Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tis the Eve of the Masters

‘Tis the eve of the 71st Masters Tournament and perhaps the most important element, the weather, is shaping up well. Based on comments from the practice rounds the scoring will be high this year, that is unless it rains at some point between now and tomorrow morning. Apparently the greens on Monday were as fast as they usually are on Sunday and the men of Augusta have seen fit to grow a more considerable rough.

I was lucky enough to attend the Masters in 1995, the year of Ben Crenshaw’s emotional victory on the heals of his teacher and mentor Harvey Penick’s death. What struck me about the course that is not visible on TV is the elevation changes that players face. It is an extremely visually pleasing layout, as one would expect from course architect Alistair McKenzie. Mr. McKenzie’s original layout has been significantly altered (Bobby Jones also gets credit for the original design) but the changes have mostly been made to maintain the integrity of the approach shots. The design of the greens and surrounding bunkering remains largely in tact.

What you see on TV is not what you get when you play. Although the greens are large and the fairway generous the actual target areas are quite small. Mr. McKenzie made all of his courses eminently playable for all skill levels, but challenging for the championship golfer as well. You will not lose a ball in the rough at one of his courses (if it is set up correctly) but you will be punished for wayward tee shots – in a deceptive way. The greens are meant to be attacked from very specific locations. If you are not in that location, you may hit the green, but your chances of birdie are unlikely. In fact, a three or four putt could well be in the cards.

That being said, experience plays a key role in success at Augusta. Only Fuzzy Zoeller has won as a rookie. Identifying the course’s subtleties and knowing when to pull off the gas are a premium. You will notice on the magnificent 12th hole that players will generally aim for the middle of the green, no matter the pin position, take a three and get to Amen corner with all due haste. Similarly at number 11, any approach shot left of the flag (unless it is in the far right position) is most likely a mistake. That little lake has cost many the championship (Floyd hit it in in his playoff against Faldo in 1990 and Hogan made the mistake as well.)

With the rough up and the greens as quick as they appear to be, scores will rise, particularly if the breeze picks up. You will see a lot of putts rolling off the green and a number of three putts. The champion will be the player who manages his game and remains most patient. Sound simple? Yeah, but it’s a Major.

So let’s look at the patient players who may well be slipping on the green jacket Sunday. My favorites include Retief Goosen, Ernie Els, Luke Donald, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Others who could factor in are Jay Haas, Jose Maria Olazabal, Davis Love and Zach Johnson. Whoever wins will likely win in the putting category. I just hope we get a tight one. And remember, the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday!

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