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Will squishy conditions squash it?

Rain threatens another Masters, and the grounds crew has been scrambling.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Walk along the fairways at Augusta National, and in addition to the squishing sound beneath your feet, you can hear the constant hum of machines under the soggy ground.

They are strategically placed at various points along the course, sucking moisture out of the greens and fairways.

So far this week, the devices are overmatched.

More than 2 inches of rain have fallen at the home of the 67th Masters, which is scheduled to begin this morning, weather permitting. And not even the power and might of those at the 71-year-old club can dry out their course in time.

For the second straight year, the Masters will be played on a layout that won't measure up to its potential.

"These are the conditions that give a player the chance to score the best," said Phil Mickelson, who has finished third each of the past two years. "Although it's playing long, you have soft greens. And they are greens that you can attack and get the ball stopped close to the hole, as well as be aggressive putting them."

Give the best players in the world a soft track, and they usually will eat it up every time, regardless of how long it plays.

Last year, heavy rain fell Tuesday night, Wednesday morning and Friday -- and the stroke average of 73.44 for the tournament was better than all Masters played from 1996-2000. And that was with just one player breaking 70 during the final round.

"As far as difficulty, it's difficult in a different way," two-time defending champion Tiger Woods said. "Now it's just long and brutal. But I think this golf course is just a beast when you get those greens hard and fast. You hit 7-irons in there and they're not holding at all. That's when this golf course becomes brutal."

Two years ago, the course had extensive renovations in an effort to strengthen the layout and bring it up to date with modern equipment advancements.

Nine holes were changed, with some 300 yards added, making the par-72 course play to 7,290 yards. More changes were made this past offseason to the par-5 fifth hole, which was lengthened and saw its two fairway bunkers moved some 80 yards to make for a more difficult drive.

But when the course is wet, many of those factors are eliminated. In fact, it plays into the hands of Woods, who is trying to become the first to win three straight.

"I think it certainly favors someone who is hitting the ball high and long and straight," Woods said. "You've got to keep the ball in the fairway, you've got to get it out there. These fairways are playing really soft."

Ernie Els visited Augusta last week, and the difference in course conditions is significant, he said.

"The weather was beautiful, it was dry and there was quite a nice breeze blowing," he said. "On the first green, I just put a tee down where the flag is normally on the back left, I put my ball just past pin high and I putted two balls off the green. It was the quickest I've ever seen it. Now it will putt easier."

That's not to say the course will be easy. With wet conditions a year ago, there were just 14 rounds in the 60s, compared to 49 in 2001. And just 17 players completed 17 holes under par, while 30 did so in 2001.

"It's playing even longer than last year," Davis Love said. "At least last year we started off with it dry. We start off with it wet this year and now we're going to have to hope that it dries up some on the weekend. It's wet, the greens are soft, and the field is certainly narrowed a little bit. I still think your short game around here is still very important, even with the length. ... But it certainly is going to be long. The guys that hit it long won't get worn down as fast as the guys who don't hit it a long way."

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