Golf / US Masters: Augusta keeps reputation for hidden menace: They used to birdie it, now the 15th is a bogey hole for the best of them. Peter Corrigan reports

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THE STORY of how they changed the 15th hole at Augusta National from a peaceful backwater for birdie hunters into Disasterville USA has been told here by Greg Norman in the hushed tones of someone who's survived a bad experience.

But not only the golfers were reeling from the shock yesterday - the Masters fans, who over the years have perfected the art of being in the right place to witness the maximum embarrassment to the highest number of competitors, were in a quandary about where to sit.

Amen Corner is usually the place to which the most ghoulish of them rush when the gates open at 8am. Embracing the 11th, 12th and 13th holes, this beautiful but most perilous part of the course is the traditional trouble spot; especially the inglorious 12th, home of the most celebrated of Masters mishaps.

To connoisseurs of sporting calamity, this corner of Augusta is the golfing equivalent of the landing side of Becher's Brook. On Friday that reputation looked sick as only four double bogeys were recorded by the 85 golfers who passed by. Amen seemed to be no longer the last word in golfing terror.

Suddenly, all the grief was being experienced at the 15th. The 500- yard par-five 15th has caused a few upsets in 58 years but generally it is regarded as a good birdie opportunity. In last year's Masters it was statistically the easiest hole throughout the four days.

Players face a downhill second shot to a tilting green that is guarded by a pond. Most players can reach in two but many, as Chip Beck did controversially last year, prefer to lay up short of the pond and rely on an accurate chip to get them close.

On Thursday, the choice was made more difficult by a north- east wind in their faces. But whichever course they took, many got into trouble because the pin was cut close to the front edge of the green and shot after shot rolled back down the bank into the water.

Norman's was among them, after he had hit what appeared to be a perfect four-iron from the top of the hill. 'I didn't realise that they'd shaved the grass at the front of the green and down the bank until it was as smooth as a baby's rear end. There was no way you could stop the ball.'

The Australian made a great recovery from the situation to save par, but 10 players made double bogey or worse. Nolan Henke returned a 10.

Payne Stewart had similar trouble and took nine, and Costantino Rocca followed suit. Tom Watson and Steve Elkington scored eight, and five others took seven.

Yesterday, the wind dropped, the pin position was less severe and the players approached it with more caution. But the hole had done its damage and Augusta's reputation for hidden menace was maintained.

Two spectators who cheered when Norman's ball went into the water where lectured by a steward and threatened with expulsion. Any enjoyment you get from the great players' struggle has to be a silent pleasure.