AUGUSTA, Ga. – It’s hard work making Augusta National look so beautiful.
Especially when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne admits that, as recently as a month ago, he worried whether the golf course would be in its usual shape for the Masters because of the unusually harsh winter. All of the South experienced rain, frost and low temperatures in recent months, and there was one day when 4 to 6 inches of snow blanketed Amen Corner.
“Our job is to worry about it,” Payne said Wednesday. “So I think it’s very fair to say that even a month ago, we were worried about whether or not we could recapture the quality and the brilliance of what we wanted to look like at the Masters. Our very capable staff kept assuring us, ‘Quit worrying and quit bothering us.’
“They are just geniuses at what they do,” Payne said. “There’s a lot of love that goes in the preparation of that course and we are quite proud of it.”
While there are always some spots where the grass comes in slower, the process was even longer and more noticeable this year, Payne said. And fans will see a difference in Amen Corner, which lacks its usual explosion of color because the azaleas have yet to bloom. That could change by Sunday, though, with the forecast calling for sun and warm temperatures much of the week.
PAR 3 CONTEST: Louis Oosthuizen figures any trophy at the Masters is better than none.
And he’s sticking to that story.
Oosthuizen became the third straight South African to win the Par 3 Contest at the Masters on Wednesday, finishing at 6 under. It’s somewhat of a dubious distinction, however, considering no winner of the Par 3 has ever gone on to capture the green jacket.
“There’s always a first time to break the curse,” said Oosthuizen, who has three top-five finishes on the European Tour this season, including a win at the Andalucia Open. “Everyone is aware of it, but to have your name on anything at the Masters I think is great.”
Graeme McDowell, who was an early leader at 2 under, joked that he’d never rooted for someone to pass him on the leaderboard before. When Oosthuizen pulled into a tie at 4 under, Ernie Els suggested he put a ball in the water.
“Then I made another long (putt) and he said you might as well go for it,” said Oosthuizen, who finished two strokes ahead of Matteo Manassero, David Duval, Jerry Pate and K.J. Choi.
“It was just a fun thing,” Oosthuizen said. “We were so relaxed out there.”
Indeed, the mood at the Par 3 is far more lighthearted than it will be Thursday, when the players tee it up for real. Some players have their kids caddie for them, and the Big Three – Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – reunited, much to the fans’ delight.
McDowell and Jim Furyk had the only aces in the contest, both coming on the ninth hole.
“There’s so much luck involved,” said McDowell, who used a 52-degree wedge. “I was just trying to make sure I got it past the flag to have a chance on the way back.”
TORN LOYALTIES: Stewart Cink tees off two groups ahead of Tiger Woods, so his mother will have no choice whom to watch.
It wasn’t like that the first time they played in the same tournament.
Cink recalls playing in the Insurance Youth Golf Classic – the “Big I” – in Texas in 1990 when he was 17 and Woods was 14. Cink had a morning tee time in the opening round. When it was over and he was ready to leave, he noticed his mother heading back onto the course.
“She said she wanted to go see what this ‘Tiger Woods’ was all about,” Cink said. “I remember I had to go find something to do because she had the car. But that was really the first time people were starting to find out about Tiger.”
Cink wound up playing in the final group of that tournament with Woods and Notah Begay. Woods ended up winning, becoming the youngest winner of the tournament.
ASIAN AMATEUR: The winner of the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship is at the Masters, and the runner-up went on to qualify for the British Open.
But Augusta National chairman Billy Payne is just as excited about the rest of the field.
Augusta National Golf Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club help sponsor the Asian Amateur as a way to spur development in golf’s fastest-growing market. The first tournament, held the last week in October in Shenzhen, China, drew 116 players from 30 countries in the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation.
“The top two-thirds were good – really good, competitive golfers,” Payne said Wednesday. “But the experience of those that were not as good was just as important to us because of the way they now view the opportunity, and the way they now know that in us and the R&A, they have an ally. This is going to be a long-range, long-reaching effort on our part to help grow the game in these regions.”
FEATURE GROUP: The Masters is putting a spotlight on youth for its featured pairing on the Internet. Each round it will pick a group to follow on the back nine and broadcast it through live streaming on www.masters.com.
For the opening round, it picked the group of Mike Weir, Lee Westwood and Matteo Manassero, the 16-year-old British Amateur champion and youngest player to ever compete in the Masters.
Club chairman Billy Payne was asked Wednesday if it had been determined who would be the featured pairing.
“I think yes, we have,” Payne said.
Payne then asked spokesman Steve Ethun to confirm it had been released, and when Ethun said, ‘No, sir,’ Payne turned back to the reporter and replied with a slight smile, “We’re still working on it.”