`New' Augusta on par with old for fairness

April 08, 2000|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- If there was a lesson in the first two rounds of the Masters, it's that it's still the Masters.

Sorry if that sounds like a Yogi Berra-ism, but there was so much shouting about the changes at Augusta National before the tournament that you almost expected the Masters as we knew it to disappear, replaced by another kind of tournament -- more sterile, conservative and boring. And quite clearly, that hasn't happened.

Through two rounds, the tournament is the same as it ever was. Completely nuts. And completely fair.

It's not anything like the buttoned-down U.S. Open, where everyone plays not to lose and each birdie is a major event worthy of a parade.

Even with its fairways narrowed and rough added for the first time, Augusta National is still a place you can tear up -- and a place that can tear you up, too.

Just ask Greg Norman, who shot an 80 in Thursday's first round, a 68 yesterday and proclaimed himself in contention despite being 10 shots down to the leader, David Duval.

"Ten shots? That's nothing here," said Norman, who blew a six-shot lead in 11 holes in the final round four years ago.

For that matter, just ask Duval, who shot a 73 Thursday and was even par for the tournament through 11 holes yesterday before gaining six strokes on par in the last seven holes.

That's the kind of bold move that defined the Masters before the course was changed, the kind of bold move seldom seen at the Open, the kind of bold move that always made the Masters the most unpredictable, entertaining tournament on the planet.

It still is, fortunately, as evidenced by a halfway-point leader board that includes Jack Nicklaus, 60, and Sergio Garcia, 20.

Only at the Masters do you get such goofy, amazing grace.

Don't misunderstand, the changes -- made in the wake of Tiger Woods' 18-under-par performance in 1997 -- have effected a significant transformation. We may never see such a score again. Augusta's greens are still the slickest in the world, and now the fairways and approach shots are tougher.

The result, without question, is a more cautious field and generally higher scores -- trademarks of the Open, which often is won with a score around even par.

"I didn't know they were playing the U.S. Open in April this year," former Masters champion Billy Casper said after shooting a first-round 84 Thursday.

But that was sour grapes. Despite the changes, Augusta National's inherent fairness is still intact. Unlike so many Open courses, which are artificially "tricked up" and almost impossible to beat, Augusta remains democratic. Hit some great shots and you shoot a low score. Hit some disasters and you shoot a nightmare number. Fair's fair. Best man/course wins.

Woods himself seconded the thought yesterday after losing four strokes to par on the back nine and shooting a 72 that left him nine shots behind Duval. He wasn't blaming any changes to the course he tamed three years ago.

"You still have to make your putts here, same as always, and I'm not doing that," Woods said.

That's why you can't say Augusta National's club members have succeeded in "Tiger-proofing" their course against low scores, even though Woods hasn't broken 70 in 10 rounds since winning his green jacket.

Wait until he starts making those putts, which he will, probably as soon as today.

But he's in a hole, no doubt, as he sets out to try to climb a leader board amounting to golf's best-of list, including Duval, Nicklaus, Garcia, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Tom Lehman, Justin Leonard, Nick Price and two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer.

"You have a lot of guys who have won a lot of tournaments on that board," Woods said, shaking his head. "I think you're going to have a lot of guys who know a lot about the game [in contention]."

That's another sign the Masters is still the Masters and not a watered-down imitation. For years, the tournament seemingly has operated with an invisible quality-control apparatus, rejecting possible champions not suited to the high standard.

Not only is the tournament's history full of no-names who found a way to lose, but the list of champions is reserved for the game's best. No pretenders, thank you. Well, maybe a few. (We won't name names.) But not many.

Looks like that's still the case, changes or no changes.

Of the many big-namers who rose to the top yesterday, Duval sent the biggest charge through galleries across the grounds. One minute, he was rolling along at even par, and then, suddenly, he was six-under.

A brilliant all-around golfer who has never won a major title, he is seemingly obsessed with Woods, having gone to great lengths to match Woods' top physical conditioning. He's also worked himself into a mental lather.

"I've made it known all year that I'm looking forward to this," he said solemnly.

He'd have it easy this weekend if he didn't have to worry about Els, Garcia, Mickelson, Singh and Lehman, all superb golfers burning to win their first green jacket. Oh, and there's Nicklaus looming again, only trying to do the impossible, which he has done before.

Just another, typical, frantic Masters shaping up.

No different at all.

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