Daly, Woods take different drives to redone Augusta

But two-year absence, low-key greeting put golfers on happy road

The Masters

April 10, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - As Tiger Woods approached the 15th tee during a practice round yesterday at Augusta National, the crowd was unusually quiet. A few photographers snapped pictures, but with more a sense of obligation than the hysteria that typically surrounds the world's best golfer.

"Go get 'em, Tiger," a lone voice called out as Woods, focused on the fairway rather than the fans, walked by.

A little while later, John Daly's presence at the 18th tee seemed to draw more fans and more excitement. Necks craned to get a glimpse of the PGA Tour's longest hitter whacking one of his supersonic drives. Fans tossed hats to Daly as he began to stroll away from the tee.

"Welcome back, John," one fan after another called out as Daly, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth, stopped to sign a couple of autographs.

Two of golf's most popular players - maybe its two most popular players - are approaching the start of the 66th Masters tomorrow from varying directions.

Woods, the tournament's two-time and defending champion, is enjoying the low-key atmosphere that surrounds his arrival this year compared with last year's frenzy, when he was looking to become the first player in history to win four straight professional majors.

"It's a lot easier this year, because I didn't have to answer the questions at every tournament leading up to the event," said Woods, who accomplished the feat by holding off David Duval and Phil Mickelson in a back-nine showdown during the final round. "The talk this year is not going after four in a row, but it's the course changes."

Daly, who is playing here again after missing the cut in 2000 and not qualifying last year, has come to realize what a special place this tournament holds for him and how he might have taken things such as an invitation to the Masters for granted earlier in his career.

"It's great to be back," said Daly, who earned his invitation by climbing back into the Top 50 in the world rankings after falling to 507 at the start of last season. "It was a goal of mine to get back. ... This means more to me being here than probably any other year."

Since much of the talk leading into the Masters has been centered on the added length and the advantage to players such as Woods and Daly, both players are looking forward to using their prodigious drives as an even bigger edge than they might have had before.

"Longer is always better for me, while I'm still somewhat young, anyway," said Daly, who'll turn 36 later this month.

Said Woods, 26: "The golf course definitely favors a guy that hits the ball farther, but you have to hit the ball straight, too."

Last year's Masters victory - in which Woods beat Duval by two shots and Mickelson by three - left Woods drained.

"I wasn't physically exhausted, but I sure was mentally tired," said Woods. "I got pretty sick after the tournament, and I felt that coming on Sunday. A lot was due to having allergies and also stress, what it can do to your immune system. It breaks you down pretty quick."

Daly spent the week during last year's Masters at his home in Dardanelle, Ark., with his daughters Shynah and Sierra. Daly and his friends credit much of his turnaround, both on and off the course, to his marriage last year. In Daly's case, the third time has been the charm.

"Everything is more positive in my life," said Daly, who has fought problems with drinking, gambling and addiction to prescription drugs. "That has given me the opportunity to focus a lot better. So I don't need to dwell on the negatives in the past or anything. I'm just happy and tickled to be here."

Daly's career began to turn around when he moved up from 188th on the money list in 2000 to 61st, with a career-high $828,914 that included four top-10 finishes. More importantly, his victory at the BMW International Open in Germany was his first win since the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, Daly's second major championship.

"Winning the BMW and having a few chances last year - it's not like I've been in contention a lot of times, but I've felt the heat," said Daly. "That was really cool to handle the pressure the way I did, and finally get him [Padraig Harrington] on the last hole. I've been in some situations, but it's nothing like a major feeling."

To the contrary, Woods has been in that situation countless times. Though he seemed to burn out after winning last year's Masters, finishing back in the pack at the U.S. Open (tie for 12th), British Open (tie for 25th) and PGA Championship (tie for 29th), Woods still exudes more confidence than any other player in the field.

He even said he feels better about his victory here last year than he did at the time.

"I definitely appreciate it more than I did immediately after I won," he said. "I focused so hard on just winning this one tournament. I was too close to the situation in order to appreciate it all the time."

Daly, who finished third here in 1993, would like to be in position come Sunday, preferably playing with Woods.

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