A momentous decision. That’s what Bobby Jones wanted golfers to have when they lined up their second shot on the par-5 13th at Augusta National.
For decades, it was the nonpareil of ‘risk and reward’ golf holes, the standard-bearer for drama, entertainment and shot-making.
The risk of going for the green in two? Sending your ball splashing into Rae’s Creek short of the green. The reward? A near-certain birdie and a high possibility of an eagle at a crucial stage in the round.
The risk of laying up? Severely limiting your chances of an eagle. The reward? A par, at the very worst.
A simple premise, masterfully executed by Jones and his co-designer Alister MacKenzie.
The hole’s brilliance was exemplified by Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer, each of whom hit woods onto the green and made eagle in the final round of their first Masters victories (Hagen, 1937; Palmer, 1958).
Billy Joe Patton saw his bid to become the first amateur to win the Green Jacket implode when he found the creek during the 1954 Masters, missing out on the Sam Snead-Ben Hogan play-off by a shot. Curtis Strange also found the water in 1985 and ended up losing by two.
In 1994, Jeff Maggert made the only albatross ever recorded on the hole when he canned his second shot from 222 yards.
But that was then.
These days, players have no decisions to make on the hole, momentous or otherwise.
For a multitude of reasons, the challenge of Azalea has wilted dramatically. A more appropriate name for it now would be ‘Shrinking Violet’.
Playing to an average of -0.22 against par, it is the second-easiest hole in Masters history. Only the par-5 15th has played easier. However, whilst considerable changes have been made to the latter to preserve its potency – the pond in front of the green was enlarged in 1961, for example – the 13th has remained largely unaltered.
The only material change came in 2002 when the tee was pushed back by around 25 yards as tournament officials embarked on their infamous programme of ‘Tiger-proofing’.
Consequently, the final part of Amen Corner has arrived at a crossroads.
By common consent, the hole is much too easy. Sir Nick Faldo, who famously hit a 2-iron into the heart of the green to set up a birdie en route to his win in 1996, once remarked: “You know 13 is a great opportunity, somehow you’ve got to make a four.”
Three-time champion Phil Mickelson – whose escape from the pine straw on the right of the hole in 2010 is widely regarded as one of the greatest shots in Masters history – added: “As guys have been able to take it over the trees and have 8-iron, 9-iron or wedge in, it’s not a decision.”
Unlucky for next-to-nobody, the 13th has played the easiest hole in each of the last two Masters. Last year, it played more than half a stroke under-par, yielding 17 eagles, 158 birdies and 102 pars. There were only 23 bogeys and four doubles across the tournament.
To their credit, the men in charge are acutely aware of the issues. In 2018, in his first press conference as the chairman of Augusta National, Fred Ridley said that the club is “intent on making sure that we maintain the design philosophy that Mr Jones and Alister MacKenzie devised”.
He added: “Our observation of these great players hitting middle and even short irons into that hole is that it is not a momentous decision. And so we think there is an issue, not only there, but in the game generally, that needs to be addressed.”
One option is to push the tee back even further. The club appeared to be preparing to do just that when it bought the land directly behind Amen Corner from the neighbouring Augusta Country Club for a reported $25m in 2017. That, it is thought, will give them the option of adding 60 yards onto the hole, stretching it to 570.
However, it’s clear the powers-that-be at Augusta view this as a last resort. Consider again the words of Ridley, this time from last year’s press conference.
“It should come as no surprise to any of you that we continue to study enhancements to the course,” he said. That includes much-talked-about potential changes to the 13th. That hole does not play as it was intended by Jones and MacKenzie. Although we now have options to increase the length of this hole, we intend to wait to see how distance may be addressed by the governing bodies before we take any action.”
Describing ‘Amen Corner’ as a "sacred place", he added that he’s “hesitant to move too quickly” in making changes.
Consequently, we’re now at a strange impasse. Who will blink first: the law-makers at the R&A and USGA; or the influential ‘Green Jackets’ of Augusta National?
The battle lines have been drawn between history and future, art and science. A helluva fight awaits.
A momentous one, some might say.
This interview first appeared in issue 177 of bunkered. For our latest brilliant subscription offer, click here.