Augusta all about the power game
Tiger Woods doesn't own the lowest score on the back nine at Augusta National, nor the most memorable. But that 30 he posted in the first round in 1997 sent him to a record-setting victory at the Masters that ultimately changed many things.
Starting with the golf course.
"There were two par 5s, and I could handle those," Woods recalled. "No. 17 was short at the time. No. 11 was short at the time. No. 14 was short at the time, only a 3-wood and a sand wedge."
With each hole description, his smile grew wider until he was in full laughter.
There is nothing short about Augusta National now except the distance between the practice green and the first tee. The course has been stretched more than a quarter-mile since Woods' first victory, and each change seems to reduce the number of realistic contenders.
That explains why Woods and Phil Mickelson have won five of the last six Masters and are the heavy favorites when the 71st edition of this tournament begins Thursday.
And maybe that's why some of the shorter hitters wonder if they're only here to smell the flowers.
The annual assumption is that only a dozen or guys can think about a green jacket, a familiar list of power players that range from Ernie Els to Vijay Singh, from Henrik Stenson to Geoff Ogilvy.
"It angers me a little bit when I hear that," Fred Funk said Wednesday. "But it's true. When I come here ... what's the name of that movie, 'One in a Million'? OK, so I have a chance. But a medium to short hitter has to have a ridiculous short game to contend."
Woods and Mickelson probably have never had a conversation in the champions locker room like the one that took place early this week downstairs where the regulars hang out.
Paul Goydos hasn't been to the Masters in 11 years, and he was asking Scott Verplank what club he hit into a certain hole. Verplank never gave him a chance to say which hole, probably because it didn't matter.
"Wood," he replied.
Verplank qualified for this Masters by finishing among the top 16 a year ago. And he was quick to point out that Tim Clark was the runner-up to Mickelson, and Chris DiMarco gave Woods all he could handle the year before that.
"It can be done," Verplank said. "But it does put a handful of guys at a much greater advantage, and those guys all hit the ball farther than I do. I was playing a practice round with Davis Love III, and he's launching it 300 yards to the top of the hill on the first hole. I'm just hoping I can see the green."
Steve Stricker was in weekend contention in 2001, the year Woods won his fourth straight major. That also was the last year before club officials began super-sizing the golf course, and Stricker found himself in foreign territory when he returned for practice rounds this year.
"I was taken back -- literally," he said. "Where I used to be hitting from in the fairway, well, it wasn't exactly closer."
About the only thing the little guys can hope for is good weather.
Rain loomed in the gray skies Wednesday morning, the final day of practice, but the clouds soon scattered and gave way to blue skies and what might be a warm week. That would make the fairways firm and fast (the greens always seem to be that way) and allow these guys a little more distance off the tee, a club or two shorter into the greens.
Sure, a 7-iron for Luke Donald might be a wedge for Sergio Garcia, but it beats the difference between a 4-iron and a 7-iron.
Jim Furyk remembers when the Masters had a varied collection of winners -- the power of Seve Ballesteros and Fred Couples, but also the control of Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer, and the putting of Ben Crenshaw and Mark O'Meara.
"With the addition of all of the length in the past few years, I think it's refocused on power, and probably favors the long hitters a bit more," Furyk said. "There's always a chance for a good player that's not long to win a golf tournament. For a guy like me, I'm obviously rooting for firm, fast conditions."
Resignation comes from seeing Woods and Mickelson, imposing off the tee and in their green jackets.
Inspiration comes from Mike Weir, who won in 2003 on a fairly brittle course after the first big batch of changes.
But there is a noticeable change in the optimism of those not blessed with power, certainly different than their hopes when they go to the U.S. Open, British Open or PGA Championship, depending on the course.
"I'm much more optimistic at the other ones," Jeff Sluman said. "I'm not waving the white flag or anything, but with all the changes it's very difficult for my type of game."
Not everyone feels that way.
Along with adding yardage, Augusta National has tried to restore accuracy by adding trees right of the 11th fairway and between the 15th and 17th fairways, and various hole locations demand the tee shot be placed on the proper side of the fairway. So it's not like someone can stand on the tee box and swing from the heels.
"The harder it is, the more guys have a chance," David Toms said. "The more the Masters resembles a U.S. Open, the more guys are brought back into the tournament."
The course measured a mere 6,925 yards in 1996, the last time Goydos played. He already found one advantage when he played the new Augusta National -- he didn't have to worry about the bunker on No. 1 because he couldn't reach it.
Plus, he figures there is more to golf than power, even at the Masters.
"If they decide driving accuracy is the most important part of the game, the money list at the year of the year would have Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els," Goydos said. "All they do is play the game that is presented to them. Did anyone watch the British Open last year? How many fairways did Tiger miss? None?
"These guys are long," Goydos said. "But these guys win because they're champions. They win everywhere."
April 5, 2007