Swirling winds of Amen Corner threaten even Tiger
Successfully navigating the tricky three-hole stretch of Augusta National's back nine known as "Amen Corner" could be the difference between victory and defeat in this week's 77th Masters.
The testy par-4 11th, deceptive par-3 12th and tempting but dangerous par-5 13th holes lurk at the far corner of the famed 7,435-yard layout, lined by pine trees and guarded by swirling winds that seem to have a life of their own.
"You get down there and (the late club founder) Bobby Jones has turned this fan on down there and it swirls," Tiger Woods said.
Woods, a 14-time major champion seeking his fifth Masters crown, is favored thanks to victories this year at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill where he showed the form that once dominated golf, notably with impressive putting.
World number one Woods has not won a major crown since the 2008 US Open and has not taken a Masters since 2005, but moving closer to the all-time record of 18 majors won by Jack Nicklaus would end any doubt he is back in peak form.
But even he cannot afford to take Amen Corner for granted. The 505-yard 11th ranked second-hardest among last year's 18 holes, only the par-4 first proving tougher to the world-class field.
"Eleven is a way different hole," Woods said. "We didn't have that span of trees down the right-hand side that we do now and the tee was much farther up and to the left. We used to be able to hit driver down there.
"Seve (Ballesteros) and Raymond (Floyd) always said to just hit it over where the gallery is. That's the angle you want to come from. Well, you can't get over there anymore. Hitting a good drive will leave me somewhere between 8-iron to 5-iron in there, whereas before it was a driver and pitching wedge."
The 155-yard 12th, guarded by three bunkers and fronted by Rae's Creek, offers a deceptive tee shot and the long-held advice that the moment to fire a tee shot at the 12th is when the flags at the 12th green and the nearby 11th green are blowing in the same direction.
"They are never, ever moving the same direction," Woods said. "I've played it so many times where I've played 11, 12 and 13 either all downwind or all into the wind. How does that work?
"Commentators try and give it justice but I don't think they really can of how much it swirls."
The 510-yard 13th, providing stunning beauty with about 1,600 azalea bushes, also offers the chance to go for the green in two, but that means risking a splashdown in Rae's Creek for the potential reward of a birdie or even eagle.
"I've made eagles there to move up. I've made mistakes there to move back," said three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson of the 13th, his favorite hole.
"The shot value that's required there, the lie that is challenging, takes creativity. It's hard to understand, especially on TV, but even in person, how much above your feet that ball is for a right-handed player and how much below it is for a left-handed player.
"Looks simple enough: big greens, just knock it on. It's a tough shot."
Amen Corner likes nothing more than to dash the dreams of desperate golfers.
"Over the years, every time you think about birdie, and I've got to make a move, it seems to bite you," Mickelson said. "If you don't pay it the respect that it deserves, they will bite you with a double.
"Especially 11 -- right is one of the toughest up-and-down anywhere... you can't really fly the chip on the green, so you've got to bounce it up. And yet, you can't miss it left because it's water. You've got to hit great shots there.
"To feel that pressure, to grace Amen Corner knowing that you need birdies to try and win a green jacket, that's the greatest thrill a golfer can possibly experience."
The potential for epic shotmaking or total disaster keeps many players in the hunt with a chance who might lack such hope on other layouts, English world number three Justin Rose said.
"There's so much that can happen at this golf course, there's no point getting ahead of yourself," Rose said. "Until you have gone through Amen Corner, any round of golf, any given day, no scorecard is safe.
"And that obviously leads you into Sunday knowing that you're five behind, you still have a chance."