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Top players rate Masters the toughest Major

Tiger Woods and Ernie Els believe the lengthening of Augusta National for this year's U.S. Masters, combined with its traditionally fast greens, makes it the toughest of the four majors.

The undulating par-72 layout, stretched an extra 155 yards for the April 6-9 tournament, has become the second longest course in major championship history at 7,445 yards.

"Without a doubt, it's gotten so much more difficult now," world number one Woods told reporters as he prepared to bid for a record fifth title at this week's Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando, Florida.

"With the added length and with those greens being the way they are, it makes it so hard out there.

"With the speed of these greens now, each and every year, it all depends if they are firm," added the four-times Masters champion, who played a practice round at Augusta National on Sunday.

"If they are firm, that golf course is probably the most difficult golf course you'll ever play."

South African Els, runner-up at Augusta in 2000 and 2004, played two days of practice at the course last week.

"If we have tough weather conditions, it's going to be a very tough week," the world number five said. "It's becoming one of the toughest of the majors now.

"Where it used to be the most fun of all the majors, it's becoming the hardest one now."

Six new tees have been added to Augusta for next month's tournament, most noticeably for Els at the par-three fourth and par-four seventh.

"Number four is big," he said of the 240-yard hole. "The one day it was downwind and I hit a four-iron to the left flag.

The second day, the wind was a little into us to a right flag and I hit a two-iron. Both times I made par, thank goodness. But going in with a two-iron into that hole is quite something.

"Seven was another big one," he said of the 450-yard hole. "I hit driver and a seven-iron both days a little into the breeze.

"Going into that green with a middle iron is quite a big change. I wouldn't want to go in there with a four or five-iron like some of the guys might have to do."

Should the course remain dry for this year's Masters, Woods predicts a winning total of level-par 288.

"If you shoot even par with it firm and fast like it was in the practice rounds last year, you'd win," he said. "And even with rain, it will be brutal because now you're hitting some really long clubs into the holes.

Woods believes the need for a high-ball game into the slick, heavily contoured greens at Augusta National has whittled down the number of possible winners, especially given the layout's extra length for next month.

"It eliminates a lot of guys," he said. "If you hit it low and rely on your game that way to get the ball out there and hit your irons not so high, if you have a flatter ball flight, you're going to be struggling there.

"I've talked to some of the older guys who played there back in the '50s, '60s and '70s and they never had to hit wood into (par-three hole) four before," added Woods, winner of the Masters in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2005.

"But you'll see a lot of guys hitting wood in four this year."

March 16, 2006




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