AUGUSTA, Ga. – The dogwoods and azaleas aren’t in full bloom yet down in Amen Corner, but Augusta National was adorned with colorful scenery just the same with 99 players preparing for Thursday’s start of the Masters.
If you’ve never been here, you’ll see that even practice rounds are different from anywhere else.
Follow me, I’ll show you.
First stop, the 13th hole . . .
Ken Ress of Mandeville, La., a retired 58-year-old who used to work on offshore oil rigs for Shell, is looking for the spot where Phil Mickelson struck it big last year. He’s looking for the famous patch where Mickelson hit that spectacular 6-iron through the trees to 4 feet to set up his third Masters’ title.
“You see that little purple flag over there?” a hole marshal tells him. “That’s the spot.”
Standing there, you see one patron after another drift over to the hole marshals, all wanting to know where Lefty made his magic. The marshals say about 300 people wandered over to ask them for the exact location. That was Tuesday morning alone. That’s why they put the flag there.
With Mickelson on the course for his practice round later Wednesday, thousands of people are huddled along the ropes near that purple flag, all wondering if Mickelson will wander over and try to repeat the shot.
“Maybe he’ll hit another drive there,” one patron says. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
In fact, Mickelson does blast his tee shot deep into the trees, but this time he’s found the trees on the other side of the fairway, over across the creek. He’s playing his practice round with Fred Couples, Rickie Fowler and reigning U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein.
“Phil’s not going to play it out of there in a practice round,” says one patron.
“He’ll be lucky to find it,” another says.
Moments later, Mickelson is jumping over the creek, where a marshal has found his ball. Then Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, is throwing a club to Mickelson, who sets up between two giant azalea bushes and punches the ball back into the fairway.
“Wow, I wonder what they’re playing for?” says a patron. “I can’t believe he played that.”
Mickelson marches past the purple flag without even looking at the magical patch of pine straw or the little purple flag.
Though a month ago Mickelson left open the possibility that he might try to repeat the shot in a practice round, he decided against it.
“I didn’t see the point,” Mickelson said. “I’ve already done that.”
Tiger as a coach at the 15th tee . . .
Too far away to hear him with the gallery thick around the tee box, you can see Tiger Woods pointing with his driver as he tutors Arjun Atwal.
Atwal has become a pal to Woods. As fellow Isleworth Country Club members in Windermere, Fla., they play together often. They took a trip together to play Augusta National for one day last week and played it together again Wednesday with Mark O’Meara.
It’s Atwal’s first Masters, and he is reveling in the advanced education Woods is giving him.
“Physically, I can’t do the stuff he does, but the mental side, he’s really, really helped me a lot,” Atwal says. “How to approach a tournament, how to go about practice rounds, this tournament, especially, with ball placement and all that stuff.”
Everyone’s named Skip at the 16th . . .
After Kyung-Tae Kim hit his tee shot into the 16th green, the chants begin.
“Skip . . . Skip . . . Skip.”
That’s not his nickname. It’s what the patrons down there chant at every player who comes through in the practice rounds in an effort to get them to skip a shot across the pond and onto the green.
Kim doesn’t look like a Masters’ rookie at all. After dropping a ball at the foot of the pond, Kim expertly drills a low screamer that hits about 75 yards out in the pond and skips up on the bank, bounces onto the green 30 feet right of the flag, takes the slope in the bowl, turns left, then hard left, and gently rolls dead toward the flagstick. The patrons are howling as he nearly holes the shot, leaving it 3 feet past.
Scott, Chris and Eric Wahlers, three brothers in their 30s from Philadelphia, are loving the scene behind the 16th tee. It’s the first time they’ve ever been to Augusta National. A veteran spectator tells them it’s not the best skip he’s witnessed there. Vijay Singh holed one two years ago.
Euros scheming at the seventh green . . .
England’s Luke Donald reaches the seventh green, where Germany’s Martin Kaymer joins him. Kaymer’s just chipping and putting his way across the course in his Wednesday practice round.
Though Kaymer is the No. 1 player in the world, he tells world No. 4 Donald that he’s picked him as the man to beat this week.
“I must have impressed him,” Donald says.
Donald beat Kaymer 3-and-2 in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.
Though Europeans dominated the Masters with 11 victories in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Euros haven’t won a Masters’ title in a dozen years, since Jose Maria Olazabal claimed his second green jacket in ’99. With five of the top six players in the world rankings this week from Europe, nobody should be surprised to see a Euro end the drought.
After his practice round, Donald credits Ireland’s Padraig Harrington for the recent rise of the Europeans. Donald says Harrington elevated the play of the continent with his three major championships in ’07 and ’08.
“When you are around someone who’s done special things, you’re inspired to believe that if they can do it, you can do it,” Donald said.
Under the oak, Seve’s missed . . .
Under the giant oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, Olazabal says Seve Ballesteros was missed at the traditional Champions Dinner Tuesday night.
But Olazabal says as defending champ and host of the dinner, Mickelson made sure Ballesteros’ presence was felt.
In honor of Ballesteros, a two-time Masters’ winner who is battling cancer, Mickelson offered up Spanish dishes on the menu. Seafood paella and Filete de Res Mignon (tenderloin with smoked paprika demi-glace) were the main dishes. Empanada de Manzana was the dessert with Spanish wine.
“I know the gesture by Phil touched Seve,” Olazabal said. “He obviously appreciated it.
“We talked about Seve. It was emotional and touching.”
Olazabal said Mickelson’s derring-do and short-game magic reminds him of Ballesteros.
The Par 3 Contest . . .
With Arnold Palmer posing over a shot, Jack Nicklaus couldn’t help himself.
“Get off the tee,” Nicklaus cracked. “Stop admiring your shot.”
Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player treated the patrons who crowded around the holes at the annual Par 3 Contest to some good humor as they needled their way around the course.
The trio combined to win 13 green jackets.
The reverence for history at Augusta National is on full display in the scenery at Augusta National with patrons embracing the Big Three one more time.
“The three of us are miles beyond our games, but they didn’t care,” Nicklaus said.
Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell