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Hindsight is 20/20: How the field unraveled last year at Augusta’s 12th

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Retrospect can be a professional golfer’s worst enemy.

In hindsight, the slightest miscue can be painfully overanalyzed and that microscope becomes even more intense when the stage is the most scrutinized patch of turf in the entire game.

Nearly a dozen contenders made their way through Amen Corner during the final round of last year’s Masters Tournament with at least an outside chance for victory, and nearly all of them came unraveled at the par-3 12th hole.

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Under normal circumstances, that is to say, any turn that wouldn’t include a handshake in Butler Cabin followed by a green jacket fitting, the 155-yard hole perched on the edge of Rae’s Creek is little more than a seamless transition from the risk of the par-4 11th hole to the reward of the par-5 13th.

“If there's no wind it just depends if you hit a good shot. There's nothing really that can stop you from hitting that green,” Francesco Molinari figured earlier this year. “I remember like the Saturday last year, I think I hit it a few inches from the hole with obviously a different pin position.”

Last year, No. 12, dubbed "Golden Bell," ranked squarely in the middle of the pack as the week’s ninth toughest hole with a 3.05 scoring average.

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But Sunday was different.

Sunday at the Masters is always different.

Of the top 11 players on the final leaderboard from the 2019 Masters there wasn’t a single birdie made, and the group was a collective 7 over par for the day on No. 12. It all added up to Golden Hell — sorry, Golden Bell — playing to a 3.34 average and the day’s toughest hole in a particularly brutal final round.

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Playing in the day’s penultimate group ahead of Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau, Brooks Koepka seemed to set the tone for the 12th hole. Cruising along at 11 under par (the winning score would be 13 under), Koepka’s tee shot drifted dangerously to the right, brushed the bank just short of the green and bounded into the creek. He made a double bogey and would finish tied for second place, a stroke out of the lead. Playing with Koepka, Ian Poulter’s tee shot suffered a similar fate and he made double bogey.

Both Molinari and Finau’s tee shots also found the creek (bookend double bogeys to Tiger’s par) and Woods emerged from the 12th with a share of the lead.

“Sunday, when the wind is up and I think especially it was coming kind of into, from behind the green and those huge trees behind the green, so you never know how much wind actually it's going to get,” Molinari conceded. “It's just complicated.”

Every player agrees the 12th is a “complicated” hole, but why it creates such a unique challenge depends on who’s swinging the club.

Weather conditions created much of the guess work Sunday a year ago. The forecast led to Augusta National officials to move up tee times and send players off the first and 10th tees in threesomes to avoid an approaching storm. It was a shrewd and surprising move that allowed the tournament to avoid a delay, but it also led to some of the most challenging conditions in recent years.

Winds from the southeast gusted to 25 mph as the final groups approached Amen Corner and swirled through the famous pines as each contender stepped to the 12th tee box with the traditional back-right Sunday hole location.

“It’s the hardest wind for that hole, in and off the left. Even though it wasn’t howling it was enough to impact the golf ball for a lot of us coming down the stretch,” Finau said. “It’s just the hardest wind to play that hole. I’d prefer straight in or straight in and off the right to that green. The way the green is angled you don’t want the wind to come off the left.”

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Molinari, who was 13 under par and in control of the tournament until the fateful 12th hole, agreed that the wind direction created an imperfect storm for every contender, but the Italian also acknowledged the gravity of the moment.

“The situation, too; you get there, it's Sunday afternoon, so I think a few of us hit in the water that day and, yeah, it shows how tough it was playing,” Molinari said. “That's the beauty of the Masters and Amen Corner.”

And then there’s the question of situational awareness and experience. For Woods, who would birdie three of the next four holes to win by a shot, it was his 22nd start and fifth victory at Augusta National. Of the remaining 10 players within the top 11 on the final leaderboard none had more than nine starts at the Masters.

Woods also had the benefit of watching the carnage unfold in the final two groups.

“[Finau] hit the best shot of all of us and he got stood up at the very end. It was a good shot. He hit it flush, but it stalled out at the top,” Woods said. “If I had gone at the flag, my ball would have done the same thing, because mine, I played left, and it stalled out at its apex, ended up short left, and I had a putt.”

Unlike many of the would-be champions, Woods erred on the left side of the narrow green that angles away from the tee box and plays longer the farther right you attempt to aim.

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“Watching [Molinari] hit an 8-iron there, and you could see it, and I know he didn't quite hit it right, but I played it to the left,” Woods said.

It was a pivotal moment and quintessential Tiger. Stewart Cink once said Woods was at his best when he was playing “prevent defense” and allowing those around him to fall away with unforced errors.

Denis Pugh, Molinari’s swing coach, remembers watching the dynamic between Woods and the rest of the field flip in an instant as he loomed larger than life near his golf ball safely in the middle of the 12th green: “[Molinari] is waiting to hit his chip [third shot] and Tiger is waiting on the green. It’s where Tiger took control of the tournament like he always did,” Pugh recalled.

Maybe Finau should have hit an 8-iron off the 12th tee. Maybe Molinari should have aimed farther left of that diabolical hole location. Maybe officials should have doggedly clung to tradition and sent players out in twosomes off the first tee. For those prone to hindsight it can be a brutal arbiter.