Augusta National Set for the Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National is rarely as peaceful as the Sunday before the Masters.
 
Charles Howell III, Scott Verplank and Chad Campbell were among several players who took in a casual practice round while mingling with the members, the last day Augusta National looks more like a private golf club than the site of the first major championship.
 
No fans. No cameras. No pressure.
 
'It's a bit weird,' Howell said. 'You think about this tournament all year long. That's the one good thing about playing the Sunday before, because it has quite hit you yet. Then you come out here Monday and see 30,000 people for a practice round, and it's hits you pretty hard.'
 
If Sunday was any indication, the anticipation for this Masters will be higher than ever.

Framed by a brilliant blue sky, the setting sun cast tall shadows by the end of the day, a gorgeous weather pattern that is expected to continue until the green jacket is awarded a week from now.
 
The ground felt firm to the foot. The greens already were lightning quick.
 
The Masters has not had these kind of dry, firm conditions since the fabled golf course was revamped two years ago, adding some 300 yards to put a higher premium on accuracy off the tee.
 
Maybe the length won't be that big of a deal if the ball rolls forever once it lands. Maybe the greens will be impossible to hold if they are as hard as bricks come Thursday.
 
No one really knows.
 
'If it stays dry like this, it will be a lot different,' said Verplank, one of the shorter hitters. 'I think it will bring a lot more people into the tournament. It gives a guy like me a better chance to get the ball down the fairway.'
 
Tiger Woods has been predicting a winning score of around even par in dry, fast conditions.
 
Ernie Els raised his eyebrows when asked recently about baked greens and swirling winds.
 
'We haven't seen the course dry since all the changes in length,' he said. 'Hopefully, we won't.'
 
Adding to the drama, as if Augusta National needs any, is the unusually high number of players who are on top of their games coming into the first major.
 
There have been 14 winners in 14 tournaments this year, although two of them - Heath Slocum at Tucson and Zach Johnson in the BellSouth Classic down the road in Atlanta on Sunday - did not qualify for the Masters.
 
Woods, Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and defending champion Mike Weir all have won this year, while Campbell and Adam Scott have shown they are ready to start contending in the majors.
 
There could be a spectacular showdown this week among the top players.
 
Or, it could be a matter of survival.
 
'The greens already are extremely fast, and a slight shade of blue,' Howell said. 'I'm sure as the week goes on, they may turn to a nice shade of brown, which means they will get faster and harder. It will be neat to see it that way. I've just seen it dark green.'
 
Rain has been a fixture at Augusta National since the changes for the 2002 tournament. Woods crushed his opposition that year, watching them trip over themselves in a reckless pursuit of his lead. He won at 12-under 276.
 
Last year, rain washed out the first round Thursday, and players had to squeeze in 54 holes over two days. It dried out by the weekend, and Weir beat Len Mattiace in a playoff after both finished at 7-under 281.
 
Scores figure to be even higher if the contoured greens become harder to hold.
 
'You're going to have to use a lot of imagination, more than if it's softer,' Howell said. 'Because then, you just blast your driver, hit iron in there, go at a lot more flags. When it's firm and fast, you have to have a lot more discipline and a lot more imagination.'
 
Most players believed after the 2002 changes that the field of potential winners narrowed even more. A long course figured to suit the long hitters, especially in soft conditions, although that theory took a hit last year.
 
Weir is not short off the tee, although no one would mistake him for a power player. Mattiace ranked 153rd in driving distance last year on the PGA Tour, although he turned in a Nicklausian charge on the back nine to shoot 65 and get into the playoff.
 
Verplank believes the changes brought more guys into the mix, and firm conditions will only add to the number.
 
'You've got to hit a straight tee ball,' said Verplank, who was 173rd in driving distance last year but was 23rd in driving accuracy. 'You wouldn't think having extra length would help a guy like me. But I had never made a cut here until they lengthened the golf course and made it harder than hell.
 
'I finished around 40th two years ago, and then I go 5 under on the weekend and finish in the top 10.'
 
Both know better than to make any predictions - whom it might favor, what kind of score it takes to win. About the only thing anyone can agree upon is that it won't be easy.
 
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters Tournament
  • Masters Photo Gallery
  • Tee Times
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