Muscling In on Golf

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hang around long enough under the big oak tree that shades the clubhouse lawn and chances are good youll hear old-timers reminiscing about the days when every blade of grass was mowed, everyone except Gary Player and Arnold Palmer had a belly, and lighting up Augusta National meant pulling out a carton of Winstons, not shooting a low score.
 
As hard as it might be to imagine now, there apparently was a time when players shaped their shots instead of their abs, and the idea of performance enhancement was cutting back the number of whiskey sours the night before.
 
Bulging muscles under a green jacket? About as much chance of finding that as a black golfer on the first tee.
 
Phil Mickelson would have fit in with the old school crowd. Give him a few Krispy Kremes and a good piece of persimmon and he might have had a bridge on the back nine named after him by now.
 
Until this Masters, that is. A new Phil showed up at Augusta National this week towing less subcutaneous fat than usual and pronouncing himself in great shape to win his third green jacket.
 
Ive worked out, yeah, Mickelson said, puffing his chest out and pulling his belly in just a bit. Worked out a little bit.
 
Miguel Angel Jimenez apparently didnt get the memo. He stood on the ninth tee Wednesday with a gut hanging out in front of him, puffing away on a fat cigar he discarded only long enough to hit his tee shot.
 
The Spaniard might have been a throwback to another era, assuming, that is, that players of another era wore earrings and had ponytails tied behind their hats.
 
They didnt, but most didnt look much like athletes, either. Player may have prided himself on doing hundreds of push-ups, but there were 10 guys shaped like Julius Boros for every one who looked like he might have tossed the old medicine ball around in the gym.
 
Thats not to say they didnt try. Billy Casper went on to win a Masters after he turned to buffalo meat to lose excess pounds, and Jack Nicklaus made a miraculous transformation from Fat Jack to the Golden Bear about the time he started collecting green jackets by the handful.
 
Which brings us to Tiger Woods, where every conversation about golf seems to end up these days. With good reason. He comes into this Masters as such a prohibitive favorite that bookies are taking even money bets on him against the entire field.
 
Unlike Casper, Woods never had a problem with weight, but his body seems to have undergone a metamorphosis of another kind in recent years. Once as thin as a 1-iron, his upper body now ripples with muscles Mickelson could only dream about, and his Popeye arms threaten to split open his short sleeves with every swing.
 
In his early years as a pro, Woods wore shirts so baggy that Charles Howell III once said he could make four outfits out of them. These days he looks as if each specially selected Nike original either started life two sizes too small or was accidentally put in the hot water wash.
 
If Woods was playing for the San Francisco Giants, the only logical conclusion would be that hes juiced. The U.S. Attorneys office would have long ago called him before a grand jury and tried to get him to not only confess, but rat out Mickelson as his supplier at the same time.
 
Such is the suspicion of our times, where even gentlemen golfers dont get a break. Woods doesnt help himself when he plays coy about his extensive workout program, but no one seriously thinks he is using anything stronger than his new Gatorade drink. Woods himself is one of the few players who have been publicly supportive of the tours effort to implement drug testing.
 
As for Augusta National, well, thats another issue. Theres little doubt the course is on steroids, from the telltale second cut of rough to the supersized par-4s that played so tough last year no one managed to break par over four rounds.
 
The changes made to the famed course were merely a response to the arms race in golf that escalated in recent years as clubs got bigger, balls flew straighter, and players got bulkier. Golf has become a power game, and theres no better example of that than at the Masters, where players now just take aim and blast the ball rather than work it around the course as in the past.
 
Put the top players in the game together today and they look more like middle linebackers than golfers. Mickelson, Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington make Nicklaus in his prime look more like the Golden Cub.
 
None, though, are cut anything like Woods, who looks like he cant wait to get home to flex in front of the mirror. His transformation from a gangly and' lets face it, geeky'young player into the muscle-bound physical specimen he is today is just as startling as the way he has emerged as the greatest ever to play the game.
 
His late father, Earl, predicted as much in 2001 when he said that Woods would get exponentially better as he grew physically more mature. At the time, Woods was coming off the so-called Tiger Slam of four straight major championships and the statement seemed outlandish.
 
Not so anymore. Woods tees off Thursday in search of his fifth Masters win and with the very real possibility he could become the first since Bobby Jones to win the Grand Slam.
 
Hes always intimidated other players with his game.
 
Now he does it with his physique, too.
 
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