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The Fateful Corner

This article first appeared in the April 21, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated.

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 Nationalcourse—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. On that afternoon, with Bob Jones investing the occasion with his invariable flavor, two new bridges across the creek were officially dedicated: one (leading to the 12th green) to Ben Hogan, commemorating his record score of 274 in the 1953 tournament; the other (leading back to the fairway from the 13th tee) to Byron Nelson, commemorating his great burst in the 1937 Masters when, trailing Ralph Guldahl by four strokes on the last round, he played a birdie 2 on the 12th and an eagle 3 on the 13th, made up six strokes on Guldahl (who had taken a 5 and a 6 on these holes) and rolled on to victory. While Nelson's exploit is certainly the most striking illustration of what can happen at this particular bend of the course, history has had a way of affixing itself to these two holes and especially to the 13th, a 475-yard par 5 which doglegs to the left, a beautiful hole scenically and a triumph of strategic design since a first-class golfer must always choose between attempting to carry with his second shot the arm of Rae's Creek that guards the green or playing safely short on his second and settling, in most cases then, for a fairly modest par. Rebounding from his disappointment in 1937, Guldahl virtually clinched the 1939 Masters when he gambled on carrying the creek with his second and picked up an eagle for his intrepidness when his superb spoon finished four feet from the flag. In more recent years, it was on the 13th that Billy Joe Patton met his Waterloo in '54 when he caught the creek with his perhaps over-bold second and ended up with a 7; it was there the same season that Sam Snead may have won his playoff with Hogan when he birdied the hole and took a lead he never relinquished; and it was there in '55 that the eventual winner, Cary Middlecoff, nursing a very hot streak on his second round, brought it to a roaring climax by getting home in 2 and then holing a putt from the back of the green that could have been no less than 75 feet long. What a player does on the 17 other holes—or, if you will, on the 68 other holes—is always significant and often critical, but the point is that no one is pushing the facts around when he remarks that the events which take place on the 13th have an odd way of proving to be strangely conclusive in the Masters. They were this year once again.

On the final round, the new champion, Arnold Palmer, the co-leader with Sam Snead at the end of the first three rounds with a total of 211, was paired with the bona fide sensation, Ken Venturi (214). The two young men were the first contenders to go out, which is important to keep in mind. Although a dozen players were grouped between 211 and 215 as the final day began, by the time Palmer and Venturi came to the 12th hole it seemed fairly certain that the winner of their duel might well turn out to be the winner of the tournament. I limit this to fairly certain for—though many of the contending dozen had ruined their chances on the first nine—Stan Leonard (215), Doug Ford (215), Fred Hawkins (214) and Bo Wininger (213) were working on the subpar rounds at that moment in the long afternoon and were very much in the picture. Arithmetically, however, Palmer was still out in front when he and Venturi prepared to play the 12th, and it looked like they would be pushing one another on to tremendous golf. Venturi had cut one stroke off of Palmer's three-stroke lead by going out in 35 and had cut a second shot off it on the 10th (where Palmer went one over). With seven holes to go, then, only one shot separated them.

The 12th at the Augusta National, 155 yards long, can be a very delicate and dangerous affair when the pin is placed at the far right-hand corner of the green (which it was) and when there is a puffy wind to contend with (which there was). You've got to be up, over Rae's Creek—that's for sure. But you can't take too much club, because the green is extremely thin and on the far side a high bank of rough rises abruptly behind the apron—and you don't want to be there either. Venturi and Palmer both hit their tee shots over the green and into the bank. Venturi's ball kicked down onto the far side of the green, presenting him with a probable 3 (which he went on to make). Palmer's ball struck low on the bank about a foot or so below the bottom rim of a bank-side trap and embedded itself. It had rained heavily during the night and early morning, and parts of the course were soggy.

Now the drama began to unfold, and because of the unusual setting it was indeed charged with the quality of-theater: only the players, their caddies and officials are allowed beyond the roping around the 12th tee, and one could only watch the pantomime activity taking place on the distant stage of the 12th green and try to decipher what was happening. To begin with, there was an animated and protracted discussion between Palmer and a member of the tournament's rules committee, obviously on the subject as to whether or not Palmer could lift his ball without penalty. Apparently the official had decided he couldn't, for Arnold at length addressed the half-buried ball and budged it about a foot and a half with his wedge. It ended up in casual water then, so he lifted and dropped it (patently without penalty) and then chipped close to the pin on his third stroke. He missed the putt and took a 5. This, put him a stroke behind Venturi.

Then the situation became really confusing. Palmer did not walk off the green and head for the 13th tee. He returned to the spot in the rough just behind the apron where his ball had been embedded and, with the member of the rules committee standing by, dropped the ball over his shoulder. It rolled down the slope a little, so he placed the ball near the pit-mark. Apparently, now, the official had not been sure of what ruling to make and Palmer was playing a provisional or alternate ball in the event it might later be decided he had a right to lift and drop without penalty. He chipped stone-dead again and this time holed the putt for a 3. Now the question was: Was Palmer's score a 3 or a 5?

This question was still hanging in the air heavy and unresolved when, after both players had driven from the 13th, Palmer played the shot that, in retrospect, won the tournament for him. A bit shorter off the tee, Venturi, playing first, had elected to place his second short of the creek with an iron and to take his chances on getting down in 2 from there for his birdie. Palmer, a very strong young man who drives the ball just about as far as anyone in golf (always excepting an on-form George Bayer), was out about 250 yards on his tee shot, a much longer poke than the mere yardage would indicate, for the fairways at Augusta are extremely lush to begin with and the heavy rains had added to their slowness. In any event, Palmer was out far enough to go for the green on his second shot. Earlier in the week, after good drives on this hole, he had played his second with his two-iron. This time, while he probably could have reached with a four-wood, to make sure he carried the creek he took a three-wood, going down the shaft a half-inch or so with his grip. He settled into his stance for the slightly sidehill lie and moved into his swing, very smoothly. He came through with a really beautiful shot. It started out a shade to the right of the pin and, as it rose in its fairly low trajectory, you could see there was a helpful little bit of draw on it that was carrying it away from that twist-back in the creek that hugs the right side of the green. The ball landed comfortably over the hazard and finished hole-high, 18 feet to the left and slightly above the cup.

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