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 STAGE IS SET
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.
ACT TWO, SCENE THREE
Then another scene in this unusual and now contrapuntal drama took place. Bill Kerr, a member of the Augusta National Club who is very experienced in rules, although he was not serving on the rules committee this year, had been hurried down to the 13th to lend what assistance he could in clearing up the controversy over Palmer's proper score on the 12th, a terribly important factor at this stage for Palmer, for Venturi, and for everyone in contention. After Palmer had hit his second, Kerr ducked through the ropes onto the fairway, and Palmer related the facts to him. They talked it over for two or three minutes. In Kerr's unofficial opinion, Palmer had had a right to lift—it would still have to be officially decided. As Palmer headed for the green, shouts broke out all along the line as the grapevine communicated the news to the thousands clustered along the hillside that Palmer had been given (however unofficially at this point) a 3 and not a 5.
Palmer is a very resolute customer. From the beginning, believing himself to be entitled to lift on the 12th, he had argued his opinion forcefully but not to the point where he had allowed it to upset him. He had hit his great second on the 13th with no particular show of bellicosity but perhaps with a visible pinch more of his always formidable determination. On the green, he proceeded to cap the absorbing crescendo of excitement by holing his 18-footer for an eagle 3. Venturi, having pitched eight feet from the cup on his third, made a very gallant effort to hole for his birdie—and did. However, instead of being a stroke ahead as had appeared to be his position on the 13th tee, he was now two strokes behind with five holes to play.
On the 14th—both players talked the rules question over on the tee with Bob Jones—Venturi fell another shot behind when he three-putted. On the 15th hole Palmer and Venturi were officially notified that Palmer's score on the 12th was a 3. Down the stretch both of them wobbled a bit. Venturi three-putted both the 15th and 16th, though he finished with a fine birdie on the 18th for a 72 and a four-round total of 286. Palmer went 1 over par on the short 16th and three-putted the 18th for a 73 and a total of 284. Palmer's somewhat loose finish ultimately presented two of his pursuers, Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford, playing together, incidentally, with a chance to tie if either could birdie the 18th. Hawkins, who had come sprinting down the stretch like Silky Sullivan with birdies on the 15th and 17th, missed the 16-footer he had to get on the home green. Ford, the defending champion, missed from 12 feet. Ford had previously failed to hole a five-foot putt for a birdie on the 17th, but his best chance, ironically, had come back on the portentous 13th. Nine feet from the cup in 2, the man who is perhaps the finest clutch putter in golf had taken three to get down on the breaking surface of this fast, subtly contoured green. Ford's first putt was running dead for the cup when, a foot from the hole, it slid a hair off the line to the left. The putt he was left with coming back couldn't have been over 16 inches. It broke like a whip, caught only a corner, stayed out.
The rules of golf are very touchy and troublous things to administer, and my own feeling on the subject is that if a man is notified he has been appointed to serve on the rules committee for a certain tournament he should instantly remember that he must attend an important business meeting in Khartoum and tender his exquisite regrets to the tournament committee.
Granting the difficulty of the job, it was nonetheless unfortunate that the member of the rules committee working the 12th hole sector didn't know his job well enough to make an immediate and proper decision on the buried ball. In truth, as rules go, it wasn't a really tough one or an involved one. Because of the soggy condition of parts of the course after the heavy rains, the tournament committee had invoked for the final day of play a local rule permitting the players to lift, clean, and drop without penalty any ball which became embedded "through the green" in its own pit-mark. (You will find this explained under "Local Rules" on page 58 of the 1958 USGA Rules Book.) Since the term "through the green" takes in all parts of the course except the tees, greens, sand traps, and water hazards, it clearly applied to the rough in which Palmer's ball pitched and stuck. One possible explanation of the indecisiveness of the official who was handling the 12th was the fact that the ball was embedded only a foot or so below the bankside trap and, since some of the sand had been washed out of the traps by the rains, he may have been uncertain whether or not the area in question was rough or part of the hazard. However, the ball clearly lay below the well-defined outline of the trap.
All in all, it was unfortunate that the rules question arose at such a crucial juncture of the tournament, and it was extremely fortunate that the confusion which developed did not untowardly affect the play of the contenders or the ultimate winning and losing of the tournament.