tour event in Tucson had holes with more character, more trouble-on-demand, than the Ritz. Starr Pass didn't have any water, but it was more hilly and had more blind shots. Randolph North has an adventurous par-3 over 220 yards of water, No. 15, that captivated spectators during the Seiko Tucson Match Play events of the 1980s.
The Gallery's two courses, north and south, were tighter, with more water.
Not that anyone is complaining. The Ritz works. It is fan-friendly and golfer-friendly. What other course on the PGA Tour is played beneath a sky with a happy face?