Big Changes at Augusta National

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Tiger Woods saw no reason to go to Augusta National for a practice round leading up to the Masters because hardly anything has changed from last year.
 
No holes were lengthened. No bunkers were stretched and deepened. Greens were not reconfigured. Nothing but three dozen new pine trees planted down the right side of the 11th fairway.
 

'The only change is the tree line,' Woods said.
 
The golf course might look familiar, but nothing else about this Masters looks the same.
 
For one thing, Martha Burk is all but forgotten. There hasn't been a peep of protest about the all-male membership at Augusta National, and Burk has said there is no point coming back this year if she can't picket outside the gates of Magnolia Lane.
 
Also missing is the dominance of the world's No. 1 player.
 
Woods has rarely looked so mortal, especially coming into the Masters. He is still No. 1 in the world, although the margin is shrinking. He is still the favorite to slip on the green jacket next Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, but the odds are no longer so staggering in his favor.
 
'I need some work, and I've been working on it,' Woods said. 'It's a matter of solidifying things I've done. It's getting out there and trusting it and hitting the right golf shots at the right time.'
 
Woods comes into the Masters with the kind of pressure he hasn't faced in five years:
 
-- He failed to win a major last year for the first time since 1998, and he hasn't won a major in his last six tries. Woods' longest drought was 10 majors (1997-99), half of those while overhauling his swing.
 
-- His lead in the world ranking was so great last year that the point differential between No. 1 and No. 2 was equivalent to No. 2 and No. 126. Now, the distance between No. 1 and No. 2 is about the same as No. 2 and No. 6.
 
-- He is coming off his worst finish in five years at Bay Hill (T46), which he had won the previous four years. Woods followed that with a 75 in The Players Championship, and he had to rally to keep his cut streak alive at 120.
 
At the heart of the scrutiny is his severed relationship with swing coach Butch Harmon, with whom he worked for nearly a dozen years. It only intensified when Harmon's youngest protege -- Adam Scott, the 23-year-old Aussie whose swing is so similar to Woods _ captured The Players Championship.
 
'That's Tiger Woods in the year 2000,' NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said.
 
Ouch.
 
Woods did call Harmon not long after The Players Championship was over, but only to ask that the old coach pass on congratulations to Scott.
 
'Butch and I are still friends,' Woods said. 'I still talk to him when he's out here. As far as asking for help on my golf swing? No.'
 
There isn't a player on tour who believes Woods' swing looks anything like it did during his record-setting romp through the 2000 season, when he won nine times and three straight majors. Some think his swing resembles a blend of Harmon's philosophies and those of Hank Haney, the swing coach for Mark O'Meara.
 
'If he's not playing good, everybody thinks I'm teaching him,' O'Meara said. 'I watch him hit balls. I would tell him, he asks me, what I think. Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he doesn't.'
 
Harmon was diplomatic when asked about Woods' swing, saying Woods will get it figured out before the Masters.
 
Has he ever seen Woods struggle like this?
 
'No,' Harmon replied. 'I've never seen him this inconsistent. And it's obviously got to be very frustrating for him.'
 
The scrutiny will only go away if Woods can win his fourth green jacket, an opportunity that begins to unfold when the Masters begins Thursday.
 
The list of challengers, if not rivals, is longer than ever.
 
Phil Mickelson, coming off his worst season on the PGA Tour, looks fit and hungry as he tries to shed the label as the best player to have never won a major. He won his first time out at the Bob Hope Classic, and has been a factor starting the final round every tournament he has played.
 
Mickelson has tightened his swing and toiled on his wedges, always the strength of his game.
 
A radio reporter wearing a Chicago Cubs cap recently asked Lefty if this might be the year he gets it right.
 
'It's only been 33 years that I haven't won a major,' the 33-year-old Mickelson replied. 'How many years since the Cubs won a (World) Series? I'm not quite in that big of a hole. But the Cubs' prospects look awfully exciting this year, and I've got to tell you, I've very excited about the four majors this year.
 
'I feel I've got the game now that I can play a major championship test without getting in nearly as much trouble.'
 
Vijay Singh went 12 consecutive PGA Tour events in the top 10, two short of the modern record, and won in dominant fashion at Pebble Beach. He has not finished in the top 10 since his streak ended with a rare missed cut, although the '00 Masters champion has been gearing toward another green jacket.
 
Ernie Els won twice early in the season, including a 60 at Royal Melbourne when he won the Heineken Classic. Defending champion Mike Weir already has made one successful title defense at Riviera, while Davis Love III has two runner-up finishes.
 
The younger crowd features Scott and Chad Campbell, a 29-year-old Texan who made the game look simple in strong victories at the Tour Championship and at Bay Hill.
 
The Masters also has a touch of nostalgia each year, none greater than the farewell of the King, Part II.
 
Arnold Palmer thought he was playing his final major two years ago, but he and Jack Nicklaus persuaded Augusta National to revert to its policy of letting former champions play as long as they wanted.
 
Palmer, 74, will tee it up for the 50th consecutive Masters, which he says will be his final one.
 
'To see him play his last Masters is going to be very special,' Tom Watson said. 'It will be very passionate to a lot of people. They love Arnold. They love what he's done for the game. They love what he's done for the Masters.'
 
Not everyone likes what Augusta National has done to its golf course.
 
Club chairman Hootie Johnson instigated a number of changes over the last couple of years, beefing up the par 4s to put a greater premium on accuracy off the tee. Once known for its thrilling back-nine charges, the Masters has evolved into one of the most grueling tests among major championships.
 
'It's just not meant to be a fun challenge,' Padraig Harrington said. 'It's meant to be a tough challenge. It asks more questions all the way through your game.'
 
Woods will face plenty of questions himself.
 
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters Tournament
  • Masters Photo Gallery
  • Tee Times
  • Arnold Palmers 50th Masters
     
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