Swirling Down The Drain
Augusta National's 12th hole sits at the bottom of a natural sink. Treacherous winds and the whirlpool effect make it the scariest 155 yards in golf.
If the TV cameras happen to linger at the tee of the par-3 12th hole on Sunday at the Masters, you'll see the leaders swivel their heads toward the sky, suggesting a gathering of composure--or the muttering of a prayer. Even on a calm day, the gazes are a search for clues to the winds that emerge from nowhere and swirl, eddy and gust through the tree-enclosed pocket in which the 12th green rests. The 155-yard hole is dense with water, sand, trees, bare lies and a cue-ball-slick bank, but it's the wind that transforms the shortest hole on the course into the most nerve-wracking par 3 in major-championship golf.
How cruel can the wind be? At the 1956 Masters, Bob Rosburg chose a 4-iron to bore through a strong headwind. At the top of his backswing the headwind ceased abruptly, and Rosburg's ball cleared not only the green but the hillside, fence and trees behind it before landing on the ninth hole at Augusta Country Club, which adjoins Augusta National. Still on the tee box for his next shot, Rossie stayed with the 4-iron, stuck the ball to 10 feet and two-putted for an uneasy 5.
Recent cases, albeit less extreme, abound. Players have airmailed the green and buried the ball in the pine straw and azaleas beyond the green (Graeme McDowell lost a ball there in 2011, as did Greg Norman in 1999); others come up woefully short (too many water balls to count). When the misses are extreme, it's a good bet the wind was a factor. Tom Weiskopf, four times a runner-up at Augusta, hit five balls in the water to score an infamous 13 at the 12th in the 1980 Masters. "It's a short shot. The ball is on a tee. Players today want to know distances down to the yard, and they get them, and clubs and balls are so good," Weiskopf says. "It's not like these guys are hitting 8-irons way out on the toe. So when a player comes up 10 yards short or goes 15 yards long, you know wind was an issue."
Weiskopf says that the wind the day of his 13 wasn't blowing at all. Indeed, the 12th is difficult sans wind, its features far more diabolical than its postcard appearance implies. The championship tee is a bit lower than the members' tee, partially concealing the view of the green and adding just a hint of uncertainty. The front bunker, which looks benign, is reputed by caddie Cayce Kerr (who has worked 22 consecutive Masters) to be watered by the grounds crew early each day, giving sand shots a slight flyer quality. The two rear bunkers are flashed above the putting surface and slope slightly downhill, bringing the specter of a second shot into Rae's Creek more into play. The turf to the left of the green and behind it is so well-shaded by trees that water doesn't evaporate completely, presenting thin, sticky lies for those who bail to the left. The grassy bank fronting the green is often mowed crewcut close, causing balls that come up even a tiny bit short to tumble into Rae's Creek.
Over time, the hourglass green has been reduced in size and narrowed at the waist--only 10 yards deep at one point--so that hitting it at all is not a given, even for the best players in the world. "The diagonal shape, the bottom running to the top, is the worst possible for a good right-handed golfer," says Nick Price, who torched Augusta with a course-record 63 in the third round of the 1986 Masters. "Our two misses tend to be long left and short right, both of which are disastrous at the 12th. It's the one hole I've played that demands absolute commitment mentally. Wind or not, if you don't have that, you will pay serious consequences."
In regard to the miss long left, Weiskopf adds drolly, "Clearing the water doesn't mean you can't make a 5."
Meteorology, Augusta style
But it's the wind that adds the steroidal component to the 12th. Its all-time scoring average of 3.29 makes it the second-toughest hole on the course in relation to par, and for comparison's sake, the scoring average of the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship, is only 3.12. Though the rest of Augusta National has been lengthened considerably and toughened in other ways over the years, the championship yardage at the 12th has remained fixed at 155 yards for at least the past 70 years. Despite the toughening of its local features, only an ephemeral factor such as wind can account for it keeping pace in difficulty with the other holes on the course.
Sam Snead referred to the breezes at the 12th as a "whirlpool," which describes not only the effect of the wind but also the geographic setting of the hole. The 12th is at the lowest point on the course. The clubhouse, only a thousand yards due north, is 175 feet higher. The clubhouse at Augusta Country Club is roughly a thousand yards due south, and it, too, is on much higher ground. The 12th sits much like the drain in a very large sink, which has a profound effect on how wind circulates in and out of Amen Corner.
"The prevailing wind at Augusta National is only one factor, and it isn't always the biggest one," says Bruce Kalinowski, an on-camera meteorologist and avid golfer who did The Weather Channel's first-ever broadcast, in 1982 (when he was known as Bruce Edwards). "The golf course has a way of creating its own micro-climate that can override or exaggerate a prevailing wind. It can be warm with high air pressure near the clubhouse, while at Amen Corner it's cooler with lower air pressure. Cold air tends to sink, but it doesn't always. Mother Nature is always trying to even things out, so sometimes that cool air rises.
"Even on warm, calm days, you have bunkers and irrigated fairways radiating heat, evaporating and setting air in motion," says Kalinowski, who lived in nearby Atlanta and witnessed conditions at the 12th during his 18 years at The Weather Channel. "You can have air channeling down from the 13th and 11th fairways to the 12th and down from Augusta Country Club at the same time. The wind deflects off the landforms and trees there, and it swirls. It can be calm at a specific point but blowing 100 yards away. The weather patterns at Augusta can be unsettled at that time of year--the jet stream can still dip low enough to reach Augusta."
So the wind can do anything. Watching it knock a well-struck shot out of the sky can be a shock that stays with players and adds to the sense of foreboding. "The first time I played the hole was in 1959," says Jack Nicklaus. "I was with Roger McManus, a good amateur. Roger hit first and flew the green with a 6-iron. I hit a 7-iron and didn't get halfway across Rae's Creek. That was my introduction to the wind at the 12th."
Recalls Gary Player: "My first experience at Augusta, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were playing together. Hogan gets up and hits a 7-iron in the back trap. Snead looks in Hogan's bag--he always looked in your bag--and he gets up and hits an 8-iron in the water. That was a terrible way for me to have my first look at the 12th. They are two of the greatest strikers of the golf ball who ever lived, and you have one in the water and one over the green. I said, 'Man, there must be something to this hole,' and of course, over the years, you realize it's true."