Every major golf course in the world has at least one signature hole. Augusta National has a signature corner.
Amen Corner, a term coined by Herbert Warren Wind in his 1958 Sports Illustrated article chronicling that year's tournament, is the stretch of play on Augusta's famed back nine that starts with the second shot on the 11th hole and continues through the tee shot on the 13th hole.
There has long been a certain lore to Amen Corner for the players, Augusta patrons and those watching at home. We anticipate the importance of Amen Corner every year, hoping for each shot to be a factor in the tournament's outcome. The stretch has rarely, if ever, failed to deliver.
My first vivid memory of Amen Corner growing up had to be the 1992 Masters when Fred Couples, my favorite player at the time, stuck his tee shot into the bank of Rae's Creek on the 12th hole. For some reason, Couples decided to go directly at the pin, a rather ridiculous plan for any player with the lead on the back nine on Sunday.
He came up short.
The ball should have rolled back into the creek, all but guaranteeing double bogey or worse for Couples. There really was no logical explanation why the ball stayed up—maybe because of the rain earlier in the week or because one of the golfing gods decided it was finally time for "Boom Boom" to get that major—but stay up it did. From The Augusta Chronicle:
“The biggest break, probably, of my life,” Couples said after slipping into his green jacket. “I’m not so sure what would have happened if it would have went in the water like everybody else’s.”
Couples got up and down for par on the 12th that Sunday, en route to winning the green jacket by two strokes. I watched a lot of golf as a kid, but that moment was my first real introduction into the mystique of Amen Corner, and it made me a golf fan for life.
We must remember something very important about the Masters that helped add to the aura of Amen Corner: There was not a lot of television coverage until very recently.
There's an old saying that the Masters doesn't start until the back nine on Sunday, which was true for years because the back nine was all they would show on TV. Viewers could not see the front nine of Augusta on television for generations, making Amen Corner our first real chance to see the players on the course.
Get this: The first television broadcast of the Masters was in 1956, when CBS aired two-and-a-half hours of coverage Friday, Saturday and Sunday, only showing holes 15 through 18. Despite the popularity of the event on television, viewers did not get full 18-hole coverage until 2002. As we know, things can be slow to change at Augusta.
While my Amen Corner memories may only go back about 20 years, the lore of Amen Corner had been a part of the Masters for generations before Couples' ball embedded in the bank of Rae's Creek.
The nickname Amen Corner, written by Wind in SI, was born out of controversy surrounding Arnold Palmer and Ken Venturi, the year Palmer won his first green jacket. From Masters.com:
Heavy rain the evening before had the soaked the course, prompting tournament officials to declare a local rule that a ball embedded in the softened turf could be lifted and dropped.
The rule came into question at the par-three 12th when Arnold Palmer hit his ball over the green into a bank. After much discussion with a rules official, Palmer played his original ball as it lay, making a five on the hole, and then played a second ball with a free drop and made par.
Still unsure which of these two scores would ultimately stand, a charged-up Palmer sank an 18-foot putt to eagle 13 and pull away from his playing partner, Ken Venturi. Two holes later, Palmer was told that his drop was proper. He proceeded to win his first green jacket by one stroke.
The Three-Hole Stretch
Let's remember that the lore of Amen Corner isn't just from tee to green at the 12th. The 11th hole has had some memorable moments too. Take, for example, the 1987 Masters, when Augusta local Larry Mize was in a playoff against Greg Norman.
Mize did what many players do on 11 and left his second shot short and right of the green. With 140 feet to the cup and the green sloping toward the water, Mize was just hoping to put the ball close to the hole.
Norman had the advantage as the two approached the green, waiting for Mize's chip so he could attempt a birdie putt to win the Masters. When Mize sank his chip, Norman suddenly had to hit his putt just to continue the playoff. Norman missed, Mize won and the legend of Amen Corner grew.
The 13th tee technically ends Amen Corner, but the rest of the 13th hole is often where the Masters can be won or lost on Sunday. The first of two par-five holes on the back nine, the 13th is the ultimate risk-reward hole. Players have to decide whether to go for the green in two, over the tail of Rae's Creek which guards the sloping green, or lay up and settle for an outside chance at birdie.
The decision, let alone the execution, could be the difference in two strokes on a player's card. Make the wrong decision and there isn't much time left to recover. Make the right decision, and they could be fitting you for a new jacket.
In 2010, Phil Mickelson hit his tee shot right, falling in the pine needles and trees that line the 13th fairway. Leading the tournament at the time, Mickelson decided to take a chance to go for the green in two.
Standing on one side of a tree with his ball on the other, Mickelson hit what Nick Faldo called the "greatest shot of his life," landing softly on the green and rolling within four feet of the hole for an attempt at eagle.
Mickelson missed the putt, but tapped in for birdie to stay two shots clear of the field. Mickelson won the 2010 Masters by three strokes.
The Reality of the Mystique
Truth be told, the beauty of Amen Corner is that the mystique totally lives up to the reality.
Historically, the 10th hole—the hole before Amen Corner—is the most difficult at Augusta with a 4.32 stroke average for the par four. Amen Corner provides no respite at all for players, as the 11th hole is the second-most difficult on the course with a 4.29 stroke average. The 11th hole has only been made more difficult in recent years, as new trees have made the tee shot even more challenging.
The 12th hole is tied for the third-hardest on the course, scoring at a 3.29 stroke average for the par three.
The stretch is imperative to survive without a blemish on the scorecard, thanks in part to what comes next. The 13th hole is historically the second-easiest hole on the course with a 4.79 stroke average for the par five, just one-hundredth of a stroke more difficult than the 4.78 average at the par-five 15th.
There are only a few good chances for players to get back strokes heading into the clubhouse, which makes getting clear of 11 and 12 even more important for those in the lead, and absolutely vital for those trying to make up ground.
The Air Out There
While the wide-open nature of the course at Amen Corner allows players on the 11th green to see everything happening with the group in front of them, and vice versa, the tension players feel at that stage of tournament is just part of what makes this stretch of golf so difficult.
It's not the pressure in the air that causes the most problems for players at Amen Corner, it's the air itself.
The wind can be nearly impossible to gauge for players, from the approach shot on 11 all the way through the 13th tee, making club selection and execution absolutely paramount to success. Even then, sometimes the wind just…changes.
I couldn't believe how expansive it is. TV doesn't do it justice how expansive it is from that whole open area on 12 and 13. And certainly, the commentators try and give it justice, but I don't think they really can, of how much it swirls.
You hear guys trying, saying, "Don't pull a club on 12 until you see both flags on 11 and 12 are moving the same direction." They're never, ever moving the same direction.
I've played it so many times when I have played 11, 12 and 13 either all downwind or all into the wind. You just…how does that work? You know, you get down there and Bobby Jones just turns his fan on down there and it swirls.
The Perfect Major Test
There have been changes to 11 over the years, from tee to green, and the 13th hole had the tee shot moved back in 2002 to account for the growing length of players from tee to green.
The 12th—the centerpiece of Amen Corner—is just perfect the way it is.
Last year, Woods joked (in this video) that if those in charge at Augusta changed the 12th hole to make it longer, the players would all just quit. The hole is challenging enough at 155 yards—so difficult, in fact, that Lucas Glover (in the same video) called it the toughest par three in all of golf.
Combining the difficulty of the course—the green is so thin on 12 with bunkers protecting the front and the back that it makes any tee shot hard to get near the pin, and that's if the wind allows the player to get his tee shot over the water—with the pressure of playing in the Masters, it's no wonder the mystique of Amen Corner lives up to the reality.