Of all the bridges, plaques, fountains, lanes, trees and water that honor golf royalty around the Augusta National Golf Club grounds, perhaps the most photographed feature is named for a man with no history in golf.
Yet, John Rae, the namesake for Rae’s Creek, was instrumental in establishing the city of Augusta and, long after his death, Rae’s Creek, which would become golf’s most notable body of water.
It all began 200 years before the first Masters when Rae, an Irish trader, settled in Augusta in 1734. A resourceful man, Rae established a farm with cattle, trading post and ferry service at the confluence of what was then called Kenyons Creek and the Savannah River – not far from present-day Lake Olmstead, the waterway that Rae’s Creek spills into beside Washington Road as you leave Augusta National for downtown Augusta. Rae built what was described as a fortress-like structure for his residence there overlooking the river.
When British General James Oglethorpe expanded his reach in Georgia, moving from Savannah to found Augusta in 1735, Rae’s homestead became even more valuable. Oglethorpe built Fort Augusta farther south on the Savannah River, and with an expanded number of residents, Rae’s home was often a safe house for those who couldn’t get back to the fort after venturing out.
Rae continued to grow his footprint as a prominent politician and justice of the peace. He built a grist mill along the creek by 1765 and owned at least 8,000 acres of land. By the late 1700s, Kenyons Creek started to appear on maps as Rae’s Creek. When Rae died in 1789, he was one of Augusta’s more prominent residents.
Therefore, the name fits the notoriety of the creek that originates from subterranean rock northwest of Augusta in neighboring Columbia County and flows under Berckmans Road and through a forest into the Augusta National property. Patrons get their first view as it moves beneath Nelson Bridge in front of No. 13 tee and No. 12 green, under the Hogan Bridge, and behind No. 11 green before exiting into Augusta Country Club and, finally, Lake Olmstead. Before 1950, the water left of No. 11 green streamed in from Rae’s Creek before it was dammed to form a pond.
Rae’s Creek flows just 10 miles but has 74 tributary streams, the most prominent being the one that veers left just before Nelson Bridge, curls left of the fairway on the par-5 No. 13 and in front of green. That stream is often incorrectly referred to as Rae’s Creek.
The most famous portion of Rae's Creek fronts the green at No. 12, the beguiling, 155-yard par 3 called Golden Bell. The creek is at its widest point here — approximately 60 feet wide and 4 feet deep — where the whole property rolls down to the waterway. The dam, covered by a wooden structure behind No. 11 green, is the lowest point on the property, at 160 feet above sea level, nearly 175 feet lower than the high point, along Washington Road. In the Golf Services Building that houses the caddie facilities, drawings of each green include a red dot, revealing the direction of “pull,” or break, on the greens toward Rae’s Creek behind No. 11 green.
Many a Masters participant has attempted to avoid the water here. Ben Hogan never played from the tee until he felt “the wind on my cheek.” Jack Nicklaus set a standard to never aim at the right-rear hole location, the traditional Sunday placement, in order to avoid the shot's falling short and trundling down into Rae’s Creek. Fred Couples made that mistake in 1992, only to see his ball stop on a rain-dampened bank as he got up and down for par en route to his Masters win and sole major championship.
“The biggest break, probably of my life,” Couples said in 1992. “I’m not so sure what would have happened if it would have went in the water like everybody else’s.”
Tom Weiskopf holds the Masters mark for worst score, a 13, recorded here in 1980 when he hit five shots into Rae’s Creek. Even though a double bogey or worse looms, with the swirling winds and twitchy nerves, it is rare for a Masters champion to get wet on No. 12. Dating back to the early 1990s, no Masters champion has rinsed his ball in Rae’s Creek.
But Rae’s Creek has beseeched others. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in an early 1950s match with Augusta National and Masters co-Founder Clifford Roberts and other members, hit his tee shot onto a sand bar in Rae’s Creek. When Roberts encouraged Eisenhower to play out, the president climbed into the hazard, sank to his knees in what turned out to be quicksand and had to be extricated by two Secret Service agents. After going back to his cottage to change clothes, Eisenhower returned and promised to never take Roberts’ advice again on golf matters.
Even though it is the course’s shortest hole, at 155 yards, it has seen the second-fewest aces in Tournament history. No. 4, the longest par 3 at 240 yards, has seen only one hole-in-one, by Jeff Sluman in 1992. But even though No. 12 has had three 1s, it has been 27 years since the last one, by Curtis Strange in the second round of the 1988 Tournament, the longest ace drought for any par 3.
Quite appropriately, Strange gathered the ball from the cup and gently tossed it into Rae’s Creek, a reflex action perhaps to keep others from being tormented by golf’s most famous body of water.