Lining Up at the Gates

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Much has changed since Tiger shot 22-under over the final 63 holes in 1997.
 
Woods has added probably 25 pounds to his defensive backs frame, while Augusta Nationals bulked up by 285 yards.
 
And yet some essentials remain the same.
 
Hes going to be the guy to beat, said Phil Mickelson, referring to the man hes yet to defeat in a major.
 
Woods got the attention of the committee here with his onslaught on the record books five years ago. The result is what most feel is a seamless makeover to an historic venue. The clocks basically been turned back so that players are hitting the same clubs into greens that they did a decade ago before new age golf balls married titanium.
 
I think theyve done a tremendous job with it, remarked Greg Norman.
 
Woods offered a slightly different slant on the changes, saying, I dont think they were as necessary right now, but I understand where they are coming from. The guys are getting longer and they dont want to see the winning score being 16- or 18-under. They would much rather see it in single digits. They dont want to see us hitting wedges to a lot of these par-4s where they used to hit 5-irons and 6-irons and 7-irons.
 
Nine tees were stretched to add yardage, bunkers were enlarged and some fairway landing areas were regraded.
 
We just got tired of seeing players hit pitching wedge to so many of our par-4s, said Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Hootie Johnson.
 
Power is a very big issue on this course, added a man who would know, Jack Nicklaus. I think theyve eliminated part of the field.
 
Johnson disagrees with Jack. Paul Azinger and Rocco Mediate played the course last week, recalled Johnson. Theyre medium hitters and they agreed that theyd rather be hitting 6-iron where the big hitters may be hitting 8-iron as opposed to on the previous shorter layout hitting 8-iron while the power guys hit wedges.
 
Bottom line is that Augusta Nationals a much more complete test. Length and accuracy will help, and as always putting on these slick and undulating surfaces will be critical.
 
There are other changes, notably expanded television coverage for Sundays final round. For the first time ever, youll see the leaders from start to finish.
 
One of those who expects a late tee time on Sunday is Phil Mickelson. On the subject of his aggressive play, Mickelsons earned the right to do it his way. But reality is that hes trailing Tiger in the category that matters most in this sport, major championships. Phils down 6-0. If he goes down 7-0 but is comfortable with how it played out, so be it.
 
David Duvals been runner-up twice here in the last four years and seems to be healthy and positive.
 
Ernie Els game is well suited to this layout, and hes rested and ready. His last major victory, the 1997 U.S. Open, came at the outset of the Tiger era. This is the second phase of Ernies career, and hes as hungry as ever to validate his place in the game.
 
His countryman, Retief Goosen, has quietly risen to the No. 4 slot in the world rankings, one notch below Els. Goosens syrupy swing, deft putting touch and unflappable demeanor stamp him as a contender not just this week, but for years to come. A victory here will mean that the best South African player in the game will for the first time in years not be named Els.
 
Sergio Garcias growing in confidence, bordering on brashness, and thats not necessarily a bad thing. He drives the ball superbly and can heat up on the greens. The third generation of hot-running Spaniards is primed to continue his countrys proud tradition of five green jackets.
 
Of course, Jose Maria Olazabal could well win his third and no one would be surprised, so good is he around the greens. His drivers improved, and that makes him very dangerous.
 
John Daly is the peoples favorite. In an era of pre-packaged tour pros who can at times be a bit bland and predictable, Johns an open book. In an era of scientific swings concocted in Leadbetters labs, Dalys inimitable move is home-brewed. John Dalys straight out of NASCAR in a world of leather-appointed Mercedes Benzes. The question with John is, can he remain patient for 72 holes, and as well will his slightly balky putter be an issue. If he does surface on Sunday afternoon, rest assured youll see the highest ratings in tournament history.
 
Alas, Tiger remains the prohibitive favorite. And in that regard, not much has really changed here.