In the final round of the 1958 Masters, two young upstarts — Arnold Palmer and Ken Venturi – were paired together and battling to win their first respective green jackets. Palmer, 28, led the 26-year-old Venturi by one shot as they stood on the tee at Augusta National’s iconic, devilish par-3 12th hole. What happened next remains one of the most bizarre and controversial scenes in Masters history, and one that would drive a wedge between Palmer and Venturi. “We both wrote about [the incident] in subsequent books, each of us insisting that we were right,” Palmer wrote in a 2013 Golf Channel column. “I regret that the incident affected our relationship.” Here, from his new book, Arnie, author Tom Callahan recounts the episode that drove Palmer and Venturi apart.
Excerpted from Arnie by Tom Callahan. Copyright © 2017. Reprinted by permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
The 12th hole, a par 3, represented the middle of “Amen Corner” on the far end of the course. The expression was coined at that tournament, maybe at that instant, by Herbert Warren Wind, borrowing from a 45-rpm jazz recording (“Shouting at the Amen Corner”) by Chicago clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow. As Wind reckoned it, the corner began with the approach to the par-4 11th and ended after the drive at the par-5 13th.
Only players, caddies, and officials were permitted inside the ropes surrounding the 12th tee. From their tee shots at 12 until their second shots at 13, the golfers broke off from the crowd for a quiet interlude of relative privacy.
“My tee shot at twelve [155 yards, six-iron] flew the green,” Palmer said, “and embedded itself in the mud between the fringe and back bunker. To me, an obvious drop without penalty. But the official standing there, Arthur Lacey, said, ‘It’s only half-plugged.’ I said, ‘That’s like being half-pregnant.’
“Because of the heavy rain, just for the Sunday round, we were playing wet-weather rules ‘through the green’ [taking in all parts of the course except the tees, greens, sand bunkers, and water hazards]. I knew I was right. ‘I’m going to play two balls,’ I told Lacey. He said, ‘You don’t do that here.’
Palmer barely moved the indented ball, into a puddle of casual water, from where he received an uncontested free drop. But he required a chip and a couple of putts from there for a double-bogey 5. Returning to the embedded scratch, he dropped another ball over his shoulder. Rolling nearer the hole twice, it was eventually placed, and this time he got up and down for 3. “We’ll let the rules committee sort it all out when we get in,” he told Venturi.
“I agreed with Palmer on the original call,” Venturi said. “That ball was absolutely embedded. But he didn’t declare he was playing a provisional until after he made the double bogey. To me, that was wrong. Dead wrong.”
Arnold said, “I did declare the second ball, to Lacey, before I played the first. Ken didn’t hear me.”
The killer for Venturi came in the 13th fairway as Palmer was in the go-or-layup position, weighing the considerable risk of a 230-yard second shot over water to the par 5. Had he known the score, he might not have gambled. He looked across the fairway at Ken, who was either one behind or one ahead and had already laid up with his own second.
“They’re going to give me a five back there, aren’t they?” Palmer said.
“You’re goddamned right they are,” Venturi told him. So Arnold went for it with a 3-wood, and got it. “He met the ball squarely,” Wind wrote, “and it rose in a low parabola. There was some draw on the shot, and it curved from right to left as it crossed the creek and landed comfortably on the green.” Eighteen feet from the hole. Straight in the cup for eagle.
Sitting nearby in his green combination wheelchair/golf cart, Bobby Jones experienced a flashback. That night, he would say, “Today I was watching Palmer at 13 and once more Gene Sarazen was hitting from that mound at 15 [in 1935]. As Gene followed through, I remember thinking to myself, ‘It’s the perfect golf swing.’ Of course, I had no way of knowing it was going in the cup for a double eagle. When Palmer hit his, I turned to Cliff [Augusta National chairman Cliff Roberts] and said, ‘He really got that one.’ It gave me the exact same feeling of exhilaration I felt all those years before. And this time I was surprised it didn’t go in the cup.”
Shortly, Jones and Roberts came riding up like the cavalry. They heard Palmer out, and after conferring with several other green jackets behind the 15th green, ruled that Arnold had made a 3 at 12. In exasperation, Venturi began three-putting his head off. And when the head comes off, the turnip goes on. Playing together, both Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins had reasonable putts at 18 to tie, but each finished a stroke behind Palmer. As the defending champion, Ford helped Arnie into the green jacket, making him at 28 the youngest Masters winner since 25-year-old Byron Nelson in 1937. Palmer had his first major title.
“The rules of golf are very touchy and troublous things to administer,” Wind wrote (troublous being a typical Herb word; he liked fillip, too, as in “an arm of Rae’s Creek, four or five feet wide, adds a nice fillip of menace”), “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.”
“Two years later,” Venturi said, “Palmer finished three-three-three to beat me by a shot, and I was forced to sit there at the green jacket ceremony as the runner-up. He turned to me and whispered, ‘I’m sorry it had to be you, Ken.’ I looked away and said, ‘Two years too late.'”
Player said, “Venturi started to tell me once how Arnold had cheated him at the 12th hole, but I stopped him right there. They always yell ‘cheater’ at the end. ‘That’s crap with a capital C,’ I told him. More than once, I’ve said to Palmer, ‘The reason I’m proud to have you as my friend is because you always do the right thing.’ Always doing the right thing was what made him Palmer.”