Changes shorten list of contenders

Golf: Critics say that by lengthening the Augusta National course, the Masters has effectively eliminated from contention players who don't hit long off the tee.

The Masters

April 11, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The charge surfaced shortly after the course at Augusta National Golf Club was redesigned last summer, and will still be festering when the 66th Masters begins today.

Some of the world's best players say that an exclusionary policy has been instituted, that anybody who can't hit the ball the prerequisite 300 yards off the tee has virtually no chance of dethroning defending champion Tiger Woods.

Six-time champion Jack Nicklaus, who won't compete here this year because of nagging back problems, did little to defuse the debate when he showed up for a news conference Tuesday before the champions' dinner.

While agreeing the changes have forced long hitters to also be straight, Nicklaus said: "Anybody who is a moderate or short hitter [and] hits into the face of the hill all day long, that has probably eliminated a lot of players from the tournament ... with a chance to win."

Though the alterations might not take out as many players as Nick Price suggested in this month's Golf Digest - the former PGA and British Open champion said "80 percent" of the field wouldn't have a chance - the changes drastically reduce the list of contenders.

Masters chairman Hootie Johnson, who along with renowned golf architect Tom Fazio oversaw the changes that included lengthening the course by 285 yards, sounded more cautious than usual during his annual pre-tournament news conference yesterday.

Mentioning that players such as Rocco Mediate and Paul Azinger told him they liked the changes - "They must know what they're talking about, because they are professionals" - Johnson took issue with some of the statements made by Nicklaus.

"I disagree with Jack," Johnson said. "The headlines in the paper this morning said that Jack said the changes are going to eliminate half the field. Well, I don't believe that. I don't think there will be any more separation in the field than there has been in the past."

Another controversial subject took an interesting turn this week. Earlier this year, Golf World magazine reported that former champions Gay Brewer, Doug Ford and Billy Casper received letters from the tournament committee suggesting they not play anymore.

Brewer boycotted the champions' dinner. (The Masters has had a lifetime exemption for its past champions, as does the PGA Championship. The British Open allows its former winners to play until age 65, and the U.S. Open gives its champions a 10-year exemption from having to qualify.)

It was a topic Johnson was still uncomfortable talking about yesterday.

Asked about Brewer's absence, Johnson said: "We regret that someone, anyone, is not comfortable here. And if they are not comfortable and they are not here, we regret that."

There are some who believe tournament officials are waiting for Arnold Palmer, and perhaps Nicklaus, to say they are no longer going to play here before the Masters institutes a policy similar to the British Open's. Palmer, 72, will play in his 48th straight Masters. He has not made the cut since 1983.

"I think when you have earned an invitation to play in the Masters or any golf tournament, I think it's the player's decision whether you should play or not," said Nicklaus, 62, who added he would accept any future policy the tournament put in place regarding age limits.

It will matter little starting today, when Woods and others with a legitimate chance of wearing the coveted green jacket tee off. Given the added difficulty of the course and the pressures that arise in any major tournament, the list doesn't seem to be long.

It seems doubtful an unknown player such as Craig Perks, the recent winner of The Players Championship, will suddenly emerge. Considering how the Masters often redeems players for past failures, David Duval and Phil Mickelson might have a chance.

"It gives me some confidence in that I've done that [contended] coming off of playing well or not even playing," said Duval, who won his first major at last year's British Open. "I've kind of run the gamut on it. I'm expecting some really good things this week, and I think the thing that benefits me the most is I know exactly what it feels like."

Said Mickelson: "I've always felt comfortable on this golf course. I've had a lot of opportunities to win. I feel as though the golf course has set up well for me in the past, and I feel the same this year. But again the player to look at is the No. 1 player ranked in the world, Tiger. He's the guy everyone has got to watch out for."

The course Woods will play today will be a lot different from the one on which he set a tournament scoring record of 18-under-par in 1997 to win by 12 strokes. It will be different from the one on which he grinded out a two-shot victory over Duval last year.

Asked if he thought the changes were necessary, Woods tried to be diplomatic.

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