The Eve of the Masters

By Randall MellApril 7, 2011, 1:12 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The dogwoods and azaleas aren’t in full bloom yet down in Amen Corner, but Augusta National was adorned with colorful scenery just the same with 99 players preparing for Thursday’s start of the Masters.

If you’ve never been here, you’ll see that even practice rounds are different from anywhere else.

Follow me, I’ll show you.


First stop, the 13th hole . . .

Ken Ress of Mandeville, La., a retired 58-year-old who used to work on offshore oil rigs for Shell, is looking for the spot where Phil Mickelson struck it big last year. He’s looking for the famous patch where Mickelson hit that spectacular 6-iron through the trees to 4 feet to set up his third Masters’ title.

“You see that little purple flag over there?” a hole marshal tells him. “That’s the spot.”

Standing there, you see one patron after another drift over to the hole marshals, all wanting to know where Lefty made his magic. The marshals say about 300 people wandered over to ask them for the exact location. That was Tuesday morning alone. That’s why they put the flag there.

With Mickelson on the course for his practice round later Wednesday, thousands of people are huddled along the ropes near that purple flag, all wondering if Mickelson will wander over and try to repeat the shot.

“Maybe he’ll hit another drive there,” one patron says. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

In fact, Mickelson does blast his tee shot deep into the trees, but this time he’s found the trees on the other side of the fairway, over across the creek. He’s playing his practice round with Fred Couples, Rickie Fowler and reigning U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein.

“Phil’s not going to play it out of there in a practice round,” says one patron.

“He’ll be lucky to find it,” another says.

Moments later, Mickelson is jumping over the creek, where a marshal has found his ball. Then Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, is throwing a club to Mickelson, who sets up between two giant azalea bushes and punches the ball back into the fairway.

“Wow, I wonder what they’re playing for?” says a patron. “I can’t believe he played that.”

Mickelson marches past the purple flag without even looking at the magical patch of pine straw or the little purple flag.

Though a month ago Mickelson left open the possibility that he might try to repeat the shot in a practice round, he decided against it.

“I didn’t see the point,” Mickelson said. “I’ve already done that.”

Tiger as a coach at the 15th tee . . .

Too far away to hear him with the gallery thick around the tee box, you can see Tiger Woods pointing with his driver as he tutors Arjun Atwal.

Atwal has become a pal to Woods. As fellow Isleworth Country Club members in Windermere, Fla., they play together often. They took a trip together to play Augusta National for one day last week and played it together again Wednesday with Mark O’Meara.

It’s Atwal’s first Masters, and he is reveling in the advanced education Woods is giving him.

“Physically, I can’t do the stuff he does, but the mental side, he’s really, really helped me a lot,” Atwal says. “How to approach a tournament, how to go about practice rounds, this tournament, especially, with ball placement and all that stuff.”

Everyone’s named Skip at the 16th . . .

After Kyung-Tae Kim hit his tee shot into the 16th green, the chants begin.

“Skip . . . Skip . . . Skip.”

That’s not his nickname. It’s what the patrons down there chant at every player who comes through in the practice rounds in an effort to get them to skip a shot across the pond and onto the green.

Kim doesn’t look like a Masters’ rookie at all. After dropping a ball at the foot of the pond, Kim expertly drills a low screamer that hits about 75 yards out in the pond and skips up on the bank, bounces onto the green 30 feet right of the flag, takes the slope in the bowl, turns left, then hard left, and gently rolls dead toward the flagstick. The patrons are howling as he nearly holes the shot, leaving it 3 feet past.

Scott, Chris and Eric Wahlers, three brothers in their 30s from Philadelphia, are loving the scene behind the 16th tee. It’s the first time they’ve ever been to Augusta National. A veteran spectator tells them it’s not the best skip he’s witnessed there. Vijay Singh holed one two years ago.

Euros scheming at the seventh green . . .

England’s Luke Donald reaches the seventh green, where Germany’s Martin Kaymer joins him. Kaymer’s just chipping and putting his way across the course in his Wednesday practice round.

Though Kaymer is the No. 1 player in the world, he tells world No. 4 Donald that he’s picked him as the man to beat this week.

“I must have impressed him,” Donald says.

Donald beat Kaymer 3-and-2 in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.

Though Europeans dominated the Masters with 11 victories in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Euros haven’t won a Masters’ title in a dozen years, since Jose Maria Olazabal claimed his second green jacket in ’99. With five of the top six players in the world rankings this week from Europe, nobody should be surprised to see a Euro end the drought.

After his practice round, Donald credits Ireland’s Padraig Harrington for the recent rise of the Europeans. Donald says Harrington elevated the play of the continent with his three major championships in ’07 and ’08.

“When you are around someone who’s done special things, you’re inspired to believe that if they can do it, you can do it,” Donald said.

Under the oak, Seve’s missed . . .

Under the giant oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, Olazabal says Seve Ballesteros was missed at the traditional Champions Dinner Tuesday night.

But Olazabal says as defending champ and host of the dinner, Mickelson made sure Ballesteros’ presence was felt.

In honor of Ballesteros, a two-time Masters’ winner who is battling cancer, Mickelson offered up Spanish dishes on the menu. Seafood paella and Filete de Res Mignon (tenderloin with smoked paprika demi-glace) were the main dishes. Empanada de Manzana was the dessert with Spanish wine.

“I know the gesture by Phil touched Seve,” Olazabal said. “He obviously appreciated it.

“We talked about Seve. It was emotional and touching.”

Olazabal said Mickelson’s derring-do and short-game magic reminds him of Ballesteros.

The Par 3 Contest . . .

With Arnold Palmer posing over a shot, Jack Nicklaus couldn’t help himself.

“Get off the tee,” Nicklaus cracked. “Stop admiring your shot.”

Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player treated the patrons who crowded around the holes at the annual Par 3 Contest to some good humor as they needled their way around the course.

The trio combined to win 13 green jackets.

The reverence for history at Augusta National is on full display in the scenery at Augusta National with patrons embracing the Big Three one more time.

“The three of us are miles beyond our games, but they didn’t care,” Nicklaus said.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell

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After Further Review: Woods wisely keeping things in perspective

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 3:17 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Tiger Woods' career comeback ...

Tiger Woods seems to be the only one keeping his comeback in the proper perspective. Asked after his tie for fifth at Bay Hill whether he could ever have envisioned his game being in this shape heading into Augusta, he replied: “If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He’s healthy. He’s been in contention. He’s had two realistic chances to win. There’s no box unchecked as he heads to the Masters, and no one, especially not Woods, could have seen that coming a few months ago. – Ryan Lavner

On Tiger carrying momentum into API, Masters ...

Expect Jordan Spieth to leave Austin with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play trophy next week.

After all, Spieth is seemingly the only top-ranked player who has yet to lift some hardware in the early part of 2018. Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have all gotten it done, as have Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and most recently Rory McIlroy.

Throw in the sudden resurgence of Tiger Woods, and with two more weeks until the Masters there seem to be more azalea-laden storylines than ever before.

A Spieth victory in Austin would certainly add fuel to that fire, but even if he comes up short the 2015 champ will certainly be a focus of attention in a few short weeks when the golf world descends upon Magnolia Lane with no shortage of players able to point to a recent victory as proof that they’re in prime position to don a green jacket. – Will Gray

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Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

“The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

“Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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Davies impresses, but there's no catching Park

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 2:40 am

PHOENIX – Inbee Park won the tournament.

Laura Davies won the day.

It was a fitting script for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on Sunday, where nostalgia stirs the desert air in such a special way.

Two of the game’s all-time best, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park and World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies, put on a show with the tour’s three living founders applauding them in the end.

Park and Davies made an event all about honoring the tour’s past while investing in its future something to savor in the moment. Founders Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge Vossler cheered them both.

For Park, there was meaningful affirmation in her 18th LPGA title.

In seven months away from the LPGA, healing up a bad back, Park confessed she wondered if she should retire. This was just her second start back. She won feeling no lingering effects from her injury.

“I was trying to figure out if I was still good enough to win,” Park said of her long break back home in South Korea. “This proved to me I can win and play some pain-free golf.”

At 54, Davies kept peeling away the years Sunday, one sweet swing after another. She did so after shaking some serious nerves hitting her first tee shot.

“It’s about as nervous as I’ve ever felt,” Davies said. “I swear I nearly shanked it.”

Davies has won 45 Ladies European Tour events and 20 LPGA titles, but she was almost 17 years removed from her last LPGA title. Still, she reached back to those times when she used to rule the game and chipped in for eagle at the second hole to steady herself.

“It calmed me down, and I really enjoyed the day,” Davies said.

With birdies at the ninth and 10th holes, Davies pulled from three shots down at day’s start to within one of Park, sending a buzz through all the fans who came out to root for the popular Englishwoman.

“People were loving it,” said Tanya Paterson, Davies’ caddie. “We kept hearing, `Laura, we love you.’ It was special for Laura, showing she can still compete.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Davies relished giving all the young players today, who never saw how dominant she once was, some flashes from her great past.

“Yesterday, after I had that 63, a lot of the younger girls came up and said, `Oh, great playing today,”’ Davies said. “It was nice, I suppose, to have that. I still am a decent player, and I actually used to be really good at it. Maybe that did give them a glimpse into what it used to be like.”

She also relished showing certain fans something.

“Now, people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

Davies was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996, when she won two of her four major championships. She was emboldened by the way she stood up to Sunday pressure again.

In the end, though, there was no catching Park, who continues to amaze with her ability to win coming back from long breaks after injuries.

Park, 29, comes back yet again looking like the player who reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, won three consecutive major championships in 2013 and won the Olympic gold medal two years ago.

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win and because I want to contend in golf tournaments,” Park said.

After Davies and Marina Alex mounted runs to move within one shot, Park pulled away, closing ferociously. She made four birdies in a row starting at the 12th and won by five shots. Her famed putting stroke heated up, reminding today’s players how nobody can demoralize a field more with a flat stick.

“I just felt like nothing has dropped on the front nine,” Park said. “I was just thinking to myself, `They have to drop at some point.’ And they just started dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Yet again, Park showed her ability to win after long breaks.

In Rio de Janeiro two years ago, Park the Olympic gold medal in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year, in just her second start upon returning.

“I'm really happy to have a win early in the season,” Park said. “That just takes so much pressure off me.”

And puts it on the rest of the tour if she takes her best form to the year’s first major at the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.



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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”