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A Different Augusta Same Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hootie Johnson defended more than just the all-male membership at Augusta National.
The chairman sat in his second-floor office three days before the Masters, gazing through a rain-streaked window at droopy, gray clouds that would dump 4 inches of water on the course before the first shot was struck.
It was an ominous sign for anyone who couldn't hit the ball long and high.
With 305 yards added to the golf course over the last two years, it seemed as if only a dozen of the 90-plus players had a chance to win a green jacket. The list figured to become only shorter on a soggy course.
Based on what happened last year -- Tiger Woods playing conservatively while everyone else self-destructed -- the back nine at Augusta National suddenly became as exciting to watch as The Food Channel.
Did the new Augusta National wreck the old Masters?
Johnson asked an office assistant to bring him the driving statistics from last year's collection of contenders. Retief Goosen, the runner-up, was 105th in driving distance. Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, who finished fourth, ranked 181st.
'I think we did the right thing,' Johnson said.
Augusta National has always been a work in progress.
The Masters rarely changes.
Anyone who thought the big hitters would prevail only had to glance at the top 12 positions on the leaderboard Sunday evening, starting at the top.
Mike Weir was 100th in driving distance on the PGA Tour last year, and no one will ever confuse him with an elite power player. He worked magic with his wedges, none bigger than his 92-yard shot into 5 feet for birdie on the 15th.
His putting was pure, a requirement at any major.
Only three other Masters champions -- none since Doug Ford in 1957 -- played the final round in regulation without a bogey.
'To go bogey-free at Augusta National on Sunday, I can't ask for anything more,' Weir said. 'Once it all soaks in, I'll realize how special it is.'
Len Mattiace, who ranked 130th in driving distance, delivered the drama, no shot more memorable than his 4-wood from the 13th fairway that barely cleared Rae's Creek and gave him a 15-foot eagle putt.
'All week, I've been practicing the 4-wood off of a right-to-left lie, waiting to hit it,' Mattiace said. 'When I finally had it, I said, 'This is what I've been practicing all this time for.' And I executed it.'
Just because his name is not Jack Nicklaus -- or Tiger Woods -- didn't make his back-nine charge any less brilliant.
Mattiace followed with a birdie on No. 15 by going for the green in two, and a tee shot on the par-3 16th that caught the ridge and stopped 12 feet away for another birdie.
If not for a drive into the trees that led to bogey on the 18th, Mattiace would have shot 64 and tied Gary Player (1978) for the lowest final round by a Masters champion.
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Jim Furyk (173rd in driving distance) chipped in for eagle on No. 15 and finished fourth.
Jeff Maggert (150) was another stroke back. One can only imagine how different it might have been if his fairway bunker shot on No. 3 didn't bounced off the lip and hit him in the chest for a two-stroke penalty.
Scott Verplank (189) was 5 under par on the weekend. He missed only 10 fairways all week, tied for third in driving accuracy. Others who finished in the top 12 were Mark O'Meara (145), David Toms (114) and Olazabal (181).
Length isn't everything.
Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els were the only power players among the top dozen, proving again that the Masters can be won with different styles.
Three-time champion Nick Faldo was a great thinker. O'Meara and Ben Crenshaw are great putters. Olazabal is a wizard with the short game. Palmer and Nicklaus won with power. Woods is all of the above.
Augusta National has gone through more drastic changes in the last two years than the previous 20, and more Masters are required before anyone reaches a conclusion.
Maybe the rain will stay away next year, and the course will play firm and fast.
Still, Mattiace showed that Sunday charges are still very much a part of the Masters.
Augusta National isn't easier. Mattiace had to play the best golf of his life to get to 8 under par through 17 holes and give himself a chance to win.
That's how it should be on Sunday at the Masters.
Weir reminded everyone that the biggest weapon at Augusta National is the shortest club in the bag. He took only 104 putts, fourth-best last week behind Maggert and O'Meara (101) and Paul Lawrie (102).
Perhaps the biggest difference is that No. 18 has become a hole where the Masters will be lost more often than it is won. Then again, only three players have made birdies on the final hole to win the Masters.
Some things rarely change.
Related Links:
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Photo Gallery
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology

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