Setting the Table


AUGUSTA, Ga. – You play nine holes on Wednesday at Augusta National. It’s just the way things are. Whether it’s a glacial pace of play or the beckoning of the Par 3 Contest, hump day is half day down Magnolia Lane.

In honor of the tradition of abbreviated loops, we’ll set the table for Thursday’s opening action with an outward nine:

No. 1: Billy Payne lays a public scolding on Tiger Woods for his actions. Actually, that occurred on Wednesday during the chairman’s annual address but we’re still reeling from golf’s equivalent of a hard ruler to the knuckles.

That one of the most pointed and eloquently delivered lines regarding a scandal that has been spiraling out of control since Nov. 27 was voiced by Payne is a testament to the importance, not self-appointed but earned, of Augusta National.

“His future will never again be measured only by his performance against par, but measured by the sincerity of his efforts to change” Payne said. “I hope he now realizes that every kid he passes on the course wants his swing, but would settle for his smile.”

Hootie Johnson wasn’t that hard on Martha Burk and the unspoken truth hung in the air like the clouds of pollen that have framed Augusta National this week: Tiger Woods may be bigger than the game, but not the game that is played at Augusta National.

No. 2: An over-served patron will say something stupid and loud enough that someone will regret it the rest of their lives. Although the Augusta National fan is a step above the rest, when thousands have access to an open bar the results are inevitable. Unfortunately, for the patron’s name that is assigned to the pass, their days at Augusta National will be over.

No. 3. Woods fails to break par, or any china with a slightly aloof gallery, for his historic opening loop. Check the numbers, he’s done it just five times in 15 starts and he’s never posted anything better than 70 in Round 1. Of course, nobody rebounds better than Woods.

No. 4: Defending champion Angel Cabrera will change into his golf shoes in the parking lot. Not because he has to, but because the venerable champion’s locker room is “too crowded,” he told his affable swing coach Charlie Epps.

No. 5: Phil Mickelson will hit a fairway. But just one.

No. 6: Former champion Zach Johnson heroically deals with some stomach issues after sampling everything Cabrera trotted out for the Champions Dinner, including something called blood sausage. We asked Epps if he’d ever tried it. “Once,” he smiled.

Actually, Johnson said he was feeling fine on Wednesday, but we are talking about the guy who went with “surf ‘n turf” for his champion’s feast.

No. 7: Jack Nicklaus outdrives Arnold Palmer as the legends team for their inaugural ceremonial duties together, but when the two reach their tee shots Palmer challenges his old rival to a match, $2 Nassau with no carry-overs and a side bet for low nine. Or, maybe the two just retire to the clubhouse veranda for a round of Arnold Palmers, what else?

No. 8: Dustin Johnson and Alvaro Quiros, paired in the 9:29 a.m. group, bomb their way to opening sixty-somethings and the Greens Committee calls an emergency meeting to plan for a redesign project that will add an extra 1,000 yards to the golf course. Or something like that.

No. 9: And finally, the 1:42 p.m. (ET) three-ball is watched by a small nation, but not because the circus that surrounds Woods’ return promises to be front-page stuff but because there is something special about watching history being made at Augusta National, and Woods has a penchant for stirring up ghosts when he plays the place.

Of course, as omens go it doesn’t look very good for the world No. 1. He will be paired with K.J. Choi, and the last time Woods set out at a major with a Korean with initials for a first name (Y.E. Yang at the PGA Championship) it was a historic day for all the wrong reasons.