Masters script being rewritten

April 07, 2007|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. — AUGUSTA, Ga.-- As the Masters began Thursday, some long-held truths were deemed indisputable.

Experience is critical. Long hitters have the advantage. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson should dominate.

But the tally on those notions is wrong, wrong and wrong after 36 holes.

Welcome to the Sretsam - the backward Masters.

Augusta National had supposedly become a graveyard for short hitters with the addition of 460 yards of fairway since 2002. But two of the top names on the leader board after two rounds are co-leader Tim Clark, a 5-foot-7 South African who was No. 183 in the PGA Tour's 2006 driving-distance rankings, and the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Zach Johnson, who was tied for 145th.

And who is Clark's co-leader? Brett Wetterich, a 33-year-old Masters rookie.

First-timers aren't supposed to have any chance in this tournament, which is historically dominated by veterans, but the entire 36-hole leader board is a testament to callow youth. Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els and other known quantities have been supplanted by Clark, Johnson, Wetterich and other no-name fledglings such as Vaughn Taylor, Jerry Kelly and Lucas Glover.

If you can't get those first and last names straight, don't worry, you're not alone.

Where are Woods and Mickelson? Get out your binoculars. They have combined to win five of the past six Masters, but this year they're a combined 8-over par through two rounds.

Woods put balls in the water on successive holes yesterday and drove so erratically for the second straight day that he actually seemed relieved to finish with a 74, putting him 3-over for the tournament.

"I felt like I turned basically a 90 into a 74 today, which is nice," Woods said.

And his travails paled next to Mickelson's. The defending champion struggled all day yesterday, shot 73 and needed a late surge just to survive the cut. He tromped so far into the woods chasing one errant shot that he looked like a character on Lost.

It could be that the golfing gods have just decided this will be the rare Masters that makes no sense. How else to explain Woods' and Mickelson's parallel struggles and the bizarre presence of a Masters rookie named Dredge on the leader board? (He's Bradley Dredge, a 33-year-old Welshman tied for eighth at 1-over after shooting 70 yesterday.)

Why has everything suddenly turned upside down? The dry, chilly weather that has settled over Augusta is a major factor. It has reduced the fairways and especially the greens to asphalt-like surfaces, putting a premium on driving accuracy and putting touch rather than raw distance.

As critical as putting always is here, the greens have never been this treacherous.

"Washington Road is softer than the No. 1 green. That's the hardest green I think I've ever seen," said veteran Fuzzy Zoeller, referring to the thoroughfare that runs past the entrance to the Augusta National club.

Only three of the 96 golfers who teed off Thursday are under par after 36 holes, a testament to the toughest scoring conditions at the Masters in years. And things aren't going to get any easier, either, with the weather forecast calling for even colder temperatures, more wind and no rain.

"In these conditions, it is shaping up to be a tournament like no other," said Kelly, a 40-year-old from Wisconsin who actually likes the cold. "I don't know that the top players have ever seen this course like this, so firm and fast. I hate to say it, but [par] saves are almost more important than birdies."

At one point yesterday, after his double dip in the water on Nos. 12 and 13, Woods was 5-over for the tournament and eight shots off the lead, and the Masters seemed ready just to tip over into completely uncharted territory. Tiger who? Phil what? Come on down for your green jacket, Dredge!

But as so often happens, Woods righted himself and got back into contention with birdies on two of the last four holes.

Mickelson wasn't so lucky. Although he also birdied two holes late yesterday, he is tied for 27th, seven shots out of the lead, and with the way he's playing, his chances of successfully defending his title seem slim.

Woods, on the other hand, is only five shots out of the lead, and given who is ahead of him and his history of fast finishes here, he is likely to be in the thick of things tomorrow afternoon.

"I kept myself right there in the ballgame," he said. "With the weather coming in for the weekend, I'm right there."

There'd be nothing backward about Woods making a run up the leader board to challenge for his fifth green jacket, reducing these first two days to just a tease, a hint at improbability culminating with the all-too-familiar sight of a Tiger hunt.

"I'm sure," Wetterich said, "there'll be some past champions sneaking back up that leader board."

Oh, yes.

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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