Augusta National, our spy tells us, is in the best condition it has been in for years. The rough is tame. The course is playing hard and fast. The greens are perfect. And the weather forecast is for mostly dry conditions.
Our spy is Englishman Ian Poulter, who spent two days at the Sistine Chapel of Golf late last week. Poulter will be one of 17 first-time participants when golfs first major commences Thursday. And I am reminded of what Jackie Burke once told Ben Crenshaw about the Masters. Some year, Burke said, the winds are going to blow hard all week long and the scores are going to go through the roof.
We had a sampling of that over the weekend at the BellSouth Classic in Duluth, Georgia, where wind chills made it feel more like Duluth, Minnesota, and players felt like they were closer to Augusta, Maine, than Augusta, Georgia.
It is no coincidence that three Aussies and an Irishman finished in the top five at the TPC at Sugarloaf in the Atlanta suburb.. Mark Hensby, Scott Hend, Peter Lonard and Dublins Padraig Harrington grew up playing golf in this kind of weather. All of which makes 27-year-old American Zach Johnsons first win on the PGA Tour that much more special.
Johnson, playing in just his 13th PGA Tour event, collected $810,000 for the victory and moved past a million dollars in career earnings. Not bad for a rookie. Even better that he did it against seasoned international competition. This is one that will stay with him for lots of reasons.
Johnson is an unassuming young man who is not afraid to talk freely about his faith. He cited the Proverbs in his post-match press conference and the importance of trust. He also confessed to having a whopper of a headache from all the grinding Sunday.
Proverbs 20-15, which Johnson didnt recite on the day of his professional breakthrough, tell us this: There is gold and a multitude of rubies; but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel. Golf translation: The BellSouth will mean more to Johnson, down the road, than the money.
Meanwhile, back to the Masters, the question begs like a Doberman on a meat wagon: Why doesnt Johnsons victory get him an invitation to the Masters? This happens every year a non-invited player wins in Atlanta.
There is no terribly good answer, except to say any time you set up a set of qualifications there invariably will be situations where those qualifications come up short. It happens in the BCS in college football. It happens in golfs world rankings. And Johnson wasnt the only victim this year in golf.
Spains Miguel Angel Jimenez has won three of his last 11 tournaments on the European Tour, including Sunday in Portugal. He leads that circuits Order of Merit (money rankings) and he is a sure bet to make Europes Ryder Cup squad. But he, too, will be watching the Masters on television this week.
Jimenez, who top-tenned in two of the last three years at Augusta National, jumped 16 spots in the world rankings to No. 37. Johnson leaped 77 notches to No. 49. The sad fact of the matter for both players is this: If they had made their moves one week earlier in the rankings, they would be playing at Augusta National this week.
In defense of the Masters, all players knew well in advance what they had to do to qualify. And the strong suspicion here is that Zach Johnson will play in many Masters before his time on golfs stage expires. Jimenez, who possesses a vastly underrated touch around the greens, will get to Augusta again as well.
You dont need a spy to figure that out.
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