Sights and sounds from Wednesday at Augusta

By Randall MellApril 10, 2013, 9:33 pm

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Follow me.

It’s Wednesday afternoon at the Masters, and it’s time to take a stroll around Augusta National.

If you’ve never been here, I’ll be your eyes and ears. If you have been here, well, I’ll help you remember what it’s like.

Our first stop is “The Tree,” the famous towering oak behind the clubhouse, a tree reported to be more than 200 years old. If this tree could talk, the stories would captivate us. It’s planted between the locker room and the first tee. Everyone who is anyone in golf has wandered under this tree through the years – from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. More than that, the movers and shakers all find their way here – from PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem to Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein to USGA executive director Mike Davis and agent Mark Steinberg.

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There are other extraordinary people who you might not have heard about who find their way here, too.

David Meador, 64, was here Wednesday to receive the Golf Writers Association of America’s Ben Hogan Award. The honor has been presented annually since 1954 to an individual who has continued to be active in golf despite a physical handicap or serious illness. Meador was 18 when a car accident robbed him of his eyesight with his optic nerve crushed in the violent crash. He is the Hogan Award winner for the way he persevered through blindness, through two bouts of cancer and through all the surgeries required to overcome complications his cancers caused. He’s a three-time winner of the U.S. Blind Golf Association national championship.

Wednesday was a day Meador will never forget with Phil Mickelson, Gary Player and so many other big names in the game stopping to congratulate him out here under the tree.

Meador says golf helped draw him out of his despair and rediscover himself.

“The first shot I hit [after being blinded], that was the real me,” Meador said. “I was reconnecting with the real me.”

Here, just beyond the tree, there’s outdoor dining for those with the right badge. It’s a beautiful little setting with tables under umbrella canopies. You’re told the colossal lump-crab and shrimp cocktail is popular. So is a drink called the Azalea, a pinkish concoction that is made up of one part lemon juice, one part pineapple juice, three parts gin and grenadine.

You’re told just a day before, U.S. Amateur champ Steven Fox introduced himself to Jack Nicklaus out here. Fox was just hoping he could say hello, but Nicklaus gave him so much more to remember. He invited Fox under one of the umbrellas and they chatted for 45 minutes.

Walking past here now, we see Jack’s wife, Barbara, talking with Annika Sorenstam, Annika’s husband Mike McGee and Honda Classic executive director Ken Kennerly. We also see Keegan Bradley returning from the Par 3 Contest, and so we head over there to watch.

It’s a spectacular day with a sapphire sky glowing over an emerald carpet of grass.

There, over at the ninth tee, there’s Ernie Els. He hasn’t played the Par 3 Contest in six years, but after failing to qualify for the Masters last year, he returns here determined to soak up the little joys of Masters week more completely. He is here today with his 14-year-old daughter, Samantha, as his caddie. She had never done this before, and she told her father she wanted to tote his clubs. So Ernie, who has endured his share of heartache in failing to win this major championship, made a run at winning the Par 3 Contest. He steered his final tee shot to a foot and tapped in the birdie to go to 4 under, which tied him for the lead as he walked off the course.

Ernie Els

“I probably needed a year off, to be honest,” Els told me a couple weeks ago. “I think it was a good thing I missed it, in how it has given me a kind of new, fresh start.”

After tapping in for that last birdie Wednesday, Els marches over to Samantha, and they wrap arms around each other. It was a special day, you can see that.

Els doesn’t want to leave Augusta National feeling like a jilted lover again, even if things don’t go right for him again. He’s tired of trying too hard here, wanting it too badly. He wants peace with this course.

“Augusta is that kind of place, where the dream and the story, it’s all almost written for some players,” Els said when we spoke back at Bay Hill. “Maybe mine was there [in the ’04 loss to Mickelson], and I didn’t quite take the opportunity. Who knows? If I never win the Masters, it will be disappointing. I’m obviously on the wrong end of it now. It’s a course and a place that has given me a lot of hope of winning it, but it is definitely bittersweet memories.”

The Par 3 Contest is a lot like games at a family picnic. Robert Garrigus’ 9-month-old son, R.J., stole the show hiking alongside his dad with his little jumbo driver. Rory McIlroy played alongside his girlfriend, tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, as his caddie.

It’s time to go down to see Amen Corner now, to check out the state of the azaleas and dogwoods there. We’ll hear later that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player made a late afternoon appearance in the Par 3 Contest. We’ll hear that Tom Watson got Arnold Palmer to autograph a Masters flag. We’ll wish we saw that, but any walk down to Amen Corner is worth the trip. We see something special on the way. We see a family of four stopped in the crosswalk in the middle of the 15th fairway, posing for a photo that they plan to use as their Christmas card.

As trilogies go, Amen Corner is an epic tale of wonder and woe. The most famous trio of holes in golf is as beautiful as it is unsettling. The azaleas are sprawling like fire right now at the feet of all the towering pines down here. The dogwoods are aglow in splintered rays of sunshine piercing the treetops. There is beauty and trouble here for players.

Augusta National 12 green

Nobody is playing through down here now, but it doesn’t matter, Amen Corner is star and stage. There are folks snapping shots of the 13th green with nobody on it.

It’s time to head back to the media center, and we notice how many people are carrying those hard, plastic Masters beer cups in big stacks. It’s Wednesday. It’s visitors day, and apparently nobody is throwing away their beer cups. They’re souvenirs, something to make the beer taste better at home. We also notice how many folks are carrying cameras, posing with Augusta National’s famed holes as backdrops.

As good walks go, this one wasn’t spoiled.

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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.”