October 9, 2008

Let Us Now Praise Amen Corner

A first-hand account of how that devilish stretch of holes Augusta came to be named

Herb Wind's Amen Corner: The second shot to the 11th, the par-3 12th and the tee shot at the 13th.

Herb Wind's Amen Corner: The second shot to the 11th, the par-3 12th and the tee shot at the 13th.

This article originally appeared in the April 1984 issue of Golf Digest.

As one of the older folks in the press tent, I am approached from time to time at the major championships by writers who have taken to covering golf in relatively recent years and who wonder if I might be able to provide some information on an earlier champion or championship. It is a pleasant role to be put in, especially when you can supply the particulars your colleagues are after. However, at the 1981 Masters, I found myself in an extremely embarrassing position. Two young writers came up to me, separately, and asked if I knew how the Amen Corner -- which is composed of the second half of the 11th hole, the short 12th, and the first half of the 13th -- came to be called the Amen Corner. First, I found it exceedingly awkward to tell them that I thought that I had given that famous stretch of course its appellation. And second, neither of the young writers was especially taken with my explanation, since the key to it was the title of an old Southern shout that I had first heard on an obscure recording back in my college days.

Later on at that Masters, I ran into Ross Goodner, one of my best and oldest friends in golf. We share -- as do many people -- an enthusiastic interest in sports and popular music. Ross, I think, is the only person I had previously told about coming up with the name of the Amen Corner. I thought he would get a kick out of it, which he did. During our conversation at the 1981 Masters -- where else but on that marvelous press stand that juts out on the right side of the 12th fairway -- I told him about being asked about the Amen Corner by the young writers and how my explanation had clearly disappointed both of them. "Well, I suppose that's to be expected," Ross said comfortingly. "Outside of Hugues Panassie and all those other old European jazz writers, how many people have heard of the number?"

Let me go back a little. When I was growing up, the era of the typewriter hadn't quite arrived. In high school, one wrote his themes and other homework in longhand. In college a small minority had moved on to the typewriter, but I continued to write in longhand. When I wrote for the college newspaper or, later on, for the newspaper in my hometown, after finishing my piece, I copied it neatly in the very legible hand I had acquired, and then handed it in. Even when I moved on to the typewriter, I found that, except for letters and other informal chaff, I preferred to do my first draft by hand and then, after emending things, to type it up. As a result, I was anything but a speed merchant, but since I wanted to be a magazine writer, this wasn't all that critical until 1954 when I went with the newly founded weekly, Sports Illustrated, as its golf editor. On most pieces, I had sufficient time to proceed at the semi-reflective pace I had become accustomed to, but there was one considerable problem: if a major championship finished on a Sunday, the coverage of the tournament had to be in early on Monday.

For writers habituated to meeting a fast deadline -- a considerable talent -- this would have been no trouble at all. For me it presented a problem. I felt that I could not begin the article until the tournament was completed. Only then would I know what had been the significant shots. My regular regimen at the Masters, for example, was to retreat quickly to my motel room, work till about two in the morning getting the piece in shape, rise at six, reread the piece, type it, and take it to the Western Union office. In an effort to find a less strenuous process, one year I asked the editor if I could do a day-by-day diary-type account of the tournament. The result was that I spent each night of that Masters working in my room, and missed all the fun of getting together with old friends. In 1958 I asked the editor if it would be OK if the magazine ran a block of text along with a photograph of the winner in the issue directly after the tournament and then follow this up in the next issue with a long, detailed piece on the tournament. He was kind enough to agree to try this.

That 1958 Masters was a memorable one. It hinged on how Arnold Palmer, paired with Ken Venturi, played the 12th and 13th on the final day. Since the course had been thoroughly soaked by rains the night before and during the morning, a local rule had been invoked: a player whose ball was embedded in the fairway or rough was allowed to lift and drop it without penalty. On the 12th, a 155-yard par 3 across Rae's Creek, Palmer's iron carried over the green and embedded itself in the steep bank of rough behind it. The official on the hole evidently was not aware of the local rule, and he instructed Palmer to play the ball as it lay. When Palmer did this, he holed out in 5, after missing a short putt. Then, politely but pertinaciously, Palmer went back to the pitch mark of his tee shot. He obviously felt that the official's ruling was not correct, and elected to play an "alternate" ball. After dropping the ball over his shoulder, he ran a delicate chip three feet from the cup and made the putt for a 3.

At this point, no one knew whether Palmer's score on the 12th was a 3 or a 5. Palmer, however, didn't let it bother him. On the 13th, a 475-yard dogleg left, he followed a solid drive with a great 3-wood from a sidehill lie that carried the arm of Rae's Creek that wraps itself around the green, and then canned his 18-foot downhill putt for an eagle 3. When he was playing the 15th, he was informed that his official score on the 12th was a 3. That, in effect, won him the tournament. Incidentally, it was Palmer's first victory in a major professional championship.

With plenty of time to think out the article, I felt that I should try to come up with some appropriate name for that far corner of the course where the critical action had taken place -- some colorful tag like those that Grantland Rice and his contemporaries loved to devise: the Four Horsemen, the Manassa Mauler, the House that Ruth Built, the Georgia Peach, and so on. The only phrase with the word corner I could think of (outside of football's "coffin corner" and baseball's "hot corner") was the title of a song on an old Bluebird record. (Bluebird was RCA's label for its cheaper discs. Its prestige label was Victor.) On one side, a band under the direction of Milton (Mezz) Mezzrow, a Chicago clarinetist, had recorded "35th and Calumet" -- most likely the site of a jazz joint in Chicago. The reverse side was "Shouting in the Amen Corner." There was nothing unusual about the song but apparently the title was catchy enough to stick in my mind.

The more I thought about it, the more suitable I thought the Amen Corner was for that bend of the course where the decisive action in that Masters had taken place (as indeed it had in some past Masters and would in several in the future). My article, in the issue dated April 21, was called "The Fateful Corner," and the opening sentence went like this: "On the afternoon before the start of the recent Masters golf tournament, a wonderfully evocative ceremony took place at the farthest reach of the Augusta National course -- down in the Amen Corner where Rae's Creek intersects the 13th fairway near the tee, then parallels the front edge of the green on the short 12th and finally swirls alongside the 11th green..."

I have no idea how the name caught on. To be candid, I am delighted that it did. To be connected even in the flimsiest way with a course like Augusta National and an institution like the Masters is good for the soul.