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Divided reaction by players to "New Augusta"

The lengthening of Augusta National since Tiger Woods won last year's title has been the main talking point ahead of this week's U.S. Masters and most players have arrived at the course a day or two earlier than normal to familiarize themselves with the new-look layout.

Nine of Augusta's holes have been stretched out and the famous par-72 layout now measures 7,270 yards after what is widely considered the biggest overhaul in the tournament's 68-year history.

Initial reactions to the changes have been mixed. World number one Woods thinks the course could play a couple of shots harder than last year, twice British Open champion Greg Norman believes the changes are near-perfect and 2002 Masters winner Vijay Singh doubts if the shorter hitters will be able to reach the 18th green in two shots.

There is widespread agreement, though, that the Augusta of 2002 will require very close monitoring and the course, as initially envisaged by its creator Bobby Jones, will provide a challenging test of shot-making with each hole offering a delicate balance between risk and reward.

"It's one heck of a test," said the 26-year-old Woods, who is bidding to become the third back-to-back winner of the cherished green jacket after Jack Nicklaus in 1966 and Nick Faldo in 1990.

"A lot will depend on the weather, but I don't think the scores will be quite as low this week because of the fact the course is now playing so much longer. We're hitting longer clubs for our second shots and, if the greens get hard and baked out, I think we'll get some scores in the eighties."

"What they've done to the golf course is phenomenal -- the marriage of the changes to the land gives one the impression nothing was done at all," said Norman. "The course still looks like it's been there forever.

"Other than the repositioning of the 10th tee, I think every change is superb. They have done a wonderful job of adjusting the fairways and moving the right amount of dirt to make it look like it's never been touched."

The overall lengthening of the layout by 285 yards on last year has made Augusta the fifth longest course in major championship history. Only Columbine (for the 1967 U.S. PGA championship), Medinah (for the 1999 U.S. PGA), Carnoustie (for the 1999 British Open) and Crooked Stick (for the 1991 U.S. PGA) have staged major tournaments over a greater yardage.

Columbine played to a full 7,436 yards, Medinah to 7,401, Carnoustie to 7,361 and Crooked Stick to 7,295.

Fijian Singh believes tee shots will be more important than ever before at Augusta and expects the par-four 18th, which has been lengthened by 60 yards since last year, to play as one of the most difficult holes this week.

"I won't say the 18th is unfair, I would say it is borderline to almost impossible to get on the green (in two shots) for some of the shorter hitters," he said.

"If I'm hitting a three iron (for my second), some of the other guys are going to have a problem.

"You've now got to think of all your tee shots here more than ever. It used to be just tee it up and hit it as far as you can. Now it's a premium, you've just got to hit the fairways. This course favors the guys who are going to putt well and obviously hit it straight and long."

Atlanta-based Charles Howell, the 2001 PGA Tour rookie of the year, described the 465-yard 18th as "a totally different hole now."

"The bunkers are not even close to being carryable," he said after his third practice round in a row Monday.

"Before you could just knock it right over the bunker and hit a sand wedge into the green. Today I hit driver-eight iron and the second shot was playing down wind.

"That's such a big difference there and the greens are already really hardening. I'd say if we don't get any rain, the greens are going to be really hard by Thursday (for the opening round). So it's completely different than (the way) it used to be."

Woods, who became the first man to hold all four majors at the same time with his two-shot triumph over David Duval at last year's Masters, said the wind factor on 18 would be critical.

"Get the right wind and a par would be like making a birdie. I think if you play that hole in 16 (level par for the four days) for the week, you're going to pick up a shot."

The full effects of the new-look extra-long Augusta National will be revealed, though, when the 66th edition of the U.S. Masters gets underway this Thursday.

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