Amateur champ gets thrill before first tee

Eaton plays practice round with Woods, O'Meara

Palmer pays brief visit



April 07, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Not many golfers get to do what Austin Eaton III is doing this week. As the U.S. Golf Association's Mid-Amateur champion, Eaton will be teeing it up today in the opening round of the 69th Masters.

Then again, Eaton has already experienced more than he expected since getting the invitation from Augusta National last fall.

First, there were the three weekends he spent down here over the winter, squeezing in nine rounds on a near-empty course. He is living this week in the famous Crow's Nest, which has housed everyone from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods during their visits as amateurs.

And there have been practice rounds with many of the world's best players, including one in particular.

Take yesterday morning, when Eaton managed to play with former Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Meara and his more famous practice partner, Tiger Woods.

"I knew that Tiger always plays first thing," said Eaton, 35. "I wanted to make sure if I got the opportunity, I'd go do it. I first walked up to Mark O'Meara and just said, `I'd like to get a chance to play for you today.' He said, `That's fine by me. I'd love to have you, but you've got to check with the big guy.'"

Woods approved, and Eaton had memories to last a lifetime, as well as photographs taken by his mother, Joan.

What was it like to play with the three-time Masters champion? "He was better than I imagined in terms of making me feel comfortable," said Eaton. "He was very focused on what he was doing, but he definitely made me feel part of the group."

Though it did seem a little surreal for the homebuilder from New Hampshire to be keeping company with Woods and O'Meara, Eaton tried to get to know the course even better than the players themselves.

"I'm preparing for the golf tournament," said Eaton. "Getting my swing grooved and getting used to playing in front of all these people. I've never played in front of more than a couple of hundred people. It's fun to get them a little stirred up."

Eaton will certainly draw a gallery today, when he plays with South African legend Gary Player and reigning British Open champion Todd Hamilton.

"It's a dream," said Eaton. "Every once in a while you look around and go heh-heh-heh, I'm inside the ropes."

Arnie's army on hold

Following the deaths of Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, the Masters scrapped its longstanding tradition of having ceremonial starters two years ago. While tournament officials are holding out hope that Arnold Palmer will someday assume the role, they will likely have a long wait for the former four-time champion.

"It's not my bag to hang around," said Palmer, 75, who was in town to attend last night's Champions Dinner before returning home to Orlando, Fla., today. "It is as simple as that. Don't look for me. I won't be there."

Palmer made his final appearance as a player last year.

"I'm antsy. I need to get out of here and play some golf," he said. "I'm sad I'm not playing [in the Masters]."

Paying the bills

This year marks the return of paid commercial sponsors during the Masters telecast. In 2003, tournament officials decided to not put their longtime sponsors in a precarious position after Martha Burk organized a protest against the club's longtime policy of excluding women as members.

Tournament chairman Hootie Johnson admitted that, at least in part, the return of commercial sponsors will help defray the costs of a planned renovation for land that will go to a new practice facility. Johnson declined to talk about the club's policy regarding female members.

"We've adopted a new policy: We don't talk about club matters," said Johnson. "Period."

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