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Golf

Augusta looks ready to give best a harder test

Masters course is dry and hard, a prescription for approaches, putts that miss.

By BOB HARIG
Published April 8, 2004

AUGUSTA, Ga. - An elder statesman at age 28, Tiger Woods, playing in his 10th Masters, loves telling a tale to amateur participants who come to Augusta National Golf Club for the first time.

When he played in his first Masters in 1995 as a 19-year-old amateur, Woods was so excited on his opening tee shot that he nailed his drive past the gaping bunker on the first hole, then hit a sand wedge pin-high on the green.

From there, the adventure began.

"I know the greens are fast and looked fast on the putting green," Woods said. "I hit the putt and just missed it on the top side. And it kept rolling and rolling. And the gallery is parting. I tell every amateur that story, because no matter how bad it seems, how nervous you are, more than likely you'll never have the experience of putting off the green on your first putt in competition."

Similar stories will no doubt abound as the 68th Masters gets under way this morning, but don't expect them to be told with a smile. With an assist from the weather, the 7,290-yard, par-72 course is expected to be more demanding than ever.

"This is what we've been looking for," Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said.

It's almost as if the Masters is back. Rain pelted Augusta each of the past two years, turning the 72-year-old course into a quagmire and the tournament into a slopfest.

Major changes implemented after the 2001 tournament won by Woods with 272, 16 under par, did not have the impact intended.

When some 300 yards was added to the course, along with a second cut of rough and movement of bunkers, the idea was to bring Augusta National more in line with today's technological advances in the game. But the rain mostly washed all of that away.

"It's easy when it's wet," six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus said. "It's long, but length, to most of these guys, means nothing."

"Even though the course has been lengthened, soft conditions, obviously, change things," said Tom Fazio, the course architect who made the changes. "Length is not the major issue for today's tour players. It'll be a different tournament this year, assuming it's dry. There are a lot of hard golf holes out there, but why shouldn't there be? It's a major."

Mike Weir won last year's tournament in a sudden-death playoff over Len Mattiace after a week of foul weather. Monday's practice round was washed away, and spectators were not permitted on the grounds. More rain caused Thursday's play to be called off, resulting in a 36-hole marathon in muddy conditions on Friday.

And the golf course was not the same.

"It will be tougher to get the ball closer to the hole," Weir said. "Last year the golf course played a lot longer, but being soft, if you hit an iron shot on line and the right distance, it would stay near the hole. (This year) you can hit good shots but they'll peel away from the hole and catch little ridges. You can hit good shots and be 50 feet away."

The prediction for today is a 30 percent chance of rain, but nothing compared to the deluge seen the past two years. Augusta National has not seen a significant amount of rain in nearly 10 days, and it has been a relatively dry year.

"You can lose control of the golf ball as soon as it hits the ground," said Adam Scott, playing in his third Masters. "The last two years it has been so soft, the ball has just been stopping in the fairway. When it gets really fast out here, you're not sure where your ball will end up."

There are many who believe that harder, faster conditions bring more players into contention. The theory is that much of the course's length is negated, and even shorter hitters can hit the ball far enough to put it in position.

Woods disagrees. "You've got to really hit the ball well here, and your short game has to be on," he said. "These greens are so fast and so firm, and if it doesn't rain, good shots are just going to get repelled. The greens are very similar to how they were in '99 when (Jose Maria Olazabal) won. They are starting to get that sheen to them."

"It could be brutal," Brad Faxon said. "Hard and fast means you better be on your game because you can't fake it around here."

[Last modified April 8, 2004, 01:35:43]


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