By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Photos by David Vier
AUGUSTA, GA – You know spring’s finally here when you switch on the TV (to a golf related telecast) and see commercial ads for the upcoming Masters -- the acoustically pleasing Masters theme song accompanying the beautiful imagery of Augusta National’s par three 12th hole and its Hogan Bridge.
For us farther north, it means the golf season is about to begin, and it also signals an important start for the professional golfers themselves. The Masters is the first of the year’s majors championships, the four annual golf events with a complete world focus.
|Tiger Woods will need to be at his putting best to have a chance at a fourth Green Jacket.|
Arm-chair experts and TV commentators are dialing in their picks – but for us at GolfTheMidAtlantic.com, we thought we’d ask a couple ‘local’ players for a bit of an inside look at what’s about to happen… or might happen.
First, The Players Champion, Fred Funk weighs in. Funk thinks the Masters will be a bombers’ delight: “All of our big guns are playing great golf right now,” Funk said, prior to his win at the season’s fifth highest profile event two weeks ago at TPC Sawgrass. Though we haven’t been able to ask him if he’s changed his mind (to improve his chances) after besting the world’s top players on one of golf’s sternest golf course challenges, you’ve got to think his assessment is most likely the same.
“It’s probably the most exciting time that’s ever been for golf right now – because the quality of golf being played has never really been higher, with Tiger (Woods), Vijay (Singh), Phil (Mickelson), Ernie (Els) and Retief (Goosen). And then there was David Toms with that dominating performance at the Match Play. It’s just amazing how good the top players are,” Funk added.
The Tour results from the weeks following Funk’s remarks have certainly validated his prognostications, with all of the ‘big’ players posting good results, with maybe the exception of Tiger Woods, who hasn’t showed his best form since winning the Ford Championship at Doral a month ago. Phil Mickelson notched his third win of 2005 this past week at the Bell South Classic, and Vijay Singh posted back-to-back runner-up finishes at the Honda Classic and Bay Hill, proving he’s in good shape as well. Ditto for Ernie Els, who’s won a couple European Tour events in recent weeks.
|Match Play Champ David Toms is one of the few players outside the 'big five' who receives mention as a serious contender at the Masters.|
Funk says the ‘big five’ will most likely dominate The Masters, unless conditions allow for shorter hitters to compete on a very long playing Augusta National course. “It would be a major upset for someone to beat all those guys, unless the course plays firm and fast like it did last year. If it plays like it did the year before (2003) and the year before that when it was really wet – and after the changes they made to many of the holes (lengthening them) – we can’t hit it far enough to score on that golf course, but those guys can.”
With the nature of Augusta’s sloped putting surfaces and close mowed green surrounds, if you don’t hit it in the right spot, it’s a near impossible up-and-down. Funk says if you’re trying to hit those small targets with long irons hole after hole, it wears on players and puts you on defense all the time.
If there’s ever a course where distance off the tee matters, it’s Augusta National – and the course changes have arguably only made it more of a long-hitters’ paradise. Unlike the old days, there’s now a short cut of rough, but it’s not thick enough to deter many of the big guns from blasting away anyhow.
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Newly minted Champions Tour player Curtis Strange echoed many of Funk’s thoughts when talking about the dominance of golf’s top players at this stage in history: “Those guys (Strange formed the group as Woods, Singh, Els and Mickelson, sans Goosen) all have the same type of games -- they’re long, they’re strong and they’re fearless. Add to that, they’re all winning right now, so throw confidence in there too.”
Two-time US Open winner Strange is no stranger to success at Augusta, nearly winning in 1985 (finishing T-2) and counting several top-10 finishes amongst his career accomplishments.
Strange continues, “On paper, leading up to this year’s Masters, it could be the most excitement we’ve had in many, many years. Just the build-up itself is exciting, because any one of those four guys could be the favorite.”
“And it won’t be a surprise if any one of the four wins – but I’d be shocked if somebody else does, to be quite honest with you,” Strange embellished.
|Ernie Els during a practice round in 2004 -- Els had the tournament seemingly in hand until Mickelson birdied 16 and 18 to take it away from him. Photo by Sol Gordon.|
With a little prodding, Strange admitted that it wouldn’t be shocking if one of the other top players in the world managed to emerge victorious, like Mike Weir did a couple years ago, or if someone like David Toms, who’s got the game to win any place at any time, depending on the week – should put it together amongst the dogwoods and azaleas.
Strange was merely making the point that the ‘big four’ (or five, depending on the day and person speaking) are playing at a level that few can match, in terms of consistency or ability.
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Both Funk and Strange agree that each one of the top players can hit it long off the tee, but their advantage hardly recedes closer to the hole. And sure, they’re hitting shorter irons into the greens, but they’re accurate, too.
“The stat that stands out the most about the Masters,” Strange lectured, “is greens in regulation. Those Augusta greens are just so difficult if you miss them – so the guy who’s putting the most will have a big advantage over the others. They’re so hard and fast that it doesn’t matter that there isn’t any rough – you can’t chip and putt around those things and survive.”
For us viewers, it’s fun to watch the golf ball roll into certain areas where it’ll take a miraculous shot to help save a par. And who can deny that watching the second shots on Augusta’s two reachable back nine par fives – numbers thirteen and fifteen – is one of the best spectacles in the game.
The Masters never gets boring, and it’s usually because of dramatic failures that people remember – like Greg Norman’s collapse in ’96, or the entire fields’ folding before Tiger Woods on Sunday in 2002.
|Here's a long hitter who would make a very popular Masters Champion. The question is whether John Daly can avoid the big numbers that would spoil his chances.|
But how about last year? Perhaps the best Masters ever, when several players rushed the lead, with Phil Mickelson leaping towards the heavens with jubilant celebration as he birdied the 72nd hole to win. Ernie Els didn’t lose last year – Mickelson won. That’s the way it should be, and based on our ‘panel’ of experts, this year is lining up to be special in its own right.
Another nice thing about this year is the relative absence of distraction – both symbolic and sentimental. This year, Martha Burke’s not getting much attention, and Arnold Palmer won’t be fielding questions on whether 2005 will be ‘it’ for him – and he left his clubs at home, just in case.
Jack Nicklaus will play at least one more Masters, having committed to play the tournament at the request of Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson. Jack can still play – and that’s one of the greatest things about golf, and the Masters – the game and the event honor the best of traditions in an ancient sport. Here’s to it.
|Defending Champion Phil Mickelson seems poised to defend his title. A 3-time winner in 2005, he's probably the hottest of the 'big five' coming in.|
That it’ll be worth watching. And we’ll be part of the multitudes doing just that.
The 2005 Masters Tournament
Dates: April 7th – 10th
TV Schedule and other important information can be found at: http://www.masters.org/
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