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Practice underway for Masters

Masters veterans always have marveled how much Augusta National changes -- not only from year to year, but how much faster it plays from day to day leading to the opening round on Thursday.

If that's the case this year, everyone could be in big trouble.

The greens already are firm with a yellow sheen, so crusty that Steve Stricker said he could hear his spikes crunch as he walked on the putting surfaces.

Tiger Woods, who played the front nine on Monday with Mark O'Meara, was asked what he thought the greens were running on the Stimpmeter.

``About 13 or 14,'' Woods said.

One reason the greens are so firm now is that the forecast calls for rain later in the week. Soft greens are always a recipe for lower scoring on any course.

If it doesn't rain?

``It's easier to slow them down than it is to make them hard,'' Woods said, not seeming the least bit concerned.

Still, the first few days of practice has been a real test.

Charles Howell III was watching a maintenance worker mowing one of the greens on Sunday. He saw that no grass clippings were going into the basket attached to the mower.

``Just making sure,'' the maintenance worker told him.

Chris DiMarco had an interesting description of the greens after playing a practice round with PGA champion David Toms.

``We were calling them blues,'' he said, referring to the hue a super slick putting surface can take on. ``It was like, 'How many blues did you hit today? Because those greens aren't really green.''

In another example of how fast the greens are, Robert Allenby hit a perfect shot out of the front right bunker on the par-3 16th and managed to keep the ball on the top shelf.

Or so he thought.

By the time he climbed out of the bunker, the ball crept toward the ridge and rolled to the bottom half of the green. When he got to the green, the ball rolled some more, onto the fringe, just short of the pond.

''(Lee) Janzen looked at me and said, 'What a great shot.' Thirty seconds later, it was nearly in the water,'' Allenby said.

Then there's Sandy Lyle, who walked straight to the first tee Sunday without hitting any putts. He was playing with Bob Estes, who offered this account:

``He had a 15-footer for birdie, and a 25-footer for bogey.''

FAVORITE VIDEO

Charles Howell III has a tape of the 1987 Masters, the first one he went to as a kid. That was the year another Augusta native, Larry Mize, beat Greg Norman by chipping in from 140 feet on the second sudden-death playoff hole.

But that's not Howell's favorite Masters video.

His favorite is from 1997, when Tiger Woods shot a record 270 to win by 12 strokes to become the youngest Masters champion at age 21.

``He was playing awesome,'' Howell said.

The other video he watches a lot is from 1996, when Norman squandered a six-stroke lead in the final round and finished five strokes behind Nick Faldo.

``I learned the most from '96,'' Howell said. ``I learned about the power of the mind, and what this game can do to you -- Greg Norman, how good he was playing that week; Faldo pokes away at the lead.

``I'm sure Greg learned a lot from it.''

Howell said he planned to play a practice round with Norman and Adam Scott on Tuesday. Would he bring up those videos from '96 and '87?

``Sure,'' Howell said. ``What's he going to do? Hit me?''

GETTING THEIR WAY

The Masters changed its qualifications three years ago, dumping the ``win-and-you're-in'' standard to rely more heavily on the world ranking and PGA Tour money list. One reason for the change was to get a stronger field.

It seems to have worked.

The top 50 in this week's world ranking are all in the Masters, and 57 of the top 60.

Eight players who won PGA Tour events since last year's Masters did not get invited -- Robert Damron, David Gossett, John Cook, Joel Edwards, Cameron Beckman, Len Mattiace, Matt Gogel and Ian Leggatt.

Of those eight, only Damron (Nelson Classic), Gogel (Pebble Beach) and Mattiace (Nissan Open) won tournaments where any of the top six players were entered.

FUTURE OF GOLF

Augusta National has added 285 yards, primarily because of the distances players are hitting the ball. If that leads others to build golf courses that are longer, Frank Lickliter can think of at least one group that will be happy.

``This will be good for home builders,'' he said. ``Now they'll have an extra 500 yards of golf course on either side of the fairway to sell lots.''


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