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SPORTS WEEKEND | GOLF / THOMAS BONK

Long-Hitting Daly One of the Variables in Masters Equation

April 03, 1998|THOMAS BONK

The Masters is still, what, a week away, but it's never too early to pull our heads out of the azaleas and try to figure out who's going to win the thing. It's a tough job, but we're just the people to do it.

Right now, about the only thing that seems certain is that Tiger Woods is the favorite. Big surprise here. After all, he only shot a record 18 under par and won by a record 12 shots last year at Augusta National, where the only thing longer than his tee shots was the line of cars down Washington Road just outside the front gates.

In his last two events, Woods tied for 13th at Bay Hill, where he finished with a 77, then tied for 35th at The Players Championship, where he finished two over. After six events, Woods ranks No. 2 in driving distance on the PGA Tour, and he's tied for 95th in putting.

None of this probably matters, because it's generally agreed that Augusta National--with no rough and short enough to be overpowered by someone with Woods' length--was made for the defending champion.

We'll see about that, but there are more than a few contenders, even a couple of dark horses, who promise to make things interesting by the back nine on Sunday.

John Daly: Don't laugh. He's No. 1 in driving distance (301.4 yards), but he's also No. 1 in putting and regarded as having one of the best touches around the greens. Daly didn't play last year because he was in alcohol rehabilitation. His best finish at Augusta National was third in 1993.

Justin Leonard: His victory on Sunday at The Players Championship was his third come-from-behind, including the Kemper Open and the British Open. He can putt, which we saw at Troon. He has played three previous Masters and tied for seventh last year.

Davis Love III: Now that he has won a major, can he win the Masters? He finished second to Ben Crenshaw in 1995 and tied for seventh last year, so you'd have to say he's going to be in the hunt.

Ernie Els: He's going to be watched very closely at Augusta National, where he tied for 17th last year. Els is strong, he hits it a mile and he has patience--witness his two U.S. Open titles. Els has nine top 10s in the 22 majors he has played.

Phil Mickelson: He finished third in 1996 but missed the cut last year. The talk is how Mickelson hasn't proved himself in a major championship. That has to end sometime.

Colin Montgomerie: He tied for 30th last year and was swamped by Woods, but Montgomerie is hitting more right-to-left balls than ever, playing more on the PGA Tour than ever and might have more of a chance this year than ever.

There are many others, including Nick Faldo, who hasn't putted worth a darn (No. 135 on the PGA Tour), but might actually be able to will a ball into the hole. Long shots include Lee Westwood, a long-hitter from England; John Huston, Tom Lehman, Jose Maria Olazabal, Jim Furyk and, yes, Greg Norman.

The runner-up to Faldo in 1996, Norman missed the cut last year. This year, he finished 27th in a 30-player field at La Costa, missed the cut at Doral and withdrew from The Players Championship.

TIGER UPDATE

Stop me if this sounds familiar. . . . Woods leaves a bunch of putts short at The Players Championship, finishes back in the pack, goes back home to Isleworth near Orlando, Fla., to work on his game, says he's not that far off. . . .

You saw the same series of events last year, just before Woods torched Augusta National at the Masters. About the only scenario missing in this year's Masters preparation is shooting 59 at Isleworth while playing with buddy Mark O'Meara.

Woods has been working on his game with his coach, Butch Harmon, and that has led to some favorable speculation on the part of another part of Team Tiger--his agent, Hughes Norton of IMG.

"We all feel he's just as well prepared, if not more so, than at this time last year," Norton said. "He's really worked hard, even if his scores recently don't reflect that."

Woods tied for 35th at Sawgrass with ho-hum rounds of 72-73-73-72, 12 shots behind Leonard. However, Woods seemed to spend the week preparing himself for Augusta, as he did last year when he tied for 31st, but kept leaving his putts short to get him accustomed to the pace of the greens at Augusta National.

Tiger watchers will be interested to know that's not all Woods was doing at Sawgrass.

"He also was hitting a lot of draws off the tee," Norton said. "Basically, he's doing everything which he did last year. The majors are really all that matters to him. I mean, you've got a tournament with a $720,000 first prize and he's content to use it as a tuneup. I don't mean that to sound arrogant."

SIX MINUS ONE DOES EQUAL FIVE

As part of an article in this week's Golf World, Dan Jenkins was one of 20 people, from George Wallace to Jim Brown to Maya Angelou to Dan Quayle to David Halberstam, who were asked to comment on Woods' victory at Augusta National last year.

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