Early returns show difficult Masters conditions
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Hey, I went to a Masters and a U.S. Open broke out.
Unlike political elections, in golf you don't need exit polling to test the winds of fortune. All you have to do is look at a leaderboard. And the early returns from The Masters indicate that Augusta National Golf Club, playing firm and fast for the first time since significant course changes commenced a few years ago, is playing extremely difficult.
The worst fear among players -- that the lengthened layout on which only a handful of long hitters can win -- may not be realized, but it does appear as if The Masters, like the Open, might become a tournament in which par is a good score.
Aside from the fact that 70-year-old Gary Player made a birdie on the first hole, there was no indication the course was giving up any gifts. The first wave of players who made the turn found only two -- Michael Campbell and Rod Pampling -- getting as far as 2 under par. Early on, only six players were under par and no one had made more than two birdies. Let's put that into context.
If this becomes a Masters in which the winning score is around par it will indicate that the club has won out over technology -- for better or worse. Only twice in the 69 previous Masters has the winning score been over the par of 288 for 72 holes. Sam Snead in 1954 and Jackie Burke in 1956 both won with 289. The last time anyone failed to break par was in 1966, when Jack Nicklaus needed 288 strokes to capture the green jacket.
The ability of Augusta National to fend off modern technology first blipped onto the radar screen after the 1997 tournament, when Woods made his professional major championship debut a 12-stroke romp in which he got to an all-time record 18 under par. The term "Tiger-proofing" was coined, and change at the club commenced shortly after. In the eight Masters since Woods burst on the scene, only he (twice) and Vijay Singh have won with scores of double digits under par.
So here is the question: If The Masters produces a champion with a score similar to that of a U.S. Open, has the tournament bargained away any of its identity?
Certainly, part of the design genius of Augusta National is that it is a course where, with proper nerve and stellar shot making, a player can shoot a low round. There is -- or at least used to be -- a 64 to be found among the towering Georgia pines. It is a tournament where a player can close with a 30 on the back nine and gain ground on the leader. If the course remains firm and fast all week it is highly unlikely anyone will go that low in this tournament.
Nick Faldo won three Masters, and he trailed going to the back nine on Sunday on all three. When Nicklaus took home the title at the age of 46 in 1986, he closed with a 30 on the back nine in the final round. And, in one of the most memorable rounds ever in the history of golf, 54-year-old Ben Hogan also played the back nine in 30 in the third round of the 1967 Masters to remarkably, and movingly, jump into contention. Are such moves possible on the new layout?
Each major has its own character. The U.S. Open is the survival test. The British Open brings weather and history decidedly into the equation. The PGA Championship has matured into the event with the most consistent course setup -- always stern, but always fair. And the Masters is the only major played on the same course every year. That familiarity adds considerably to the drama of the event. But is it the same course?
One person likely to have a few words to say on the matter is David Duval, who turned the front nine in 41 strokes and then played the first four holes of the back nine in 7 over par. The early returns showed that more than a half-dozen players failed to break 40 on the front nine, including Faldo, Charles Howell III, 2006 PGA Tour leading money winner Rory Sabbatini and Ryder Cupper Paul McGinley. Do you get the feeling that it will be not only the scores that speak about the difficulty of Augusta National, but also the players?
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