12 Apr 2021 | Professional golf |
Where the (Golden) Bell tolls for golfers
- By Richard Allen, Australian Financial Review
Not long after dawn for four days in April each year, the ghouls will quietly gather in the grandstand behind the 12th tee at Augusta National Golf Club, drinking coffee, chatting quietly to themselves, rubbing their hands together to ward off the morning chill, and chuckling.
They know the first golfers will not appear for the best part of two hours, but they gather anyway.
They assemble not to see the players hit into the long par-four 11th hole to their left, then deal with that hole’s glassy green, nor to see players hit their drives from the 13th tee to the right, where they have to negotiate treacherous Rae’s Creek which runs down the left side of the fairway.
They gather to see the world’s best golfers test their collective wits against the tiny, fiendish 12th hole, which American professional Lloyd Mangrum, winner of the 1946 US Open, once called “the meanest little hole in the world”.
He is not alone.
Fuzzy Zoeller, who won the Masters in 1979, calls the hole “spooky”, while six-times champion Jack Nicklaus labelled it “the hardest hole in tournament golf”.
Carl Jackson, caddie to two-time US Masters winner Ben Crenshaw, once admitted to offering a quiet prayer each time they walked on to the tee: “I thought we needed all the help we could get,’’ he said.
The hole goes by the name of Golden Bell, a gentle moniker that belies its malevolence. In fact, the 12Th hole at Augusta has dealt out more heartache to professional golfers than any hole on earth.
On paper, this pint-sized little par-three at the far reaches of the famous course that hosts the Masters each year should not really cause such angst. At only a shade over 140 metres, a nine iron on a still day at most, it should mean a sweet shot to the heart of the green, two putts, and let’s move on.
However, water lurks short and right and three bunkers surround the green. All conspire to put doubt into the most confident of golfing minds. The green is small, so the shot requires complete precision.
Professionals complain about the often-swirling wind, which is why they stand on the tee scanning with furrowed brows the surrounding trees and the flag on 11 before selecting their clubs. The water adds a frightening, psychological, element. A weak, uncommitted swing generally sends the ball short and right, into a watery grave. The third shot (after the one-shot penalty) is then played from the drop zone closer to the green, an even more awkward position.
That the hole appears towards the end of the round, when leaders are trying to hang on and pursuers are trying to catch them, counts for much. The fourth-day pin position at the Masters is always on the right, the narrowest part of the green, and many golfers, rightly or wrongly, feel they have to aim there to make birdie. This brings the water further into play.
The hole’s history is a litany of train wrecks, of golfing hopes dashed on the rocks. Australians will recall Greg Norman making double-bogey there in 1996 during his final-round implosion against Nick Faldo, after leading by six shots at the start of the final round. He lost by five.
In 2011 Irishman Rory McIlroy made double-bogey after leading the tournament two holes earlier.
In 2020 the defending champion Tiger Woods made a septuple-bogey 10 there (his highest score ever on any hole at Augusta), hitting three balls in the water. In 15 crazy minutes his score went from three under par to four over par. “This sport is awfully lonely sometimes,” he said afterwards. “No one is going to bring you off the mound or call in a sub. You have to fight through it.”
But the worst drama on 12 in recent years occurred in 2016, when defending champion American Jordan Spieth made a quadruple bogey seven after leading the tournament by five shots with nine holes to play. He hit two shots into the water, and then put his fifth shot – with his third ball – into the back bunker.
Englishman Danny Willett went on to win by three shots over Spieth and Lee Westwood. A stony-faced Spieth then had to present Willett with the winner’s green jacket.
It has ever been thus. Nicklaus, overcome by the pressure of the tee shot on 12, shanked an eight iron in 1964. In 1980, the elegant Tom Weiskopf hit five balls in the water before two-putting for a 13. His wife watched on in tears.
And everyone – players and spectators alike – know that what happens on 12, particularly during the final round, inevitably impacts the final result. Over the past 30 years, only five players have won the US Masters after recording final-round bogeys there: Spieth in 2015, Bubba Watson in 2012, Trevor Immelman in 2008, Tiger Woods in 2001 and Hideki Matsuyama this year.
You have to go back to 1988 to find a player, Scotsman Sandy Lyle, who double-bogeyed the 12th in the final round and still went on to win the tournament.
The message is crystal clear – it’s hard to win the US Masters at the 12th, but it’s very easy to lose it there. The leader who negotiates the hole in par or better has stamped a big tick on what’s required to win the tournament.
Three-time US Masters winner Nick Faldo, who apart from Ben Hogan and Nicklaus was probably the most calculating golfer in history, always aimed left, for the fat of the green, no matter the pin position. Notably, he parred the hole during the final round in each of his three wins.
The players know that 1967 Masters winner Gay Brewer’s advice about playing 12 is as timely today as it was half a century ago: Aim over the bunker, to the heart of the green. Pulling the shot left is better than pushing it right.
On opening day of the Masters during his annus mirabilis in 2000, Tiger Woods’ eight iron ended up in the water on 12 and he took six, leading to an opening round 75, from which he never recovered.
Later that year Woods won the other three Major tournaments (the Open Championship, the US Open and the US PGA), during a year when he won 12 times. In retrospect, his tee shot on 12 that day might have cost him the Grand Slam.
And Grand Slams don’t come around that often.
Richard Allen is an author and a Golf Australia board member
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