The toughest Par 3 in the World

Jeremy Ellwood takes a closer look at Augusta's par-3 12th - Golden Bell

12TH HOLE
Golden Bell - Augusta's 12th Hole

Jeremy Ellwood takes a closer look at Augusta's par-3 12th - Golden Bell – and asks why this one-shotter has such a fierce reputation

It’s no great surprise that ‘Bell’ has so readily been rhymed with ‘Hell’ over the years, if not in that many articles - for one must tread carefully when writing about this hallowed turf - then at least in the minds of those who face the hole every year. Such a convenient rhyme would not have been possible at the outset, though, for the hole was originally named ‘Three Pines’, and played as the 3rd until the nines were switched early on because today’s back nine remained in the shade longer and caused delays when there was a frost. The green was constructed on what was originally a rock ledge, with the earth needed to cover it excavated from the other side of Rae’s Creek.

It has changed shape a little over the years, most notably in 1951 when it was extended to the right by 18 feet, with its current guise – a kind of footprint that sits diagonally across the line of play and measures just 10 yards front to back at its shallowest point – one of the reasons why the hole protects itself well beyond its yardage.

It is the kind of shallow target tour pros rarely face, and one on which they see relatively little of the target from the tee because of the large front bunker and the bank that every player, other than Fred Couples in 1992, knows means a visit to Rae’s Creek and an instant reload or drop. But that green design and shape alone is insufficient to account for the sheer number of casualties, with other well-documented factors being the nerves, pressure and indecision players experience standing on the tee, and the meteorological and geographical anomalies that generate the swirling breezes leading to such confused mental states.

The problem with the 12th is that it is neither at the beginning nor the end of Amen Corner, but slap bang in the middle. You know it’s coming as you play down towards the 11th green, where Amen Corner technically begins rather than on the tee, and you deal with the consequences on the 13th tee, where at least you enjoy the luxury of being a couple of hundred yards away from the nearest patrons should you wish to have a little cry or let out a few words that might result in a fine elsewhere on the course. I’m pretty sure Rory would have been close to tears here in 2011 after striking a majestic iron to the heart of the 12th green to seemingly stop the rot, only to walk off a broken young man four putts later.

That one can’t really be blamed on the 12th, but more on the fragility of his putting stroke by that stage of a traumatic round. But many have fallen victim to the hole because of the pressure of the moment, indecision over club choice and the capricious nature of the breeze in this corner of the course.

One thing that’s often overlooked, but which really can’t help during a player’s moment of maximum indecision, is that the crowd is banked many rows deep but a few feet from where all the player-caddie ‘chat about club choice’ is played out, giving a real amphitheatre feel until the player finally readies himself over the ball, at which point a palpable and almost eerie hush descends as everyone waits to find out if he’s got it right and is able to execute.

Believe it or not, these guys are not immune to all that, especially when facing a shot with such a fearsome reputation. The 12th at Augusta is perhaps their equivalent of our first tee nerves when we often feel the eyes of others burning right through us. The players know that the patrons know that they know just how this tee-shot has panned out for so many top players over the years.

Gone with the Wind... So what about the wind, which is blessed with unfathomable and often cruel qualities at this point of the course, for both geographical and meteorological reasons? Those who have had the good fortune to visit Augusta will know that the 10th hole slopes more steeply downhill than you can possibly imagine, with the approach to the 11th taking you further down.

By the time you reach the 12th green, you are 175ft below the clubhouse and at the lowest point of the course. Yet behind the green are trees and a significant hill that act as a buffer to the winds that funnel down the 10th and 11th. Factor in any wind blowing down the 13th too, and you are left with a meteorological melting pot that creates mass confusion, with the flags on the 11th and 12th often doing different things just 100 yards apart!

Players over the years have come up with different approaches in their attempts to decipher this great indecipherable. During practice for the 2013 tournament, Tiger summed it up like this: “You hear guys saying, don’t pull a club on 12 until you see both flags on 11 and 12 are moving in the same direction. They are never, ever moving in the same direction! I’ve played 11, 12 and 13 either all downwind or all into the wind. How does that work? You get down there and Bobby Jones has turned this fan on and it swirls.”

Indeed it does. Back in 1956, Bob Rosburg, the 1959 USPGA Champion and a six-time tour winner, opted for a 4-iron into a strong headwind. The wind vanished when he was already beyond the point of total commitment, and his ball landed on the 9th green of the adjacent Augusta Country Club miles through the green. Moments later he used the same club to knock it on the green for a simple two-putt double. Sam Snead referred to it as a whirlpool effect.

Now, no, go, wait! For Ben Hogan, the answer was to wait until he could feel the wind on his left cheek before hitting, and many advocate biding their time a little on this tee while they gather their thoughts and attempt to weigh up the often confusing evidence before their eyes. Bernhard Langer, perhaps surprisingly, has pointed out that you can’t wait forever, and that sometimes waiting too long only leads to greater bewilderment.

If in doubt, overclub as the up-and-down from the back fringe is fairly straightforward. Maybe, but the splash shot from the rear bunkers back towards Rae’s Creek can be a truly daunting prospect from all but the perfect lie.

Hogan's Bridge

Hogan's Bridge

 

For Hale Irwin it’s the trees flanking the 13th that hold all the clues, while Tom Kite and recent two-time champion, Bubba Watson, base their decision on the prevailing wind if the immediate evidence is conflicting. Mind you, it may be best to take the defending champion’s word with a pinch of salt, for despite winning twice, he is a cumulative eight-over par on the 12th in 24 competitive attempts to date, although admittedly seven of those dropped shots are down to the 10 he made here in the final round in 2013.

Analyse that 10 in depth, though, and it pretty much sums up the challenge of Golden Bell: tee-shot into Rae’s Creek; third shot from the fairway into Rae’s Creek; fifth shot from the fairway into the back bunker; sixth shot from the bunker back into Rae’s Creek; eighth shot from the back bunker played out almost sideways to avoid a potential repeat; ninth shot chipped 15 feet past the hole; 15-footer holed for 10.

In these times of ever-increasing course length, where 230-yard par 3s come pretty much as standard, this 155-yard stretch of often unfathomable golf should be a cause for continued celebration… though not, of course, for anyone standing on the tee here on Sunday afternoon with a Green Jacket tantalisingly within reach.

Jeremy Ellwood
Jeremy Ellwood

Jeremy Ellwood has worked in the golf industry since 1993 and for Golf Monthly since 2002 when he started out as equipment editor. He is now a freelance journalist writing mainly for Golf Monthly across the whole spectrum from courses and Rules to equipment and even instruction despite his own somewhat iffy swing (he knows how to do it, but just can't do it himself). He also edits The Golf Club Secretary Newsletter, has authored or co-authored three books and written for a number of national papers including The Telegraph and The Independent. He is a senior panelist for Golf Monthly's Top 100 UK & Ireland Course Rankings and has played all of the Top 100 plus 89 of the Next 100. He has played well over 900 courses worldwide in 35 countries, but put him on a links course anywhere and he will be blissfully content. On his first trip to Abu Dhabi a decade ago he foolishly asked Paul Casey what sort of a record he had around the course there. "Well, I've won it twice if that's what you mean!" came the reply...