Big Changes at Augusta National

By Associated PressApril 5, 2004, 4:00 pm
Tiger Woods saw no reason to go to Augusta National for a practice round leading up to the Masters because hardly anything has changed from last year.
No holes were lengthened. No bunkers were stretched and deepened. Greens were not reconfigured. Nothing but three dozen new pine trees planted down the right side of the 11th fairway.

'The only change is the tree line,' Woods said.
The golf course might look familiar, but nothing else about this Masters looks the same.
For one thing, Martha Burk is all but forgotten. There hasn't been a peep of protest about the all-male membership at Augusta National, and Burk has said there is no point coming back this year if she can't picket outside the gates of Magnolia Lane.
Also missing is the dominance of the world's No. 1 player.
Woods has rarely looked so mortal, especially coming into the Masters. He is still No. 1 in the world, although the margin is shrinking. He is still the favorite to slip on the green jacket next Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, but the odds are no longer so staggering in his favor.
'I need some work, and I've been working on it,' Woods said. 'It's a matter of solidifying things I've done. It's getting out there and trusting it and hitting the right golf shots at the right time.'
Woods comes into the Masters with the kind of pressure he hasn't faced in five years:
-- He failed to win a major last year for the first time since 1998, and he hasn't won a major in his last six tries. Woods' longest drought was 10 majors (1997-99), half of those while overhauling his swing.
-- His lead in the world ranking was so great last year that the point differential between No. 1 and No. 2 was equivalent to No. 2 and No. 126. Now, the distance between No. 1 and No. 2 is about the same as No. 2 and No. 6.
-- He is coming off his worst finish in five years at Bay Hill (T46), which he had won the previous four years. Woods followed that with a 75 in The Players Championship, and he had to rally to keep his cut streak alive at 120.
At the heart of the scrutiny is his severed relationship with swing coach Butch Harmon, with whom he worked for nearly a dozen years. It only intensified when Harmon's youngest protege -- Adam Scott, the 23-year-old Aussie whose swing is so similar to Woods _ captured The Players Championship.
'That's Tiger Woods in the year 2000,' NBC Sports analyst Johnny Miller said.
Woods did call Harmon not long after The Players Championship was over, but only to ask that the old coach pass on congratulations to Scott.
'Butch and I are still friends,' Woods said. 'I still talk to him when he's out here. As far as asking for help on my golf swing? No.'
There isn't a player on tour who believes Woods' swing looks anything like it did during his record-setting romp through the 2000 season, when he won nine times and three straight majors. Some think his swing resembles a blend of Harmon's philosophies and those of Hank Haney, the swing coach for Mark O'Meara.
'If he's not playing good, everybody thinks I'm teaching him,' O'Meara said. 'I watch him hit balls. I would tell him, he asks me, what I think. Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he doesn't.'
Harmon was diplomatic when asked about Woods' swing, saying Woods will get it figured out before the Masters.
Has he ever seen Woods struggle like this?
'No,' Harmon replied. 'I've never seen him this inconsistent. And it's obviously got to be very frustrating for him.'
The scrutiny will only go away if Woods can win his fourth green jacket, an opportunity that begins to unfold when the Masters begins Thursday.
The list of challengers, if not rivals, is longer than ever.
Phil Mickelson, coming off his worst season on the PGA Tour, looks fit and hungry as he tries to shed the label as the best player to have never won a major. He won his first time out at the Bob Hope Classic, and has been a factor starting the final round every tournament he has played.
Mickelson has tightened his swing and toiled on his wedges, always the strength of his game.
A radio reporter wearing a Chicago Cubs cap recently asked Lefty if this might be the year he gets it right.
'It's only been 33 years that I haven't won a major,' the 33-year-old Mickelson replied. 'How many years since the Cubs won a (World) Series? I'm not quite in that big of a hole. But the Cubs' prospects look awfully exciting this year, and I've got to tell you, I've very excited about the four majors this year.
'I feel I've got the game now that I can play a major championship test without getting in nearly as much trouble.'
Vijay Singh went 12 consecutive PGA Tour events in the top 10, two short of the modern record, and won in dominant fashion at Pebble Beach. He has not finished in the top 10 since his streak ended with a rare missed cut, although the '00 Masters champion has been gearing toward another green jacket.
Ernie Els won twice early in the season, including a 60 at Royal Melbourne when he won the Heineken Classic. Defending champion Mike Weir already has made one successful title defense at Riviera, while Davis Love III has two runner-up finishes.
The younger crowd features Scott and Chad Campbell, a 29-year-old Texan who made the game look simple in strong victories at the Tour Championship and at Bay Hill.
The Masters also has a touch of nostalgia each year, none greater than the farewell of the King, Part II.
Arnold Palmer thought he was playing his final major two years ago, but he and Jack Nicklaus persuaded Augusta National to revert to its policy of letting former champions play as long as they wanted.
Palmer, 74, will tee it up for the 50th consecutive Masters, which he says will be his final one.
'To see him play his last Masters is going to be very special,' Tom Watson said. 'It will be very passionate to a lot of people. They love Arnold. They love what he's done for the game. They love what he's done for the Masters.'
Not everyone likes what Augusta National has done to its golf course.
Club chairman Hootie Johnson instigated a number of changes over the last couple of years, beefing up the par 4s to put a greater premium on accuracy off the tee. Once known for its thrilling back-nine charges, the Masters has evolved into one of the most grueling tests among major championships.
'It's just not meant to be a fun challenge,' Padraig Harrington said. 'It's meant to be a tough challenge. It asks more questions all the way through your game.'
Woods will face plenty of questions himself.
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters Tournament
  • Masters Photo Gallery
  • Tee Times
  • Arnold Palmers 50th Masters
    Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
  • Getty Images

    Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

    The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

    “I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

    Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

    As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

    “I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

    Getty Images

    Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

    Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

    “I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

    Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

    “[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

    Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

    “He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

    Getty Images

    This week, let the games(manship) begin

    By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

    AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

    What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

    During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

    “Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

    Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

    “There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

    Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

    Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

    “Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Full bracket | Tee times

    WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play: Articles, photos and videos

    Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

    “I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

    While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

    But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

    “It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

    It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

    McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

    It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

    “Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

    Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

    Getty Images

    Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

    By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

    While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

    The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

    "I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

    Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

    According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

    "I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

    Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

    Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

    "I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

    Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.