A Mystery Unfolds at the Masters

By Associated PressApril 5, 2006, 4:00 pm
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One by one, players trudged up the hill leading to the clubhouse at Augusta National, then paused and gazed back at a course that by now they should know all too well.
But this Masters seems to contain more mystery than ever.
Part of that is the sheer length. The tees were pushed back on six holes, stretching the course to 7,445 yards, the second-longest course in major championship history behind Whistling Straits (7,514 yards) two years ago at the PGA Championship.
Jack and Charlie Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus plays Wednesday's Par-3 Contest with grandson Charlie as his caddie.
The par-3 fourth hole now is 240 yards, requiring most players to hit fairway metal, and some players to hit a driver. The par-4 11th is 505 yards, with trees to the right of the landing area and a pond to the left of the green ready to swallow up any mistake.
Masters chairman Hootie Johnson vigorously defended the changes Wednesday, especially at No. 11, pointing out that Bobby Jones intended the second shot to be played with a 3-iron or more.
'He (Jones) probably was hitting into a green that ran at 2 on the Stimpmeter,' said Retief Goosen. 'The condition of the greens now are different than they were in the 1900s. You hit a 3-iron on the front of that green, it rolls off into the water.'
And then there's the weather.
Azaleas and dogwoods are blazing even brighter under a warm sun. The tightly mown grass beneath the feet is firm, not slippery. Not since 2001 has the Masters been contested over four days in relatively dry, fast conditions. That's a significant date, because serious expansion at Augusta National didn't start until the next year.
'We haven't really played many Masters with dry conditions yet,' Ernie Els said. 'We might find out this week.'
The final day of practice revealed some potential problems, with wedge shots bouncing hard off the green, then crawling endlessly until they were off the putting surface. And it doesn't take much to make a mistake around here.
Then again, Goosen said some of the longer holes were playing shorter than recent years because of the firm ground that allowed tee shots to roll. He cited No. 9, where he hit a big drive and a sand wedge, compared with a driver and a 7-iron last year in soft conditions.
What will it take to win?
'I don't see anyone in double figures,' Goosen said, adding that he would take 4 under par and like his chances.
This is the 40-year anniversary of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at even-par 288, the last champion who wasn't under par.
That's a possibility this week.
This also is the 20-year anniversary of Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine to win his sixth green jacket.
On this course, that seems unlikely.
Nicklaus returned to play in the Par 3 contest. He met with the press Wednesday morning, took his customary seat and pretended to go over his round, as he had done for so many years.
'First hole, I hit a driver, 3-wood and a 7-iron,' Nicklaus said as the room broke out in laughter.
Johnson said the reason for the change was to keep the course current with modern equipment and the modern player. His hope is that players will be using roughly the same clubs as Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus and Tom Watson during their prime.
As far as Gary Player is concerned, it's working.
'I'm using exactly the same clubs, other than No. 4,' said Player, at 70 the oldest player in the 91-man field. 'I was brainwashed into believing it would be abnormal with all the changes. But we're hitting the same club Jack Nicklaus did. I remember Jack hitting 5-iron on No. 11. The greens weren't as fast, but the fairways were lousy.'
Answers should start arriving Thursday when the 70th Masters gets under way.
'I think everybody wants to see what will happen, what the winning score will be,' Mike Weir said. 'I think single digits, for sure. On Monday, I said 8 under would win. But I forgot how much the course changes day to day. Now, I'm thinking 5 or 6 under.'
If the Masters wants to go back in time, some fear it has lost a little of the character that set it apart from other majors.
Perhaps no other course is such an endless source of theater, whether it was the back-nine charge of Nicklaus, the implosion of Greg Norman in the final round 10 years ago when he lost a six-shot lead, or spectacular duels like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els two years ago.
'The drama never ceases,' Palmer said. 'For one thing or another, it rattles the cages of everybody.'
The cages are rattled, all right, and this before a shot has been struck.
Suddenly, par doesn't seem like such a bad score.
'It used to be a fun week. Now it's a grinding week,' Goosen said. 'The Masters is now like the U.S. Open -- even tougher on the mind than the U.S. Open.'
The final mystery is who emerges as the winner.
All eyes are on Tiger Woods, as usual, who will try to become the first player to twice went back-to-back titles. He already has won three times this year (once on the European tour), although some question whether he will be distracted by his cancer-stricken father who did not make the trip to Augusta for the first time.
No one paid much attention to Mickelson, winless the first three months of the season for only the third time in his career. That was before winning by 13 shots last week at the BellSouth Classic by using two drivers.
Most believe the Masters favors the big hitters. Then again, this Masters might be different.
'We haven't really played Augusta the last five, six years in very firm, fast conditions,' Els said. 'We haven't played a new course, so to speak, in firm, fast conditions. There's going to be a mix of players in there.'
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    Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

    By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

    Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

    Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

    So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

    How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

    1. Stay healthy

    So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

    Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

    Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

    2. Figure out his driver

    Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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    That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

    In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

    Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

    Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

    That won’t be the case at Augusta.

    3. Clean up his iron play

    As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

    At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

    Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

    That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

    Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

    4. Get into contention somewhere

    As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

    In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

    “I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

    Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

    And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

    “It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

    Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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    Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

    By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

    Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

    The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

    According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

    Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

    The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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    Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

    By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

    Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

    “Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

    Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

    Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

    With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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    Thomas was asked about that.

    “I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

    “I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

    Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

    “It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

    “I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

    Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

    “That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

    Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

    “Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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    Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

    By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

    PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

    McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

    “Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

    The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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    The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

    “He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”