Augusta National’s Almighty Amen Corner

Augusta National Hole No 12 (Image: Masters.com)

Augusta National’s 155-yard par-three 12th is one of golf’s most revered holes. (Image: Masters.com)

Arnold Palmer and Byron Nelson became legends at Amen Corner, while Greg Norman and countless others have met their doom at the Masters Golf Tournament’s three most cherished—and dangerous—holes.

Though just a trio of holes, Augusta National’s fabled Amen Corner is the beating, often-bloody heart of the Masters tournament.

Byron Nelson’s brilliant final round birdie-eagle at the corner’s 12th and 13th holes propelled him to victory in 1937. Greg Norman watched in stunned disbelief when Augusta native Larry Mize chipped in at the 11th for the 1987 title. And Phil Mickelson’s thrilling, logic-defying 6-iron off the pine straw at the 13th virtually secured his third Masters triumph in 2010.

So many immortals have left their mark. But it was the exuberant final-round brilliance of Arnold Palmer through holes 11, 12 and 13 while winning his first green jacket in 1958 that inspired legendary American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind to collectively christen the trio “Amen Corner” in Sports Illustrated magazine.

Arnold Palmer with Green Jacket (Image: Masters.com)

Arnold Palmer was 28-years-old when he won his first green jacket in 1958. (Image: Masters.com)

Already an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, the 28-year-old Palmer and another rising star, Ken Venturi, were the first of the contenders to go out for the final round on fairways soaked by heavy rain the night before. Venturi stood two back of Palmer at the turn, and then drew within a single shot of the tournament leader on the par-four 10th.

Together Palmer and Venturi walked through the towering Georgia pines to the 11th tee and into a natural amphitheatre of staggering beauty. Azaleas, dogwoods and fragrant magnolias provided a colourful backdrop for the vast crowd awaiting them. The 11th green and its pond to the left, as well as the 12th green beyond Rae’s Creek, lay before them like a ripe slice of golf heaven.

Palmer and his partner knew better than to trust in the apparent tranquility of the setting. The capricious winds and watery hazards encountered on these three holes have destroyed more championship dreams than any other stretch of Augusta National since founder Bobby Jones hosted the inaugural Masters in 1934.

“Those holes are monsters,” Gary Player, a three-time Masters champion, has said. “Amen Corner—what an appropriate name.”

Steadying their nerves, Palmer and Venturi traded pars on the gruelling 455-yard par four (since stretched to 505 yards), where the tee shot plays downhill and left to right. A pond guards the green at the left and a bunker is strategically placed just right-of-centre.

Mize’s victory at the 11th over Norman in 1987 came on an improbable 140-yard chip-in for birdie on the second play-off hole. Two years later, Nick Faldo won his first green jacket here with a 25-foot birdie putt in a playoff against Scott Hoch. The next year Faldo claimed another playoff victory at the 11th after Raymond Floyd dunked his approach shot into the pond.

Augusta National Hole No. 11 (Image: Masters.com)

Augusta’s 11th hole is a gruelling 505-yard par four with a pond guarding the green. (Image: Masters.com)

Now the real fun began for Palmer and Venturi. Augusta’s par-three 12th, one of the most revered holes in golf, plays 155 yards across Rae’s Creek to a cruelly narrow, canted green protected by three bunkers, one in front and two in the rear. Adorning the slope beyond the green and bunkers is a cluster of blooming flowers and bushes.

Though the shortest hole on the course, the 12th is notorious for the wind currents that dance like evil faeries above the trees. And dreaded by every golfer is the prospect of a bunker shot from the rear of the green, back toward Rae’s Creek.

A picturesque new addition to the 12th hole had been dedicated in a ceremony before the start of the 1958 tournament. Hogan Bridge, commemorating Ben Hogan’s record score of 274 in the 1953 Masters, now crossed Rae’s Creek to the green. Also unveiled was the Nelson Bridge, honouring Byron Nelson’s heroics in 1937, leading back to the fairway from the 13th tee.

Fans in the gallery that Sunday at Augusta National’s most famously gorgeous hole were enjoying the drama and setting of what has come to be regarded as the quintessential Masters experience. This was the hole where Sam Snead made his miraculous water save en route to victory in 1949. The 12th was also where, back in 1937, tournament leader Ralph Guldahl lost a two-stroke lead to a surging Nelson when he splashed his way to a five.

The tension was palpable as Palmer and Venturi set up. Both men flew their tee shots over the green. Venturi’s ball kicked off the rear bank and ended at the green’s far side, while Palmer’s ball embedded itself in the bank a foot or so above the rim of a bunker.

Following the drenching rain of the night before, the tournament had adopted a local rule allowing players to lift and drop embedded balls without penalty.

Unfortunately, the official on site at the hole hadn’t heard of the rule change. Despite Palmer’s heated protests, he was forced to play his ball where it lay. Four frustrating shots later he took a double-bogey five. Venturi, meanwhile, carded a three, giving him a one-stroke lead over Palmer.

Augusta National Hole No. 13 (Image: Masters.com)

Augusta’s 13th hole is a brilliant 510-yard, risk-reward par five that snakes alongside Rae’s Creek. (Image: Masters.com)

What happened next sparked a controversy still debated today. Palmer, instead of walking off the green, proceeded to drop a ball over his shoulder at a point in the rough just behind where his ball had been embedded. As the rules official watched, Palmer chipped close and sank his putt for a three.

But was his score a three or a five?

Venturi went to his death in 2013 vehemently proclaiming that Palmer had never announced before playing his original ball his intention to drop a second ball. Palmer was always equally adamant that he did announce his intention to drop.

While rules officials huddled behind the scenes discussing the situation, Palmer hitched up his pants and took his first giant stride toward becoming a golf legend.

Augusta’s 13th is one of the game’s most brilliant examples of a strategic, risk-reward par five. Rae’s Creek snakes along the left side of the fairway before crossing directly in front of an enormous green that slopes toward the water. Stretching 475 yards from tee to green in 1958 (now 510 yards), this demanding dogleg begs two questions: Do you hit it long enough, and are your nerves sufficiently under control, to go for the green in two?

Venturi laid up short of the creek with an iron on his second shot, trusting in his ability to get down in two from there for a birdie. Palmer, a brawny young man renowned for his length off the tee, pounded his drive about 250 yards, a tremendous effort considering the sodden fairways.

After his troubles on the 12th, Palmer needed to make up ground. Not for a moment did he consider laying-up. Grabbing his three-wood, Palmer breathed deeply and hit a low, slightly drawing shot that flew Rae’s Creek and finished hole-high, 18 feet to the left of the pin.

Arnold Palmer wins The Masters (Image: Masters.com)

No golfer has ever thrilled the crowds at Augusta National like Arnold Palmer in his prime. (Image: Masters.com)

Go for broke or lay up? Countless Sunday challengers have faced the same decision as Palmer at Augusta’s 13th, though perhaps none had a more difficult call to make than Phil Mickelson in 2010.

Leading the tournament by two strokes, Mickelson hit a long tee shot that landed in the trees just off the fairway, on top of the pine straw.

“Lay up,” pleaded his caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay.

But the golfer known as “Phil the Thrill” saw a four-foot-wide opening through the branches. Mickelson’s six-iron shot soared straight toward the pin, finally settling three feet from the hole. Sadly, Mickelson missed his putt for eagle. But he made two more birdies in the next three holes and won his third green jacket by three shots.

Settling into his distinctive knock-kneed putting stance, Palmer coolly sank his 18-footer on the 13th for an eagle three, earning a tremendous ovation from Augusta’s patrons and gaining a stroke on Venturi, who had birdied.

Palmer never looked back after the heroics that inspired Herbert Warren Wind, watching in the gallery that day, to dub this trio of holes Amen Corner, after the jazz recording, Shoutin’ in That Amen Corner. He jumped ahead of Venturi and his other challengers for good on the 15th hole when officials informed him that his score on the 12th hole was indeed a three.

Palmer’s victory in 1958 was his first of four Masters titles. No golfer has ever looked better in Augusta green.

 

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