A Quiet Sunday at Augusta National


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Steve Flesch felt a warm blast of wind on his face as he gazed down the first fairway Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, looking like a man who would not want to be anywhere else on earth.
The alternative was Atlanta, which made this moment even sweeter.
Flesch was among five players who entered the BellSouth Classic as a final tuneup before the Masters, then pulled out when the tournament didn't start for two days because of rain.
He played the back nine at Augusta on Saturday afternoon. As some players were just starting the second round Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, Flesch was headed to the first tee at Augusta to join Jonathan Kaye for a relaxing round with no spectators, no distractions, no worries.
'It's been so bad lately, you can't get into any kind of rhythm playing,' Flesch said, noting that weather has interrupted play at eight of the 14 events this year on the PGA Tour, and the BellSouth Classic won't be finished until Monday.
He didn't come up with a phantom injury for withdrawing from the BellSouth Classic. He simply told tournament officials, as much by his early departure as any words he said, that the Masters was on his mind.
'You can always say you've got a bad back,' Flesch said. 'I just told them that wasn't how I wanted to prepare for this week. If I knew I was going to have play Monday, I never would have played the tournament.'
He walked into one of the best weekends of the year.
The Sunday before the Masters is a practice round like no other major, on a course that looks like any other country club on a lazy afternoon. Players share the course with Augusta National Members and both bring friends, making it look more like a member-guest at the local club.
'This is special,' Craig Parry said. 'It's quiet. I think it's the best time to come, because there are no spectators. You just go out there and enjoy it for what it is.'
Nothing captured the spirit of the afternoon quite like Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters champion who was fidgeting with a camera on the putting green as he waited for the 10th tee to clear so he could play with his son, 16-year-old Matthew.
It was the lad's first time playing Augusta National.
'He was born three weeks before I won my first Masters,' Faldo said, recalling his first green jacket in 1989 when he holed a 25-foot birdie on the second extra hole to beat Scott Hoch.
Matthew rapped a few putts, amazed at the speed of the green. Did his dad mention that the greens are probably faster than anything else he has seen?
'He'll figure it out soon enough,' Faldo said.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was on the grounds, for reasons unclear, although he took time to chat with Jerry Kelly. It was a diverse blend of players -- members and their guests, first-timers like Mark Hensby, former champions Gay Brewer, Charles Coody, Fuzzy Zoeller and Ben Crenshaw, and players who simply couldn't wait to get started.
Scott Verplank (Oklahoma State) teed off with Todd Hamilton (Oklahoma). Ian Woosnam played with Jesper Parnevik and a guest of the Swede's, who hit his opening tee shot about 210 yards and into the trees.
Not to worry -- the Masters doesn't start until Thursday, and the real work doesn't begin until Monday, when the gates open to some 40,000 fans and players start trying to remember all the nuances about the only course where a major championship returns every year.
For Flesch, sunshine was the biggest treat.
Adam Scott turned into a prophet when he said at the Sony Open in Hawaii, the second week of the year, 'For a tour that tries to follow the sun, it seems we play under water a lot of the time.'
In consecutive weeks in California, the Nissan Open was cut short to 36 holes over five days because of rain, and the Match Play Championship lost one day because the course was under water.
Florida was just as bad. The Bay Hill Invitational lost all but three hours of the first day because of rain, and The Players Championship the following week got so much rain that the tournament didn't finish until Monday, when the leaders had to play 32 holes.
Then came the two-day delay in Atlanta.
'It seems like this year has taken forever, but I can't believe we're already at Augusta. Does that make sense?' Flesch said. 'It just doesn't seem like I've played any golf this year.'
That should change this week. The forecast is for mostly sunny skies, with a mild chance of showers on Thursday.
Augusta National is as green as ever, with azaleas and dogwoods bursting in bloom. With a golf club in hand, there was no better place to be.
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