Augusta's Amen Corner lives up to moniker
So often, getting fitted for a green jacket at Augusta National Golf Club depends greatly on how well the eventual Masters winner navigates pristine yet unforgiving Amen Corner.
It's a storied stretch of holes — Nos. 11, 12 and 13 — with a wealth of history. It's almost 1,370 yards of picturesque real estate that has staged some of the most remarkable moments in golf. It has produced a scintillating blend of magic and mayhem that separates exultation from heartache, winners from losers.
Arnold Palmer knows better than most what it takes to survive Amen Corner. Those three holes were dubbed such by a Sports Illustrated journalist after Palmer's adventurous foray on the par-3 12th in 1958 led to the first of his four Masters victories.
Palmer excavated an embedded ball from behind the green to salvage a controversial par. He first tallied a double bogey before he was permitted to take a drop that allowed him to slip past a fading Cary Middlecoff and Ken Venturi.
“What happened in Amen Corner played a very big part in my winning my first Masters,” said Palmer, who beat Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins by a stroke. “First came No. 12, where I had a plugged ball just over the green on the par 3 and made par thanks to my knowing that I was entitled to a free drop and having the rules committee confirm it.
“Then before knowing for sure that I had that par, I knocked it on the green in two at the par-5 13th and made the eagle putt. When it was all said and done, all of that was very important because I won by just one shot.”
The Latrobe native, who for 40 years played the Masters, rarely adhered to conventional wisdom that dictated a more conservative strategy. He stayed within character, usually opting for high-risk shots while less daring golfers aspired only to march through Amen Corner unscathed.
“The key to negotiating 11, 12 and 13 is hitting the greens,” Palmer said. “You want to keep your ball to the right at 11. It's very important to hit the green at 12.
“At 13, you want to hit the green in two,” Palmer said of the risk-reward par-5. “If you are not in position to go for it, lay it up short with an opportunity to pitch it up close.”
In 1987, a miraculous pitch from 140 feet on the par-4 11th left Larry Mize joyously skipping about the green after his ball disappeared in the cup. Greg Norman, his stunned playing partner in what started as a three-man sudden-death playoff, dropped his head in disbelief.
It was a courageous play, considering Mize challenged a back-left pin location that shadows a greenside pond that consistently gathered up wayward balls off the slick, fast putting surface. For Mize, it was a gamble worth taking. Norman was perched on the green in regulation and seemingly poised to stride into Butler Cabin for his fitting — a coronation that barely eluded him a year earlier.
In 2010, Phil Mickelson brushed off the advice of his caddie, opting on his second shot to play a 6-iron off pine straw and around a tree on the par-5 13th. Incredibly, the shot nestled within 3 feet of the pin to virtually cement his third Masters victory. Mickelson took on Rae's Creek instead of chipping onto the fairway, where he could feather a wedge onto the green.
Nathan Smith, a Brookville native who now lives in the North Hills, earlier in that week played a practice round with Mickelson. He was standing near the ropes as caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay pleaded with Mickelson to guard his two-stroke lead.
“I talked with Bones afterward, and I asked him what was going on,” Smith, who four times qualified for the Masters, recalled recently. “(Mackay) said Phil turned ... and said, ‘Every great major championship there's always a shot that defines the championship. This is going to be my shot — back the (expletive) up Jim.' ”
‘Oh my gosh'
Amen Corner is where legends are born by those with the steely nerves to stare down dangers that lurk amid the crimson azaleas and towering white dogwoods.
“The second shot at 11 and the tee shot at 12 are probably two of the scariest shots you play in golf, and they're back-to-back,” Jack Nicklaus, a six-time Masters winner, has said.
Over the past decade, it's been even scarier. The 11th and 13th are longer, but more daunting is the progressively narrowing fairways lined by still-maturing trees that make the drive and approach shots intimidating.
The 11th, which measures 515 yards from the back tee, is easily the toughest, having evolved since four-time champion Tiger Woods overpowered it in winning in 1997 and 2001.
Now White Dogwood is Woods' kryptonite.
In 1997, Woods cruised to a record 12-shot victory (18-under par) with a composite 2-under total on No. 11 over four rounds, mostly because he positioned wedges and short irons onto the right quadrants of the green. But he lost touch with eventual champion Adam Scott last year, finishing 1-over on No. 11, partly because of inaccurate iron play from 180 to 200 yards.
“You can't blow the ball down the right side anymore,” Smith said. “Now it's just a monster. You have to go out to the left, then shoot back to bring the pond on the left into play.”
“It's now about a 200-yard approach shot even if you hit a good 300-yard drive. You look to your right, and you see about 10,000 people behind the 12th tee. Then you see the pond guarding the 11th green, and say, ‘Oh my gosh.' ”
The 12th, sometimes buffered by shifting crosswinds from the 13th fairway and 11th green, is arguably the most unpredictable.
Bubba Watson, the 2012 champion, and Kevin Na imploded on No. 12 last year, mostly because they failed to gauge the wind. They staggered toward the 13th tee with a dreaded “other” on their scorecards: momentum-killing 10s.
“There is a wind that comes down No. 13 that will blow the flag on 12 the opposite direction that's it going,” Smith said. “So you'll see a lot of guys come up 20 yards short on No. 12. You always want to look at the flag on No. 11, and that's the secret to playing 12.
“It's one reason why there aren't many first-time winners at Augusta because there are a lot of little tricks like that around the greens. Some days you get a 10 to 15 mph wind, and there's not a lot of room to err. If you are a couple of feet long, it could bring double bogey into play.”
The 13th, which is as treacherous as it is vulnerable, is susceptible to power hitters. Woods parlayed 300-yard drives and 8-irons into eagles and birdies in his first two wins at Augusta.
However, the world's No. 1 hasn't tamed Augusta for nine years, partly because many of the young trees lining the fairway in 1997 have come of age. He no longer has the high-arching 3-wood draw in his Masters repertoire, which usually negates a good look at eagle on 13.
On the other hand, left-handers Mickelson and Watson have feasted on Azalea, a par-5 at which battling to a draw feels like a bogey. They can hit massive, high cuts around the trees on the right side of the fairway to give them clean looks at the flag.
“Bubba and Phil can get there in two every time,” Smith said. “The champion will play 13 well. Right now, Phil owns the 13th hole.
“For a right-hander, that hole is so difficult. The right-hander will have to hit a big sweep draw but risk bringing a big number into play. The second shot you feel like you're on a tire at the Indy 500 because the ball is usually above your feet.”
While long hitters have an advantage at No. 13, Zach Johnson and Mike Weir relied on superb short games to exploit it. They laid up on every par-5 en route to victories in 2007 and 2003, respectively.
“This year's winner will play Amen Corner at 1- or 2-under (in the final round),” Smith said. “You can shoot 30 or 40 on the back, and that's what makes it so great, but the crucial holes on the back nine are Amen Corner.”