Augusta should show its teeth this week

With no rain to soften the course, the changes made at Augusta should finally show their teeth this week.

Originally Published: April 6, 2004
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Like a Broadway show that keeps postponing Opening Night, the Augusta National Golf Club that underwent major changes nearly three years ago has yet to raise its curtain for the Masters.

Taking a pick
Five Who Can Win

1. Phil Mickelson (best finish: 3rd, 2001-02-03) -- The best player on the 2004 PGA Tour to date.

2. Tiger Woods (winner 1997-2001-02) -- Consistent? No. Dangerous? You bet, especially here.

3. Vijay Singh (winner 2000) -- If his putter shows up. Everything else is clockwork.

4. Ernie Els (2nd, 2000) -- Has won on the PGA and European Tours this year. Has always had the game for Augusta.

5. Adam Scott (9th, 2002) -- Arnold Palmer pronounced a victory here by the 2004 Players champion as "inevitable." May need some time to learn the greens.

Five Sleepers

1. Scott Verplank (8th, 2003) -- Has three top 10s in six starts this season. Always drives it straight, and leads the Tour in sand saves and putting.

2. Jerry Kelly (20th, 2002) -- Back in good health, he has four top-six finishes this year.

3. Jeff Maggert (5th, 2003) -- After Sunday Bloody Sunday a year ago, win would be feel-good story of the year. The higher the winning score, the better his chance.

4. Shigeki Maruyama (14th, 2002) -- Has done what Singh, Mickelson and Davis Love haven't -- won in each of the last three years.

5. Colin Montgomerie (8th, 1998) -- Looking like the old Monty. He's healthy, making cuts, and won his last European Tour start.

-- Ivan Maisel

The changes, made to half the holes at Augusta National, have been in place since the fall of 2001. Architect Tom Fazio added a total of 285 yards to the course, planted trees, enlarged some bunkers and reshaped others. Fazio's changes were the most radical made at Augusta National since the switch from Bermuda to bent grass in 1980.

And no one has seen them. Oh, they've been there for the last two Masters, but only Jacques Cousteau could have seen them. For the first time since Tiger Woods overpowered the course in 2001, the Masters will be played without mud.

"Well, it has been changed from what it was, thank goodness," Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said. "They would be driving 17, and Tiger Woods almost drove 18 the last time he won ... This is what we've been looking for."

"This" is middle irons off of firm fairways onto firmer greens. How firm? Phil Mickelson said that he left his flop shots at home, because he doesn't think he can stop the ball quickly enough. There is a slight chance of rain Thursday, but no more than two-tenths of an inch is expected. After two years of mud and muck that seared the nostrils, the battle of the senses at Augusta will once again be won by the visual.

The return of middle-iron approach shots is anticipated greatly by the club, and less so by the players. There is concern that the toughening of the course has given the back-nine charge a permanent home in the history books. Jack Nicklaus shot six-under over the final nine holes in 1986.

"You won't see too many 30s now," said Woods, who won this event with scores of 18- , 16- , and 12-under. "Not with the conditions, especially the way they are this year, being hard and fast and difficult, the wind blowing, the whole bit."

Added Ernie Els, who has finished sixth or better in the last four Masters, "The way they have the golf course now, it's a lot different than what it was five or six years ago. You're definitely not going to see as many birdies."

Defending champion Mike Weir stressed the importance of patience, a quality he used by the truckload last year, when he gave up the lead, then recovered a share of it on the back nine of the final round.

"You can hit good shots and they are going to catch slopes and they are going to run away," Weir said. "You can hit a shot down at the flag and it looks great and can end up off the green and down the slope and 50 yards away from the pin."

In long, but soft, conditions, Weir and Len Mattiace finished at seven-under, the highest winning score in 14 years. Weir won it on the first hole of sudden death, in the shadows cast by the pines that tower over the 10th green. Johnson announced Wednesday that sudden death will begin at No. 18, move to No. 10, and alternate as needed. Since the format was first used in 1979, playoffs have begun at No. 10 and continued in order (although none have gone past No. 11).

The change is a concession to the fans congregated at the clubhouse, and to the daylight that remains there, the highest point on the course. And it is a concession to the preference of the club, thank you. Johnson's explanation, complete and unabridged, was, "Well, we just thought it was best."

That is basically the same motivation Johnson gave for instituting the changes to the course made three years ago. Their full effect will be felt Thursday. There is a fear among the players that the final-round attacks that have decided so many Masters may give way to the more traditional wars of attrition fought on major championship courses.

There's only one thing that can forestall the changes.

"As a player," Els said, "I'm hoping for a little bit of rain."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE