The Eve of the Masters

By Randall MellApril 7, 2011, 1:12 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The dogwoods and azaleas aren’t in full bloom yet down in Amen Corner, but Augusta National was adorned with colorful scenery just the same with 99 players preparing for Thursday’s start of the Masters.

If you’ve never been here, you’ll see that even practice rounds are different from anywhere else.

Follow me, I’ll show you.


First stop, the 13th hole . . .

Ken Ress of Mandeville, La., a retired 58-year-old who used to work on offshore oil rigs for Shell, is looking for the spot where Phil Mickelson struck it big last year. He’s looking for the famous patch where Mickelson hit that spectacular 6-iron through the trees to 4 feet to set up his third Masters’ title.

“You see that little purple flag over there?” a hole marshal tells him. “That’s the spot.”

Standing there, you see one patron after another drift over to the hole marshals, all wanting to know where Lefty made his magic. The marshals say about 300 people wandered over to ask them for the exact location. That was Tuesday morning alone. That’s why they put the flag there.

With Mickelson on the course for his practice round later Wednesday, thousands of people are huddled along the ropes near that purple flag, all wondering if Mickelson will wander over and try to repeat the shot.

“Maybe he’ll hit another drive there,” one patron says. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

In fact, Mickelson does blast his tee shot deep into the trees, but this time he’s found the trees on the other side of the fairway, over across the creek. He’s playing his practice round with Fred Couples, Rickie Fowler and reigning U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein.

“Phil’s not going to play it out of there in a practice round,” says one patron.

“He’ll be lucky to find it,” another says.

Moments later, Mickelson is jumping over the creek, where a marshal has found his ball. Then Mickelson’s caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay, is throwing a club to Mickelson, who sets up between two giant azalea bushes and punches the ball back into the fairway.

“Wow, I wonder what they’re playing for?” says a patron. “I can’t believe he played that.”

Mickelson marches past the purple flag without even looking at the magical patch of pine straw or the little purple flag.

Though a month ago Mickelson left open the possibility that he might try to repeat the shot in a practice round, he decided against it.

“I didn’t see the point,” Mickelson said. “I’ve already done that.”

Tiger as a coach at the 15th tee . . .

Too far away to hear him with the gallery thick around the tee box, you can see Tiger Woods pointing with his driver as he tutors Arjun Atwal.

Atwal has become a pal to Woods. As fellow Isleworth Country Club members in Windermere, Fla., they play together often. They took a trip together to play Augusta National for one day last week and played it together again Wednesday with Mark O’Meara.

It’s Atwal’s first Masters, and he is reveling in the advanced education Woods is giving him.

“Physically, I can’t do the stuff he does, but the mental side, he’s really, really helped me a lot,” Atwal says. “How to approach a tournament, how to go about practice rounds, this tournament, especially, with ball placement and all that stuff.”

Everyone’s named Skip at the 16th . . .

After Kyung-Tae Kim hit his tee shot into the 16th green, the chants begin.

“Skip . . . Skip . . . Skip.”

That’s not his nickname. It’s what the patrons down there chant at every player who comes through in the practice rounds in an effort to get them to skip a shot across the pond and onto the green.

Kim doesn’t look like a Masters’ rookie at all. After dropping a ball at the foot of the pond, Kim expertly drills a low screamer that hits about 75 yards out in the pond and skips up on the bank, bounces onto the green 30 feet right of the flag, takes the slope in the bowl, turns left, then hard left, and gently rolls dead toward the flagstick. The patrons are howling as he nearly holes the shot, leaving it 3 feet past.

Scott, Chris and Eric Wahlers, three brothers in their 30s from Philadelphia, are loving the scene behind the 16th tee. It’s the first time they’ve ever been to Augusta National. A veteran spectator tells them it’s not the best skip he’s witnessed there. Vijay Singh holed one two years ago.

Euros scheming at the seventh green . . .

England’s Luke Donald reaches the seventh green, where Germany’s Martin Kaymer joins him. Kaymer’s just chipping and putting his way across the course in his Wednesday practice round.

Though Kaymer is the No. 1 player in the world, he tells world No. 4 Donald that he’s picked him as the man to beat this week.

“I must have impressed him,” Donald says.

Donald beat Kaymer 3-and-2 in the finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.

Though Europeans dominated the Masters with 11 victories in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Euros haven’t won a Masters’ title in a dozen years, since Jose Maria Olazabal claimed his second green jacket in ’99. With five of the top six players in the world rankings this week from Europe, nobody should be surprised to see a Euro end the drought.

After his practice round, Donald credits Ireland’s Padraig Harrington for the recent rise of the Europeans. Donald says Harrington elevated the play of the continent with his three major championships in ’07 and ’08.

“When you are around someone who’s done special things, you’re inspired to believe that if they can do it, you can do it,” Donald said.

Under the oak, Seve’s missed . . .

Under the giant oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, Olazabal says Seve Ballesteros was missed at the traditional Champions Dinner Tuesday night.

But Olazabal says as defending champ and host of the dinner, Mickelson made sure Ballesteros’ presence was felt.

In honor of Ballesteros, a two-time Masters’ winner who is battling cancer, Mickelson offered up Spanish dishes on the menu. Seafood paella and Filete de Res Mignon (tenderloin with smoked paprika demi-glace) were the main dishes. Empanada de Manzana was the dessert with Spanish wine.

“I know the gesture by Phil touched Seve,” Olazabal said. “He obviously appreciated it.

“We talked about Seve. It was emotional and touching.”

Olazabal said Mickelson’s derring-do and short-game magic reminds him of Ballesteros.

The Par 3 Contest . . .

With Arnold Palmer posing over a shot, Jack Nicklaus couldn’t help himself.

“Get off the tee,” Nicklaus cracked. “Stop admiring your shot.”

Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player treated the patrons who crowded around the holes at the annual Par 3 Contest to some good humor as they needled their way around the course.

The trio combined to win 13 green jackets.

The reverence for history at Augusta National is on full display in the scenery at Augusta National with patrons embracing the Big Three one more time.

“The three of us are miles beyond our games, but they didn’t care,” Nicklaus said.

Follow Randall Mell on Twitter @RandallMell

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Stricker shares first-round lead in South Dakota

By Associated PressSeptember 22, 2018, 12:48 am

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - Steve Stricker shot a 7-under 63 on Friday to share the first-round lead at the Sanford International.

The 51-year-old Stricker was 8 under through 17 holes at chilly, rain-softened Minnehaha Country Club but closed with a bogey to fall into a tie with Jerry Smith, Brandt Jobe and David McKenzie.

Stricker only got to play seven holes in the pro-am because of rain that prevented the field from getting in much practice.

''You've just kind of got to trust your yardage book and hit to the spots and then try to make a good game plan on the way into the green, too, not really knowing where to hit it or where to miss it up there on the green. Sometimes it's good, too,'' Stricker said. ''You go around and you're focused a lot more on hitting it to a specific spot and not knowing what lies ahead in the course. So I guess today was the ultimate 'Take one hole at a time' because we didn't really know anything else, what was coming.''

Full-field scores from the Sanford International

Stricker has two wins and has not finished worse than fifth in six starts this season on the over-50 tour as he continues to play a part-time schedule on the PGA Tour. Next week, he will be one of U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk's assistants at the matches outside Paris.

McKenzie, a 51-year-old Australian, had two eagles on the back nine, holing a wedge from 116 yards on the par-5 16th.

''We got told ... to play faster on No. 16, and so my caddie just said, 'Hit it in the hole so you don't have to putt it,' so I just did what he told me,'' McKenzie said.

Smith had eagles on Nos. 4 and 12.

''Honestly, I was just trying to hit some good shots and I really wasn't with the irons,'' Smith said. ''I just really didn't like the way I hit them today. You know, just the putter was the big difference for me. I just felt good with it all day, especially say outside of 10, 15 feet, where I felt like I was a lot.''

Scott McCarron, Lee Janzen and Paul Goydos were one shot back. McCarron came in second in the Charles Schwab Cup money standings behind Miguel Angel Jimenez, who is not playing this week.

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Glover (64) leads Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 22, 2018, 12:12 am

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover shot his second consecutive 7-under 64 on Friday to take a one-shot lead at the Tour Championship.

The 38-year-old Glover, who won the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, can still regain his PGA Tour card through a medical extension if he fails to earn enough money in the four-tournament Tour Finals. But a high finish this weekend at Atlantic Beach Country Club would take care of everything.

''I've got a lot to fall back on regardless of this week, but any time I tee it up, I want to play well,'' Glover said. ''Tomorrow won't be any different. Sunday won't be any different.''

Glover had arthroscopic knee surgery in June and will have eight starts to earn 53 FedEx Cup points and keep his card. He earned $17,212 in the first three Tour Finals events. The top 25 money winners in the series earn PGA Tour cards, and the final card went for $40,625 last year.

Glover was at 14-under 128. Denny McCarthy, who has already earned enough money to secure a return to the PGA Tour, was one shot back. McCarthy, a former Virginia player, has a shot at winning the Finals money list, which would guarantee him fully exempt status and entry into The Players Championship.

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

''There's no secret about it. I'll come out and tell you I'm here to win this tournament and get that No. 1 spot,'' McCarthy said. ''I've been hungry for a while. I have a pretty hungry attitude and I'm going to stay hungry.''

Tour veteran Cameron Tringale, who has earned just $2,660 after missing two of the first three cuts, was 12 under after a 67. Last year, Tringale entered the Tour Championship at 63rd on the Finals money list and finished tied for fifth to get back onto the PGA Tour. He struggled again this season, though, missing 19 cuts in 26 starts.

''Yeah, I was hoping last year was my last time here, but I do have a comfort at this golf course and I'm excited to keep pressing,'' Tringale said.

The four-tournament series features the top 75 players from the regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200. The top 25 finishers on the regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals.

Sepp Straka and Ben Silverman were three shots back. Each would likely need a top-5 finish to earn his card.

Peter Malnati, who regained his card with a second-place finish in the opening finals event, followed his opening-round 74 with a 9-under 62, shooting an 8-under 27 on his second nine.

Four-time PGA Tour winner Aaron Baddeley was among those who missed the cut. He was 22nd on the finals money list going in and likely will fall short of earning his card.

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Thomas (69) only three back with 'C' or 'D' game

By Rex HoggardSeptember 21, 2018, 11:56 pm

ATLANTA – Justin Thomas was tied for fourth place following his second-round 69 on Friday at the Tour Championship, which considering the state of his game on Day 2 was an accomplishment.

“I wish I had my 'B' game today. I would say I had my 'C' or 'D' game today,” he laughed.

Thomas’ struggles were primarily with his driver and he hit just 6 of 14 fairways at East Lake, but he was able to scramble late in his round with birdies at Nos. 15 and 18 to remain three off the lead.

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I drove it so poorly today, this is probably in my top 5 rounds of the year I'm most proud of just because I easily could have shot 4- or 5-over par today and not had a chance to win the tournament,” he said. “I hung in there and birdied two of the last four, and I have a chance.”

Thomas was slowed the last two weeks by a right wrist injury that limited his preparation for the finale and said the issue with his driver is timing and the byproduct of a lack of practice.

Thomas made up for his erratic driving with his short game, getting up and down four out of seven times including on the fourth hole when he missed the fairway well left, punched out short of the green and chipped in from 81 feet.

“[Rory McIlroy] just kind of said it looked like a ‘3’ the whole day and I kind of laughed because I played with him at The Players and I chipped in three times that first round with him, so I guess he's good luck for me,” Thomas said.

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McIlroy two behind Woods, Rose after 68

By Rex HoggardSeptember 21, 2018, 11:46 pm

ATLANTA – Maybe it should be no huge surprise that Rory McIlroy finds himself back in contention at the Tour Championship. It is, after all, a Ryder Cup year.

In 2016, McIlroy won the finale before heading to Hazeltine and posting a 3-2-0 record. In ’14, he finished runner-up to Billy Horschel and went 2-1-2 at the Ryder Cup; and in ’12 he finished tied for 10th place at East Lake and went 3-2-0 at Medinah.

“I was on such a high a couple of years ago going into Hazeltine after winning the whole thing, and I felt great about my game that week and played well. I won three matches,” McIlroy said. “I guess it doesn't matter whether it's a match play event or whatever. If you're playing well and you've played well the week before, I think most people can carry it into the next week, whatever that is.”

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

McIlroy’s performance this week certainly qualifies as “playing well.” He charged out on Friday with birdies at two of his first three holes and bounced back from a pair of late bogeys to shoot a 68 and was in third place and two strokes off the lead held by Tiger Woods and Justin Rose.

“I've made 12 birdies in 36 holes, which is really good around here, and that's with not birdieing either of the par 5s today,” he said. “So yeah, just tidy up the mistakes a little bit.”