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Schools of thought on preparing for the Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Masters participants are allowed to play Augusta National in the weeks leading up to the year’s first major championship, but it seems some have confused the courtesy for a club membership.

And who could blame them?

An enterprising airline could have created a new revenue stream shuttling Tour types in and out of the north Georgia enclave. From Phil Mickelson, who made multiple trips to Augusta National this spring, to Tiger Woods, parachuting in for a quick look-see has become every bit a Masters tradition.

Consider the scene on Sunday at Augusta National – Jason Day spent the afternoon dutifully working his way around one of the club’s two sprawling short-game areas, Woods played a nine-hole practice round with Mark O’Meara, and Chez Reavie was completing his second 18-hole round in as many days.

But that group is dogging it compared to the road work Jason Dufner is clocking. Dufner arrived in Augusta on Wednesday with his swing coach and will remain here through the tournament, playing nine-hole practice rounds each day and testing the boundaries of the notion that one can never get too much of a good thing.

“For a rookie I don’t think you can play it enough,” said Brandt Snedeker, who made a scouting trip to the home of the Masters the week before the WGC-Cadillac Championship.

The Masters requires more due diligence than any other event in golf, fueled by the course’s subtleties and almost annual tinkering to the venerable layout. This year, for example, players took extra time to adjust to slight changes to the eighth and 16th greens. As for rookies, Snedeker’s thoughts rang true as Keegan Bradley made his way off the practice tee on Monday.

“I was very surprised with how many uphill lies you get,” smiled Bradley, who made three separate trips to Augusta National before the tournament and has played the course six times. “And it seems like on every green there is one spot that you just can’t hit it to or you’re going to three-putt.”

Augusta National’s status as the only static major venue explains why it is the game’s ultimate pop quiz, but it wasn’t always that way.

The club’s ever increasing cache’ drives many players to this corner of Dixie for, as Allen Iverson might incredulously intone, “practice,” but the financial reality of the modern Tour player has made it possible.

“A handful of guys did it. Obviously Nicklaus did. He was notorious for that type of preparation,” said Gary Koch, who played in eight Masters. “But back in my day I needed to play because I needed the money. Miss a tournament to go prepare for another one? I don’t think any of us ever would have thought of that.”

Woods’ detailed workup to the majors has also created a theory that players must have a plan heading into a Grand Slam. Although plans vary, when it comes to Augusta National most players adhere to the more is more philosophy, as Sunday’s surprisingly crowded scene suggests.

Never mind that the Georgia gem in March bears almost no resemblance to the April version. For that matter, it’s widely accepted that Monday’s “course speed” will be well short of what players will face on Thursday and beyond.

“At some point I think guys put way too much emphasis on going up there and playing and practicing around it. You know where you need to hit every shot at this point and the course won’t be the same until the weekend before,” Snedeker said. “I don’t see the benefit of (Mickelson) going up there and playing the course 15 times. He knows the place like the back of his hand.”

Anecdotally, a sports psychologist would likely tell a player that the best way to prepare for the Masters is the same way they would ready themselves for next week’s RBC Heritage. To do otherwise would be, in layman’s terms, bad psychological mojo.

“I think you can over prepare,” Koch said. “The first few years I’d go up early. I’d go in the weekend before. Play Sunday afternoon and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and the Par 3 (Contest). It was like my body sensed something is different here. You don’t prepare like this for any other tournament.”

In Mickelson’s defense his Masters MO is, by any measure, beyond reproach.

The three-time champion has finished outside the top 10 just twice since 1999 and he’s also made a point of turning his scouting trips into impromptu playing lessons.

On his first trip to Augusta National in March Lefty played with Bradley and Dustin Johnson, and he accompanied first-timer Brendan Steele to Georgia last week for what could only be called a “walk through.”

Ditto for Dufner, who concocted the idea for his marathon Masters work up last year when he arrived early at Atlanta Athletic Club for the PGA Championship and finished runner-up for his best major finish.

“It’s a good atmosphere,” Dufner said. “’It's a great place to practice. It's a great place to be out on the golf course kind of by yourself for those four or five days before the tournament starts.”

Which seems to cut to the heart of the phenomenon, maybe the house guests play because they can, and when it comes to Augusta National that’s the only explanation required.