Date: April 15, 2019
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: A champ for the big occasion

Jack Nicklaus many years ago called Augusta National’s 12th hole the most demanding short hole in championship golf.

The wind swirls mysteriously through the lowest corner of the course, so much so that one year, 1959 US PGA champion Bob Rosburg hit a 4-iron short and into the water. Electing to play again from the tee, he took the same club and flew it into the rhododendrons way over the back of the green.

Coming back to the same course year after year only adds to the legend of the hole named ‘Golden Bell’ and there is a long line of players whose hopes of winning the Masters have crashed and then sunk by the familiar sight of a ball thudding into the bank and trickling back into “the only blue water in Georgia”, as late and great golf writer Dan Jenkins once noted.

Nicklaus was both good enough and disciplined enough to play over the centre bunker at the front of the green, content to putt the remaining 40 feet across to the Sunday cup on the right. In his extraordinary run to the 1986 title, the only bogey he made on his six-under-par back nine was a three putt from 40 feet at the 12th. The four hurt Nicklaus, but it didn’t take him out of the championship – and this is the lesson of this treacherous hole.

Extraordinarily today, four contenders in what will come simply to be known as “Tiger’s 15th” stood on the 12th tee and one after the other made the one mistake they couldn’t make.

Ian Poulter, the Englishman who almost never blinks under the pressure of the Ryder Cup, made it. Brooks Koepka, a man forging a reputation as the one least likely to make a mistake on the final nine of a major championship, drowned one.

Tiger Woods, playing with the leader Francesco Molinari, watched as the Italian, who had barely made a mistake all week, failed to heed Nicklaus’ advice. Nor, soon afterwards, did Tony Finau, the man of the three-quarter backswing and 300-yard plus carry with the driver.

Woods, in stark contrast, followed Nicklaus safely left and made his three, even then only after holing a second putt longer than the one Nicklaus had missed 33 years earlier.

From there all the way to the end, Woods hit every single shot exactly as he needed to. The two par-fives across the water were dismissed with perfect drives followed respectively by an 8-iron then a 5-iron.

Nicklaus in 1986 hit a perfect 5-iron into the 16th and Woods hit the almost identical shot off the slope and down to the hole today, but with an 8-iron. In itself, it’s a comment on the changed nature of the game in the intervening years.

The Woods driver, at times a great weapon and at others a real curse, came through off the 17th tee and then at the final hole he squeezed a 3-wood out of the preposterously narrow chute. From there, the necessary five was safely and easily made.

Koepka shared second with Xander Schauffele and Dustin Johnson only a shot behind, but such was Woods’ control over the final nine there can almost be no doubt he’d have made a four if that was what he needed. A three, too, probably.

Many of this generation of stars grew up watching and idolising Woods and have voiced a yearning for him to be back to his best. Those who had played – and suffered – through his best years warned them: “Oh., no you don’t.”

There has been something of a myth perpetrated that the players of today are better than the best of Tiger’s era, but that is a silly notion and it was put to bed over the back nine.

Arguably Tiger is almost 20 years removed from his absolute best – 2000 was peak Tiger when he won the US Open by 15 shots and, a month later, The Open at St Andrews by eight – and yet he is still able, with the force of his presence, to draw almost inexplicable mistakes from his opponents.

And have no doubt what happened on the 12th hole was inexplicable as four of the best players in the world, one after the other, failed to carry the creek.

Two years ago most assumed Woods’ career was finished. He told people it was. Now Nicklaus’ record is only three majors away and perhaps again within reach.

We say “only”, but three majors alone is a Hall of Fame career. Hale Irwin and Julius Boros won three each and they were both really good. Bernhard Langer and Fred Couples, both brilliant players and Masters champions, won three between them.

It’s some way to go, but Woods surely now has everyone’s attention and even if he never wins another, his 15th will be remembered as one of a handful of championships which have defined the game and never will be forgotten.

He will be at Royal Melbourne at the end of the year and we will again see not only a great player, but the work of a great architect, Alister MacKenzie, who knew exactly how to build enduringly interesting golf holes designed to draw out both the best in a player and the frailties.

MacKenzie never knew Woods, but he was surely designing courses for him and those who think narrow fairways lined with high grass are the way forward as a way of combatting the modern power game would do well to reflect on the genius of one man bringing out the genius in another without resorting to either.