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Masterful Setup for The Masters

By Yong-yi Zhu

SPORTS COLUMNIST

Boy, are the stars aligning themselves these couple of weeks. Most of the major sports are providing major excitement. Whether it be the NHL entering their playoffs, the NBA beginning their postseason, the NCAA providing not one, but two thrilling tournaments, or the anticipated start to the baseball season, life as a sports fan is rather lively at the moment. But amidst all that, the Masters have begun.

What does that mean for golf? It means that magnolias and azaleas will be the hosts of the weekend (well, I guess Hootie Johnson will be there, too). It means that Tiger Woods will get a chance to do something he hasn’t done since his visit to the Bethpage Black course. It means that Phil Mickelson will get the opportunity, one more time, to win a major. And sadly, it means that Arnold Palmer will be walking the course at Augusta for one last time.

This year, the course at Augusta is shaping up to be one of the most difficult ever in recent history. The greens and the fairways are hard and fast. What that means for the players is that they must not only hit good shots that land on the green, but they must hit perfect ones that stay on the green. What is likely is that the balls will roll through the fairways, since they get such gigantic bounces on the drives, and land in the rough. From the rough, it is difficult to control the ball and land it with spin on the putting surface.

True, it may seem as though the length of the course is suddenly shortened by these fast conditions. Players are able to get longer drives because of the huge bounces they will receive. But upon closer examination, I think that many of the better players will actually have the best chances of winning this tournament. The course is long enough that if you don’t have good long iron play, you will not be able to get close to the pin locations. If you can’t hit the ball hard and hit it with spin, the golf ball will shoot right through the green, and if there are a lot of front pin placements, very long putts or chips could be the result.

Many of the players have said this is perfect. In fact, the weather is perfect for this tournament to be as difficult as possible. Rain has marred all the Masters tournaments since the new length was added in 2001. This year will be the first true test of how that length will affect the players. Sure, the sun will be out, but you had better watch out when putting down the hill, or that 10-footer could just as well translate to a 20-footer coming back.

If the course really plays as tough as it has so far, and the wind picks up to make the situation even worse, you can bet that only a handful of players will be in it. Players like Woods, Mickelson, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, and Ernie Els are all good candidates for winning this year because of their ability to play under horrible conditions. Just think back to when Woods shot under par at Pebble Beach in the 2000 US Open. Or when Ernie won the grueling British Open in 2002 when the rains and wind even got to Woods and forced him to put up an 81. Or when Davis shot that 64 at the Players Championship last year when everyone else struggled under difficult conditions. These guys are out here to play.

My pick for the week? Phil Mickelson. He has really been a different man in 2004. Last year, he was down at the bottom in terms of driving accuracy. He focused only on hitting the ball far and not on making quality shots. This year, Phil has his game under control, and as a result, he has played really well in the early part of the season. He went to the press conference relaxed on Tuesday, even joking about the fact that he has had no wins at Augusta before any reporter brought up the issue. Phil can hit it long, and he can put a ton of spin on the ball. Watch for him to be at least in contention come Saturday and Sunday.

But no matter who wins at the Masters this year, it will be a sad year since Arnold Palmer has said it will be his last. After 50 years, it’s fitting to end his run with a perfect year, at least weather wise, to bid farewell to one of golf’s most beloved legends. But hey, he could make the cut and decide to come back. It could happen. That’s what’s great about the Masters. You never know what is going to happen. Especially not on the back nine, come Sunday afternoon.