Swirling Down The Drain

February 29, 2012

The Invisible Hand: A north wind gives players the worst of it, the cold gusts blowing every which way. A warmer south wind can be concealed by trees and is also tricky. A west wind is easiest to judge.

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."

Dueling Strategies

To read the wind, players subscribe to a number of tactics passed down over the years from veteran players and caddies. They are a dark-art blend of folklore, rumor and junk science, with just enough common sense to make them useful in certain situations. The most cryptic came from Hogan, who told Ken Venturi, "I never hit until I feel the wind on my left cheek."

The most popular tip involves the flags on the 11th and 12th greens, and how they behave in relation to one another. Nothing confuses players more than seeing the two flags whipping in opposite directions, a common occurrence. Nicklaus, a six-time champion, is a big believer in that one. "The key is to wait until they're blowing in the same direction," he says. "They can be blowing away from you or sideways, but they have to be going the same way. It can take awhile for that to happen, but eventually they'll go the same way. You have to wait."

Hunter Mahan likes to wait, too. "Because you're hitting a short club, the ball gets up very high, very quickly and is affected by the wind right away," he says. "I like to wait for a little pause if possible, and not hit until I feel comfortable."

Other veterans choose to watch the tops of the trees at the 13th hole, right of the 12th. "They'll always give you a good idea of what the wind is doing," says Fuzzy Zoeller, winner in 1979. Kerr, who has caddied for Zoeller, Sandy Lyle and Hubert Green, adds, "No. 13 is where Snead, Sarazen and all the other old-timers used to look." Hale Irwin concurs. "Looking at No. 13 always worked for me. I played in a lot of Masters and hit my share of balls in the water--who hasn't?--but I made my share of birdies, too, and found the trees at 13 pretty reliable."

Still others latch onto the prevailing wind, which in spring is usually from the southwest (slightly into a player's face from the right). Tom Kite, co-runner-up in 1986, says he watches the clouds for an indication, particularly if they're low in the sky. Bubba Watson follows the prevailing-wind theory as well. "With all those trees blocking the wind, I let my caddie find out what the wind overall is doing, and go by that. I try to ignore the flags, trees and other stuff, even though that's impossible to do. I just want that tee shot on dry land." Bubba is learning. In 2011, after making double at the 12th in the first and second rounds, he made a 2 at the 12th in the third, nestling his tee shot close with a pitching wedge.

Larry Mize, who won the 1987 Masters with his thrilling hole-out on the 11th in a playoff against Norman, likes to toss grass in the air (as does Tiger Woods). "You don't toss it on the 12th tee, though," Mize says. "You toss it just as you come off the 11th green. You're closer to the 12th green there than when you get to the tee, so it gives you a more accurate impression of what the wind is doing."

Then there is the case-by-case camp. Tom Watson, champion in 1977 and '81, admits he has never unraveled the secret. "The wind at Augusta National is the most difficult to read of any course I've ever played," he says. "I've been on the practice range when the wind is coming from the northwest. I've then played the 14th and 17th, which by all reason should be playing downwind, and found the wind in my face. I don't know why. It's different every time, and I go by what I sense at the time."

Ben Crenshaw, another two-time winner (1984, '95) also waits until the last possible moment to decide. "My caddie, Carl Jackson, is from Augusta and has caddied a thousand rounds there," he says. "We've been together forever, and between the two of us, you'd think we'd have it figured out. But on a windy day a few years ago, I asked Carl what club he thought I should hit. He said, 'It's a quick 8.' Meaning, 'Hit it now, before the next gust comes up.' I couldn't help but laugh." An amateur historian, Crenshaw says that the 12th was built at the site of an ancient Indian burial ground, and that artifacts were discovered during the hole's construction in 1931. "Sometimes it comes down to superstition. When the wind comes up while the ball is in the air and knocks it into the water, the local caddies will say, 'The spirits got it.' "

Some players view the wind as more a psychological hazard than a physical one. Bernhard Langer, who won the Masters in 1985 and '93, opposes Nicklaus' notion of waiting for the right moment. "You can't stand there for five minutes; it will just add to the confusion," he says. "I give it 20 to 30 seconds, and if the swirling hasn't stopped, I simply overclub. Instead of an 8-iron, I'll hit a 7-iron to keep the ball low." Player also believes in overclubbing a bit. "You can always get down in two from the back fringe," he says. "I've always said, 'Better to be long than short.' Nobody's underwater shot is worth a damn."

Then there are those who are fatalists. Steve Stricker, who will be among the favorites at this year's Masters, says what will be, will be. "It's a crapshoot," he says. "It can help to have other guys in your group hit first, but if they go long or in the water, it can just make the decision harder." Scott Hoch, who lost in a playoff to Nick Faldo in 1989, says, "I thought I'd get insight into the 12th by choosing a local caddie. But when we got to 12, he started throwing grass like everybody else. I don't think the local-knowledge thing works." Fred Couples, who won in 1992 despite a poor shot on the 12th that fortuitously hung up on the bank, says in his distinctive way, "I either have trouble at the 12th, or I don't. There's very little in between."

The wind at the 12th will always be Augusta's most capricious hazard, and will continue to work on players' shots, and their minds. Cayce Kerr points out that over the years a pattern of behavior has emerged. "On Tuesday, the players say to their caddies, 'It's a 7-iron, right?' and swing away," says Kerr. "On Friday, it's, 'Do you like 7-iron or 8-iron?' On Sunday, when they're trying to fit their arms into that green jacket, it's always, 'So what club do I hit?' "