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Amen to all that torture

WITH the possible exception of the Little Big Horn, there is no patch of American soil upon which more hopes have been massacred than Amen Corner. For more than 50 years, this treacherously beautiful confluence of three holes at the south-eastern tip of the Augusta National course has destroyed the ambitions of the finest golfers in the world.

There are many more formidable holes clustered around the globe, but Augusta's 11th, 12th and 13th holes that comprise Amen Corner, however, have to be encountered annually and the torment they have inflicted upon the most gifted and composed players through the years bathes it in an aura of unmatched awe.

Named after an old jazz song, Amen Corner has become the last word in golfing challenges and this week will doubtless be called upon to play its usual dramatic role. The Masters' world-wide popularity owes much to the fact that it announces the beginning of the main golf season and, for we in the top half of the world, is one of the certain signs that spring is sprung. It springs early and spectacularly in Georgia, and the azaleas, dogwood and golden bell appear to bloom more vividly at the Corner. To spectators it looks like heaven. To the players it looks more like a high-class funeral parlour - an impression supported by an eerie hush that, again, is unique in professional golf.

At no other championship course are the crowds kept so far away as they are at Amen Corner. At each of the three holes the players hit their shots into unthronged greens and, if they pause, can hear a bird sing or listen to the gentle lapping of the unseen waterfall over which the waters of Rae's Creek flow. But they'll find it difficult not to be aware of the presence of several thousand sadists watching from the trees.

The Corner's curse stretches back to 1937 when Ralph Guldahl led Byron Nelson by four shots. Nelson did the 12th and 13th in two and three strokes while Guidahl did them in five and six. Every result since has been influenced by the dramas here enacted, particularly as the par-four 11th, which slopes down to a water-guarded green, is the second play-off hole. Four of Augusta's sudden-death finishes have ended at this point, including both of Nick Faldo's Masters' titles.

Any relief felt at negotiating the 11th safely does not survive a glance over the player's left shoulder as he walks back to the 12th tee. The wide green looks as narrow as your lounge carpet and is guarded in front by a bunker and a sloping bank adept at feeding balls into the infamous creek. Beyond are two bunkers backed by heavily shrubbed slopes.

Occasionally, the 12th can be kind. In 1992, for instance, Fred Couples hit the bank in front and the ball miraculously stayed out of the water, enabling Couples to go on to win the tournament. For most of the time, however, it earns its title as the meanest little hole in the world.

In contrast, the dog-leg 13th doesn't look mean at all for a par five. Indeed, most pros can get to the green comfortably in two and it is this very temptation that pulls them on to the rocks to the left or pushes them into the trees from where Jose Maria Olazabal did well to escape on his way to last year's title. Terrors still remain but once you've rounded Amen Corner, akt least you've got a prayer.