At the Masters' 12th Hole, Shots Are Left Twisting in the Wind
No matter how many majors Jordan Spieth wins during his career, the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Club will forever be the scene of heartbreak.
In 2016, Spieth was on the cusp of becoming the fourth player to win back-to-back green jackets and the first to repeat in wire-to-wire fashion at any major. He led the 80th Masters by five strokes as he made the turn that Sunday afternoon. Bogeys at Nos. 10 and 11 — no shame there — and two birdies by Danny Willett trimmed Spieth’s lead to one as he came to one of golf’s iconic par 3s.
At 155 yards, Golden Bell, as No. 12 at Augusta is also known, is the shortest hole on the course, but has caused more problems for competitors than almost any other hole on the course unless your name is James Hahn.
“Gosh, it’s a 9-iron,” said Hahn, who had a hole in one there during a 2015 practice round. “If you’re scared of a 9-iron, you shouldn’t be playing in the Masters.”
The 12th has a scoring average of 3.28, which ranks as the fourth-hardest on the course. Why such consternation? That’s because the shot over water is to a green that measures 3,200 square feet, or nearly half the size of the average green at Augusta. It is 105 feet wide, but at its shallowest point 30 feet deep. Go long and you have to deal with azaleas, pines and a pair of bunkers. Short of the green is guarded by a bunker in the middle and Rae’s Creek, the water hazard that flows through Amen Corner, the name the writer Herbert Warren Wind coined to describe the club’s 11th through 13th holes. Adding to the uncertainty in club selection — anywhere from a 6-iron to a pitching wedge — is the swirling wind that nudges balls in all directions.
“If you stand there long enough, you’re going to feel the wind blow pretty much every single direction possible,” said Jim Mackay, a commentator for NBC Sports and Golf Channel who caddied for Phil Mickelson when he won three Masters. “And it can certainly get in your head a little bit.”
No one had to tell Spieth. In 2014, his ball found the creek, and he finished tied for second to Bubba Watson. Two years later, Spieth knew better than to aim at the traditional Sunday back-right hole location of the thin green, but that is exactly where he sent the ball as he attempted to cut a 9-iron. Spieth’s shot never had a prayer, landing on the front bank with a sickening thud and bouncing into its watery grave. Then Spieth compounded the error by chunking his wedge from the drop zone into the drink again en route to a quadruple-bogey 7, and gift-wrapped the title for Willett.
“That hole, for whatever reason, just has people’s number,” Spieth said that day.
Indeed, Spieth joined an esteemed list of golfers whose balls came to rest at the bottom of Rae’s Creek. Gene Sarazen, winner of the 1935 Masters, deposited two balls into the water in 1952, made an 8 and withdrew from the tournament. In 1959, the defending champion, Arnold Palmer, had a triple bogey at No. 12, allowing Art Wall Jr. to win the title. Greg Norman also found the water in 1996, made double bogey and blew a six-stroke lead to Nick Faldo. And then there was the plight of Tom Weiskopf, who splashed five balls into Rae’s Creek in 1980 and made a 13, the highest score ever recorded on the hole.
Even the six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus once made a mess at No. 12. He recalled hitting into the water in the second round in 1959, his first Masters appearance, “and I don’t think I’ve been in since,” Nicklaus said in 2016.
He has recorded the most birdies at No. 12 — 24 in 163 rounds — but there was the time in 1964 that Nicklaus shanked an eight-iron off the tee with his idol, Bobby Jones, watching from a nearby cart. If not for a double bogey at No. 12 on Saturday in 1981, when Nicklaus finished tied for second behind Tom Watson, he might have had a seventh green jacket. And Nicklaus seems to have forgotten the second round in 1991, when the wind knocked two of his balls into the creek.
“I committed the sin I’ve always tried to avoid,” Nicklaus said at the time.
To gauge the wind, golfers go through a variety of moves that include checking the flag on the nearby 11th green and throwing blades of grass in the air. Predicting the effect of wind on a shot is a little like trying to forecast the stock market; every one seems to have a method. The bridge that contestants cross to reach the 12th green is named for Ben Hogan, the 1951 and 1953 champion, who said, “Never hit on 12 until you feel the wind on your cheek.”
Adam Scott, the 2013 champion, prefers to wait until the flags on the 11th and 12th greens whip in the same direction. Mickelson ignores the flag at No. 11, and prefers to examine the trees along the 13th fairway. His long-held theory is to pick a club for a certain wind and then wait for it to blow. How does the 2017 champion, Sergio Garcia, choose his club? “You grab a coin and you flip it,” he said with a smile.
Not everyone has nightmares about Golden Bell. In 2003, Scott Verplank made birdie all four days. Claude Harmon in 1947, Bill Hyndman in 1959 and Curtis Strange in 1988 each made a hole in one at No. 12 during the Masters.
In 1992 Fred Couples won the Masters, and his final-round par at No. 12 was one of the most memorable shots from the tournament. Couples lofted an 8-iron that hit into the bank fronting the green just above the hazard line, and the ball rolled back toward the water before somehow stopping on the steep slope, inches from Rae’s Creek.
“It was probably the biggest break of my life,” Couples said at the time.
Nearly 25 years later, Rajat Mittal, an aerodynamics expert and professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, used Newton’s second law of motion and computational modeling to predict the trajectory of a golf shot in a variety of wind conditions. The results of the study, published in the June 2017 edition of Sports Engineering, the journal of the International Sports Engineering Association, found that the tree canopies (up to 30 meters, about 98 feet, high) around the 12th hole at Augusta National affect the average wind speed along the flight path of the ball.
A series of simulations with eight wind patterns and various wind speeds showed that a headwind at No. 12 created the largest uncertainty in the landing spot of the ball, and that winds from the northwest and southwest could cause a perfectly struck ball to be pushed up to 12 feet off line. The study also revealed that tossing grass to gauge the wind at the tee produced little correlation to the wind at the green, and it debunked another long-held belief.
“At least from a mathematical point of view and from our analysis, there is nothing one can learn from the 11th green that can be applied to the 12th hole,” Mittal said in a telephone interview.
Too much information and overthinking, he concluded, are counterproductive.
“Trying to predict everything at hole No. 12 may be a fool’s errand,” he said.
Which is why the best advice of all may come from the 2007 champion, Zach Johnson.
“It’s hard,” Johnson said during a recent interview. “I make an educated guess, commit to the shot, swallow hard and, when it lands safely aboard, say, ‘Amen.’ ”