Teeing off at Sugarbush Resort

Thirteen at 13

There’s no such thing as luck. Take it one shot at a time. Swing easy. Breathe.

These are the things I tell myself each and every time I climb the stairs of the twelfth tee box at the Sugarbush Resort Golf Club—the entry point for three holes of the most challenging and consequential terrain on the entirety of Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s remarkable riddle of a course in Warren, Vermont.

Of course, crowding in on my positive swing thoughts there is another—darker—voice. One of negativity, this pessimistic part of my consciousness always seems to work itself into the front of my golf brain despite my most sincere efforts to block it out.

This is not where rounds are won. This is where rounds are lost. This is the place where good rounds go to die.

A par golfer needs exactly thirteen strokes to correctly navigate the challenging alley that runs from the twelfth tee through the fourteenth green. Consider that those thirteen strokes are centered exactly around the middle of the thirteenth hole, and you’ve got layer upon layer of superstition working against you.

The “thirteen at thirteen” are more than just the dark heart of Sugarbush’s beautiful and unpredictable back nine—they are the true difference maker between a good round and a great round, between a close match and a total implosion, and between a blissful ride home in a Vermont sunset and some serious alone time in your car wondering why you play this cruel game.

One part Amen Corner, one part Heartbreak Hill, one part Bermuda Triangle, the three-hole sweep of twelve through fourteen is one of Vermont’s greatest golf challenges, as it truly tests a player’s physical and mental toughness. Weaving a half mile up and down a steep, remote corner of the Sugarbush course, the stretch plays more like one long par thirteen hole instead of three smaller, individual challenges.

On this stretch, golfers face down two of the course’s infrequent water hazards, two sharp doglegs to the left, one uphill dogleg right, three long and narrow tee shots, and three wildly different greens. Faced with this diversity of geography and distance, players need to be comfortable with nearly every club in their bag. Played well, it’s pure genius. Played poorly, it’s a total train wreck.

“There are pivotal shots and decisions that need to be made on each of those holes,” said John Parsons, four-time Sugarbush Resort Golf Club champion. “The tee shot on twelve is one of the most difficult on the course, and it is definitely one of the most important ones. On thirteen, with a fairly straightforward tee shot and a tiny green, there’s no reason to get greedy. And on fourteen . . . boy, can this hole derail you.”

Part of the reason the thirteen strokes surrounding the thirteenth hole are such a high priority for a Sugarbush round is their placement in the order: by the time you step onto the twelfth tee, you’ve carded your front nine and eased your way through the tenth and eleventh holes—a pleasant par five and par three combo that mainly tests a golfer’s ability to hit the ball straight downhill.

Now the mellow feeling you had at the start of the back nine is gone, and those easygoing vibes of ten and eleven are history. In their place is a boost of adrenaline and excitement. The change in emotion is so fast, and so complete, it’s like an unexpected soundtrack change from yacht rock to heavy metal.

There’s no other way to put it: the par four twelfth hole at Sugarbush is really hard. The drive must be long, but not too long. And it must be straight, since short and left leaves you blocked by a grassy knoll, and long and right lands you behind the world’s most inconvenient apple tree.

“Twelve is the hardest hole on the back nine, and the first two shots can make or break your round. You’ve got to get that tee ball in play and not miss the fairway, otherwise a double bogey is lurking. Get through this hole with a four, and the momentum boost is huge,” said Stu Libby, nine-time Sugarbush club champion.

For first-timers, the narrow and elevated twelfth green can look fairly inviting from the 150-yard mark. But what newcomers don’t consider is the trio of challenges that are invisible from that distance. There’s water to the left of the green, a steep hill falling away from the right, and a frequent swirling wind that requires hitting for extra distance to make a successful approach shot.

“If I could card a bogey on the twelfth tee box without having to play the hole, I’d take it every time,” said Taylor Hubbard, a Sugarbush golf course regular.

Once you have the challenging twelfth hole behind you, the thirteenth tee may be a welcome sight at first. On paper, it’s a starkly simple tee shot, as anything close to 200 yards and relatively centered will give a player a decent chance at the green. The visual perspective from the tee box, however, is much less kind. Something about the extreme hazards flanking both sides makes the fairway seem precariously narrow, much like standing on a thin alpine ridge across from a high-altitude mountain summit.

It would be much easier if you could just close your eyes and forget about the obvious dangers. As Aidan Melville, the 2017 Sugarbush club champion, explained, “The tee shot on thirteen is surprisingly intimidating. You can’t miss right or your next shot is blocked, and you can’t miss left because of a hazard that runs all up the left side of this hole. If you hit a good tee shot here, it sets [you] up for your second shot. . . . If you’re trying to make a good round at Sugarbush, these two shots need to be on the money.”

Many golfers stretch their personal limits off the thirteenth tee in hopes of gaining (or regaining) an edge with a booming drive on an aggressive line. But those who do forget two key things. First, there’s no need to overplay the thirteenth: the fairway is wider than it seems, and the green can be remarkably kind and funnel many balls back down to the pin. And second—well, thirteen can be a very, very unlucky number, particularly if you push the limits of the tree-lined right side.

According to Eric Moffroid, another Sugarbush golf course regular, “This is the Bermuda Triangle. Good rounds can disappear and drown in the middle of the back nine. There’s not much water at Sugarbush, except on these three holes. That is definitely a factor, and has come into play more times than it should for me.”

After you’ve made it through the twelfth and thirteenth holes, a certain good humor always emerges at the fourteenth tee box. As the final par five in the round, it can be a fun place to hang out. Unfortunately, it can also be incredibly intense as you face your biggest choice of the day.

At the fourteenth tee, you know your score, you know your opponent, and you know whether to play the hole as a meat-and-potatoes par five or to pull something big out of your bag and do something your mom would frown at. “For me, the fourteenth hole is the most pivotal because for some reason it seems to set up momentum for the rest of the round. I’ve seen many matches won or lost based on what happens on the fourteenth tee box,” said Nate Bedford, two-time Sugarbush club champion.

Smart and safe off the fourteenth tee is a 180-yard punt just to the right of the lone “signal” tree. For the desperate, however, the play is to pull the driver out and pray for a lucky bounce. Many Sugarbush regulars agree that it’s vastly preferable to hit a mediocre shot off the fourteenth tee, because if you hit a good shot—or, God forbid, a great one—pride will force you to go for the pond- and sand-trap-surrounded green in two. Yet while thoughts of glory and double eagles are fun, sanity argues that the best move is to ease off the throttle and play for par.

“On the fourteenth, I have come to the belief that the only way I am going to go at this in two is if I somehow get my tee ball down to the 150 mark,” Parsons explained. “For the last few years, my goal is to play a 200-yard shot off the tee, lay up inside 100 yards, and try to make birdie with my wedge. Looking at the risk-reward, the risk side is too great to get greedy off the tee.”

Wide and forgiving, the fourteenth green always looks like such an easy target for short irons. But on this large platform green, there’s a difference between a good approach and a great one. “Good”—in the minds of Sugarbush’s most avid golfers—is a second shot that prioritizes intelligence over strength, and trickles up to the front edge of the green. “Great,” on the other hand, is that once-a-summer blast that ignores the danger on three sides of the fourteenth green and strives to put a 200-yard downhill shot within easy putting distance of what is likely your only eagle attempt of the round.

Making your final putt on the fourteenth green will close the book on the three-hole “thirteen at thirteen” at Sugarbush. While it’s a classic golf paradox, capable of tempting you with glory as well as punishing you for greed, it’s also the ultimate backdrop for the story of a great golf round. Standing tall on this part of the course sets a player up for a memorable finish, a potentially historic score, and certainly a golf story worth telling and retelling. And it’s a story that could finally silence those golf voices in your head.

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